River Town by Peter Hessler
Despite having done fair bit of travel through China, I have never visited the river town of Fuling. Hessler, however, made me feel as if I was right there, standing next to him on Raise the Flag Mountain, choking on the coal dust, taking in the dirty buildings and listening to the sweet cacophony of chaos down below. That is the most stunning thing about River Town; Hessler paints an intricate, detailed and personal picture of a place that from the outside would seem quite unremarkable.
The book tells of Hessler’s two year experience there teaching literature at a teacher training college. The first year is largely about struggle; struggle for a foreign man to live in a place where ‘big-noses’ are unheard of, struggle to adapt to such a loud, polluted environment, struggle to learn Chinese and the struggle to teach students so confined to the country’s education system. Through his time in Fuling, his struggles are overcome, his understanding heightened, until when it’s time for the boat to take him away, not only him, but many of the town’s residents, are sad to see him go.
The book struck a chord with me on a number of levels, one of which was Hessler’s talent for descriptive passages, my favourite being when he described the mountainside’s seasons passing through in ‘a blur of colours’. His work is not pretentiously written yet is still undeniably beautiful, and I enjoyed how it was easily accessible. Being half Chinese I do not always notice the behavioural and cultural differences between China and the west, but River Town highlighted them for me, like the way the Chinese laugh in tense situations. Most interestingly of all, I learnt about how far China has come; from a starving nation to an international superpower, capable of pulling off feats like the Three Gorges Damn, but how far China still has to go, in terms of gender equality, government and education. I admired Hessler’s resilience and patience throughout the book, more admirably still, how he did not shy away from his two-year home, but immersed himself in Fuling’s community.
While finishing this book, I was cruising down the Nile, passing other river towns. The last scene where his students were crying, waving goodbye on the dock shrouded in rainy mist, was very emotionally evoking, and I too did not want Peter to leave, nor did I want his story to end.