by Peter Hessler
Set in the Sichuan region of China along the Yangtze river, this is an entertaining memoir of the two years Hessler spent there teaching English lit in college as a Peace Corps volunteer. It also gives the reader insight into the mentality of Chinese young people today.
It seems no matter what works they study, the students interpret it all with a Marxist twist. When asked to write an essay about what would happen if Robin Hood came to China, they invariably wrote that he would find no exploitative class to rob from as China was not a capitalist country and all were treated fairly.
Yet, when Hessler got his class to act out Hamlet, a sudden change took place and even the dull-eyed “Soddy” brought tears to all eyes with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. He found his students’ gut reaction to poetry was more honest and emotional than most American college students.
During the summer, he studied at a college in Xi’an to improve is Chinese. There, a worker at the terra-cotta soldiers museum let Hessler enter for free when he heard he was a volunteer teacher in China. Speaking Chinese and travelling by hard sleeper to see Xinjiang, he had many positive encounters and heard the real voice of the Chinese people.
Sometimes referred to as the the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the Uighurs themselves call there home Turkistan. Located on the far western edge of China, it has been under Communist control since 1949. This area is rich in oil and minerals, and the traditionally Muslim Uighur natives have been displaced to a great extent. Han Chinese now make up half the population and there is much tension between the two ethnic groups.
Reading Hessler’s fast-paced and informative book provides us with a lot of knowledge that is very easily absorbed as we are enjoying the narrative. He is honest about the noise and air pollution in Fuling and the effect it has on his health. He likes to run in the mornings but ends up giving it up because he inhales too much black filth from the air while out running.
Whether participating in a local annual Road Race, trying to communicate with his rigid Chinese language tutor or fending off unwanted female attention, Peter Hessler was totally involved in the lives of the people around him in China. It makes for interesting reading!