I’ve never been to China. After reading the first book in Peter Hessler’s trilogy that chronicles his experiences as an American living in China on the cusp of the 21st century, I now understand that China is so massive geographically that there is no one China. A common history binds the culture, but the social conventions and language can differ depending on where you are.
River Town is about the two years Hessler taught English in Fuling, a remote city in Sichuan in the mountainous center of the nation. As part of the earliest cadre of Peace Corps volunteers to enter China in the 1990s, Hessler was assigned to a small teacher’s college. Most of his students were peasants’ children, and the opportunity to teach school was an honorable advancement for them.
The students were diligent and well-behaved, but Hessler and his fellow volunteer, Adam, made plenty of missteps inside and outside the classroom. The pair learn the local Chinese dialect, make friends in town, and feel like they belong there. But unfolding events prove their confidence and comfort are premature.
I enjoyed this peek into Chinese society in the 1990s. With the newly opened economy, the country only recently allowed outside influences in, and the clash between the cultures was very real. But so was the humanity both sides displayed.
Hessler covers too much ground to examine in a short review. He was there while the nation built the Three Gorges Dam and lamented the imminent loss of the area’s beautiful landscapes. But he celebrates the kindnesses and honesty of the residents while denigrating the government propaganda that kept them under control. River Town is a wonderful book for anyone who genuinely enjoys a “slice of life” look at a particular place and time.