Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hessler's River Town

River Town has been on my to read list a long time.  When my book club scheduled it, I was in luck.  Except we were heading out of town.  So I bought a copy in Washington DC and started reading it on the flight to Berlin.  I sent a version of this post to the club the day they met.   So the post assumes a bit that you've read the book.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English at the high school level in Thailand for two years and then supervised elementary school English teachers for another year, and as a college professor who taught graduate students for a semester in Beijing, I'm enjoying the book immensely.

Most everything he writes rings true to my experiences.  I did get to the point where I could hold meaningful conversations in Thai and he describes well the agonies and pleasures of getting there in Chinese.  And I have struggled with Chinese and not gotten anywhere near where he got.

In Thailand, working with the elementary school teachers, I found that in essays in English they would open up and tell heart wrenching stories they would never tell you out loud in Thai.  I didn't have the same issues with ideology in Thailand.

In Beijing my students were equally hard working and amazingly respectful and appreciative.  In my case, the students had elected to take a class with a foreign professor and we (the students and I) loved the surprising interactions we had together.  Ideology here raised its head over Tibet and Taiwan, but while I know I had students who were Party members in class - the head of the student public administration party group wrote a paper on Power about her power and how she used it as student party chair - I never felt constrained about what I could talk about, though, of course I breached those topics carefully.  But Taiwan and Tibet were the two topics I found that students had only one perspective.  I did have a Tibetan student who over dinner talked with me and several other students about how she had been forced to leave Tibet to go to school and what that meant to her culturally.  A conversation she'd never had with those students before. 

I didn't find, in China (or Thailand) the reticence or hostility Hessler mentions.  It's true, in Thailand, kids would shout "Farang" (foreigner) sometimes when I went by, but it was more like someone shouting "Look, a moose."  In Beijing, I had as a good friend and patron, the assistant dean of the school of public administration (we've known each other over 20 years and he's stayed with us in Anchorage for two weeks with his family) so that may have given me some protection.  Also, I was teaching grad students in Beijing about six years later than Hessler, at a time of more openness and in the center of the universe, rather than in a far off town that had no foreigners.

One small example of what was fun with the book, was his mention of Da Shan the Canadian who is so fluent in Chinese. If I were with you on Monday, I'd bring a CD of one of his Chinese lessons (every day 15 minutes) so you can see why Hessler says he wouldn't want to be Da Shan.  But he certainly is known to every Chinese and completely unknown in his home Canada. 

And train rides...the crowds trying to get tickets, the crowds in the train, the ramen noodles.

I do think that once in a while he summed things up a bit too neatly.  I think that's a danger all writers have trying to move on to the next topic.  A temptation to close off the last paragraph and move on.  Sort of like newscasters giving a finishing line which has some conclusion or assessment which they really have no basis for saying.  He may be accurate, but may not. 

This is a really good book.  My copy had a section at the end with a biography and I found it telling that Hessler had had a summer doing ethnography in an Iowa town.  A great preparation for his life in China.

On the way home a friend had a copy of the New Yorker with an article Hessler wrote coming back to the US after about 15 years in China.  He does to the US what he did to China.

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