[I wrote this review of Peter Hessler’s River Town while I was still living in China between 2005 and 2009. The book and this review are still relevant. I had the privilege to interview Hessler for my literary journal Terracotta Typewriter (now defunct) in 2010 (copy is still available on Issuu).]
In some ways it’s better that I waited until the end of my time in China to read Peter Hessler’s River Town. Unlike Oracle Bones, Hessler’s first book about China focuses more on his personal experience rather than the lives of others. Had I read River Town when I first arrived, I probably would not have stayed in Shenzhen past the first Spring Festival. Of course, reading about Shenzhen in Oracle Bones might have influenced my decisions had I read it earlier in my stay in the young city.
Peter Hessler writes about his two-year Peace Corps experience in Fuling, a rural town on the Yangtze in Sichuan province that is now mostly flooded from the Three Gorges Dam Project. He describes his struggles with language and culture as he teaches at the local college from 1996 to 1998. The problems he describes are similar to those that almost all foreigners in China encounter, except that his are magnified by the fact that he’s one of two foreigners in a town that has only seen a handful pass through.
The experiences Hessler has in Fuling are uncommon among foreigners in China today — most of us don’t stay in such rural areas for two years. Parts of River Town are reminiscent of the stories told by many expatriates who came to China in the early ’80s, as progress has crept into the countryside over the years.
Peter Hessler’s River Town is a beautifully crafted collection of stories and anecdotes with a touch of humor that, in some cases, are only funny if the reader has experienced China. His descriptions of everyday life mixed with references to history are insightful and still relevant in China today.
It’s interesting to read how different rural China was only 15 years ago, and relate it to how similar life is in a modern city like Shenzhen. More than anything, Hessler portrays the complexity that is understanding and describing China.