It’s an uncanny experience reading a Peter Hessler book about China, at least of you are a reader who also lived in China during the same period, 1999 to 2009 or so. For myself, I taught English there from 2004-2007 and miss both the country and the people often. There’s something about reading his books that speaks to that time period being a genuine collectively shared experience for whoever was in China then, both the Chinese and the foreigners living there. We were all a small part of the rapid economic and cultural changes that were happening.
For Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, Hessler begins his trip by renting a car in Beijing and planning to drive the entire length of the Great Wall. He gives a lot of good history of the wall and the towns and villages he crosses along the way, but the best parts of that section are definitely his interactions with the car rental manager and his recounting of Chinese driving school. My experiences on the road in China were mostly in buses and often in taxis, sometimes even motorcycle taxis, but I would never try to get a license and try driving myself there. It’s a strange dance to be either a pedestrian or a bicycle rider in China. You make yourself go with the flow–he who hesitates is lost–and somehow manage not to get hit. I did get hit once, choosing to cross a street at the wrong time on my bicycle. A moped hit me and I got a nice concussion out of the incident and didn’t feel so confident on my bicycle after that. I was more successful navigating the crazy traffic and finding my groove there on foot.
Hessler’s tales about the Great Wall are part sadness, so many villages and towns are dying as the younger people move to the big cities, part reflection, the local governments are both corrupt and trying to help the people and the land, and part thrilling, women dressed to the nines appear out of nowhere wanting a ride, and in some areas the police will ask a foreigner to leave. Hessler’s keen insight to everything going on has to do with his great powers of observation as a writer, but even more essential is his fluency in Mandarin. He talks to people along the way and gets to know their stories, and he’s able to translate the messages strewn on walls or buildings in the middle of nowhere, giving helpful cultural context to his experiences.
Part two wasn’t so much a road trip as Hessler detailing his experience renting a house near a part of the Great Wall and a village that at first seems totally forgotten. Again, Hessler’s grasp of the language is key as he forges relationships with the villagers even to the extent that he becomes very involved in saving a child’s life. He describes what it’s like for a couple of people–a child and a mentally challenged adult–to leave the village for the first time, and how they adjust to their changing circumstances in heart-aching ways. Progress comes to the village, an there is more money to be made, but it’s as if the villagers are on constantly shifting sands, from on and off relations with neighbors and politicians, to rapid land deals, and to life changes of either having too little, or too much money. I can relate a little to that last part. In China I didn’t have to pay rent and even had a school cafeteria card, so had lots of extra spending money as we made a lot more than the regular Chinese teachers, yet in American dollars it was only about $500 a month, a sum that would be difficult to make it on in America. Often I spent both too much and too little, finding it strange to at once have so much money in one country, yet little in another. It was heartwarming to see how close Hessler became to his neighbors in the village, even though he often must have felt like the outsider he really was. He was really in a special time and place when he lived there.
The last part is set in Zhejiang province, a little south of where I lived. Hessler follows some men who are starting up a factory that make parts for bras. I wear bras all the time, but often forget that some man invented them, presumably for the comfort of women, though that aspect often seems an elusive one. This factory makes bra underwires and also little multicolored rings for bra straps. The venture seems a bit haphazard and slapdash, with little planning and a rented building, but as they hire workers and get going, it seems like the bra ring factory will succeed. Both the owners and workers in the factories all are characters, most of whom grew up as farmer peasants and now are trying to make their fortunes through capitalism, but capitalism is often a seesaw. One day the factory is doing well, the next it seems it will fold under, and then they get a big client. Hessler describes these workers as taking everything in stride, and with things constantly changing, what else can people do? Giving up isn’t an option.
I highly enjoyed the details of guanxi, the system of doing deals and business in China. This often involves bribes and elaborate dinners with amazing food. As a foreign English teacher there, I was clueless to this system, but soon learned that if a friend of a friend wanted to take me to a nice dinner it was because they wanted private English lessons, which I only would find out at the very end of the meal. We were often “invited” to company parties to introduce a new cell phone, or to visit an up-and-coming school so they could use our faces for advertising at the event. Sometimes people would give us money in red envelopes. These were not gifts, but bribes, hoping we’d leave our schools where we taught to come over to theirs. Our own schools often took us out to fancy dinners, sometimes as school events, sometimes to introduce us to more Chinese food, and sometimes to show us off around town. Guanxi or not, I found the Chinese people to be overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly towards us. It was humbling how much they gave of themselves to help us feel welcome there, and I will always be grateful for their efforts and still miss them all so very much to this day.
For me, Hessler’s books are now a walk down memory lane. I read his River Town while in China and found it an engrossing rendition of an experience so similar to my own. Having been away from China for over ten years, I’m not sure what it’s like now and how different it is. I hope the constant economic change has mellowed, and although I’m glad America is not losing so much money to China anymore, I do hope the average Chinese person isn’t hurting too much due to the tariff battles between China and the US. I hope and pray that both countries can thrive, whether they are competitors or collaborators. I look forward to someday reading Hessler’s other book on China, Oracle Bones.