Friday, January 28, 2011

River Town--a book response

Wow!  I loved Peter Hesser's book "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze."  It was on a list of books to read about Chinese culture, so I put it on hold at the library.  However, it sat on our library shelf for several weeks getting dangerously close to being overdue. When I read that Tonggu Mama listed it as one of the top three books to read, I finally picked it up.  I thought I would learn a lot but that I would find it hard to read.  Non-fiction and history just don't appeal to me.  But this book was terrific and felt easy to read because it was so interesting.  I think even people not terribly interested in China would find this book a great read.   It is a book written about Peter's two years sponsored by the peace corps to teach English in Fuling, China.

I enjoyed the tidbits of Chinese history he sprinkled throughout the book, but it was the everyday details and conversations that fascinated me.  He quoted some of his students writings which give you a glimpse into their lives and thoughts.  He describes his own progress in Mandarin, making friends, and understanding the country he was living in.  His descriptions are so detailed you feel like you are there with him.

Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much.  In some small way, I was there with him.  The two weeks I spent in Beijing and Tinjian were in the middle of his two year trip.  The surprise I felt at learning the students cleaned the campus buildings and that 6 people in a dorm room was considered the wealthy school are echoed by his own descriptions of his campus.  I remember the giant clock in Beijing counting down 30 days to the return of Hong Kong.  He recounts how the dorms were locked on the day of the return so no one would miss the celebration.  When he talks about the different students he meets, it reminds me of the students I met.  The conversations he recalls and the pieces of their writings he shares are very similar to what the students I met shared.  On his part, because he was there longer and learned Mandarin, he is able to go into greater depth of thoughts and philosophies.  I loved being able, through his book, to go past the surface of what I originally learned and see what else is there.

This book is like looking into a window at one certain place during one certain time.  What it shows cannot encompass the whole of Chinese history or represent everyone's view, but it is a wonderful peek into a strong, pragmatic, and beautiful culture that is very different from my own.  I am very thankful for this peek and hope everyone takes it. 

1 comment:

a Tonggu Momma said...

Oh, I am so glad you liked it! It's one of my favorites. Critics say that it is one of the best glimpses into "the everyday Chinese person" through Western eyes.