China / Readings

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town

If you’re moving to China, pack River Town by Peter Hessler. DON’T read it beforehand. You’ll think it’s a nice story, but you won’t relate to it. Bring it out at about the end of your 3rd month here.

You don’t read it to learn, you read it to feel normal. All of the grating aspects of China sometimes make you feel a little incapable—reading someone’s account who made it through, understands life in China, appreciates the country’s beauty, yet still can’t wrap his head around all of it after two years here is pretty refreshing. Identifying in-the-moment with current expats who are in survival mode can be good when the day is good—-but it’s often just a lot of complaining about the pollution and listening about someone’s patient plan to save up vacation time and RMBs for their next metro ride to Pudong airport to fly out to Thailand or Japan or Taiwan or Australia or anywhere that’s not Chinese.

Hessler was a college professor through the Peace Corps in the late nineties in Fuling, a little town near the Yangtze. His book tells about Fuling and the people he enctountered and befriended there, but it really tells Hessler’s story as he navigates an ancient culture that’s drastically different from his own and has been through so much political and economic change in such a short period of time. Hessler shares about getting ripped-off and not being able to do anything about it, wanting to be brave & explore but being exhausted and spent, powerful Baijiu and the Asian glow, simple jobs becoming great things because at least you can be good at something here, how green tea leaves spread,  planning for a relative to teach a class and then it getting shut-down last-minute (my brother knows how that feels), and people being too busy earning money to exist. He also talks about the necessity of headphones during the rough times. My first two months here I hated the scammy company I worked for, got lost ALL of the time, had Visa issues, etc. etc., and it was FREEZING cold. Days when the metro was sweltering but too packed to even try to maneuver your winter coat off…the headphones went in and I pictured I was on the beach in San Diego or drinking coffee on my Darlington St. porch in South Carolina.

I hope to read Hessler’s book Country Driving: A Journey from Farm to Factory next. It’s about Hessler’s drive in rented a car around rural China and factory towns, writing about the economic and industrial growth taking place there.  Should be good.

“I had trouble understanding this perspective; to me it seemed that already too many beautiful places had been modernized too quickly, and I felt that the relatively untouched corners of China Should be left that way. But I had never been poor, which made such a great difference in the way you saw a place like Xinjiang.”

*Thanks to my friend Elyse who let me borrow this book!  She’s an expat from Kansas. She’s awesome. Her family has chickens.  She loves China. She blogs here:


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