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杰.克

Peter Hessler

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杰.克

I recently read River Town, and am well on my way through the other books in his China trilogy (Oracle Bones, Country Driving) and I've got to say I find them and his life absolutely fascinating. Firstly the books are riveting, the way he manages to convey the enormous change, the China he is living in is going through, via the lives of the 'ordinary people' he meets is excellent. It makes all of this change that much easier to conceptualise and personalise. The fact that he moved to China in 1996 is almost not comprehendable when I relate it to my study experience here (studying at Zheda 2013-2015 , read; i thought i was ground breaking!). Add to this that he seems to pick up Chinese at lightening speed and his ability to convey experiences that relate to all expats (i like his description of the two versions of himself, those that come out when he uses the Chinese/English). All of this should garner huge admiration and respect...

 

.. but my appreciation has been taken to new levels on realising that he is married to the author Leslie Chang author of Factory Girls, again a marvelous book that tells the tale of China's factories global impact on the world through the eyes of individuals. Its poetically beautiful. But wait, theres more...

 

Reading from his website, after 10 years in China he and his wife, moved back to USA to have children. Seemingly this was not enough however, and they as of 2011, relocated to Egypt with their young children, to learn Arabic and cover the ever changing political situation for the New Yorker.

 

I'm just amazed at the role model this guy is for anyone wanting to lead a varied life (which I imagine the majority of you strive to do). My only disappointment is that he know longer lives in Beijing, so my chances of meeting him are less!

 

SHORT version of this post - Read his books!

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Agree. I've read all his books and liked them a lot. Factory Girl too. Great stuff!

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eion_padraig

I first arrived in China in 2002 and even by then the things he described in River Town felt historical, but still very relatable. I think he is the best foreign writer who has written about China. It helps that he really has a love of the country and the every day people he meets while understanding the huge challenges the country and people face in order to and because of development. I think his most poignant statement (to me anyway) is in Country Driving where he talks about thinking the challenge to understanding China had to do with language and realizing the real challenge to understanding the country is the breakneck speed of change which also impact Chinese people.

I would also suggest his book, Strange Stones, which are basically his New Yorker articles that are the seeds of his books. If you don't have the time or the interest in the China trilogy the short stories are good and they deal a bit with leaving China. I bought the book for my parents who haven't ever been to China and due to their age and health are less likely to ever make it here though I will probably be here for some years yet. I think it helped my mother to understand why this country has such a strong appeal to me. Of course she focused on the part where Peter Hessler admits to not being a good planner and how living in China made it worse.

The last thing I read of his was his article in The New Yorker about Chinese in remote cities in Egypt selling lingerie to women and trying their hand at other entrepreneurial enterprises and the limitations of it in Egypt.

I've heard mixed reviews of Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, but maybe it's time to read it.
 
Another good book on China that I've read is China's Urban Billion (Tom Miller) on urbanization and hukou reform, which connected a lot of dots and things I had picked up on without understanding the bigger picture. Peter French's historical true crime fiction book,  Midnight in Peking, on the murder of a ex-pat girl in Beijing just prior to the Japanese invasion of China. I just saw there is another short book that talks about the Badlands area further which I'm thinking about getting.
 

The Last Days of Old Beijing (Michael Meyer) was okay, but probably more interesting to people interested in urban redevelopment, Beijing, or folks who have lived in China with lots of interactions with locals.

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杰.克

If you like Peter Hessler definitely give Factory Girls ago! They are very similar themes/ writing styles. From what I can tell, the authors hadn't met before writing River Town/Oracle Bones and Factory girls. Thats why i mentioned its poetically beautiful that these two great authors are now married- a joint appreciation of writing super interesting books about China i guess... 

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艾墨本
On 4/25/2017 at 0:17 PM, 杰.克 said:

I'm just amazed at the role model this guy is for anyone wanting to lead a varied life

Assuming you are an American citizen, consider joining Peace Corps, regardless of age so long as you have a bachelor degree. I am just wrapping up my two years of service. The site he was based in Chongqing still has volunteers who go there to teach English. You can find pictures of Peter Hessler and Mike Meyer on the walls at the office in Chengdu and hear stories about them from the Medical and Chinese staff (most American staff are required to leave after 5 years). The skills that you described as admirable in Peter Hessler are exactly what Peace Corps strive to teach its volunteers. From all I hear, Peter Hessler is just an amazing person to be around.

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zander1
On 25/04/2017 at 11:23 PM, eion_padraig said:

I think he is the best foreign writer who has written about China

 

Agreed. I also like Evan Osnos ('Age of Amibition') and have recently read Alec Ash's 'Wish Lanterns' which for a first book was a great attempt at a Hessler esque work.

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Chris Two Times

Another former China Peace Corps Volunteer (and actually from the same group of Volunteers as Peter Hessler) is Rob Schmitz, correspondent for NPR's "Marketplace". He has been based in Shanghai and he also has written a "Hessler-esque" book (haha, a new adjective!) that came out last year: "Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road".

 

I have read it and I recommend giving it a look.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Street-Eternal-Happiness-Dreams-Shanghai/dp/0553418084/ref=la_B01DPC9NXE_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493567516&sr=1-1

 

You can check out some of Schmitz's work here:

 

https://www.marketplace.org/people/rob-schmitz

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Chris Two Times

I spied a Chinese translation of Michael Meyer's "In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China" (2016) in the Beijing bookstore 万圣书园 on 成府路 in 五道口. I was not aware of this book previously and I was delighted to come across it. I plan to read the original English version this summer.

 

See a pattern? Peace Corps China has produced a few writers since it was founded in 1993. Meyer, Schmitz, and Hessler all keep in touch and help each other with their projects.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Manchuria-Village-Called-Wasteland-Transformation/dp/1620402882/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493567666&sr=1-1&keywords=Michael+Meyer

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Chris Two Times

I have heard about two more books from former China Peace Corps Volunteers and I intend to read them some day:

 

Michael Levy's "Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion" (in Guizhou)

https://www.amazon.com/Kosher-Chinese-Living-Teaching-Billion/dp/0805091963/

 

I like this write-up of an interview with Mr. Levy:

http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4004204.html

 

Peter J. Vernezze's "Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice, and the (Chinese) Way" (at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu, Sichuan)

https://www.amazon.com/Socrates-Sichuan-Chinese-Students-Justice/dp/1597976725/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493569669&sr=1-2&keywords=Peter+J.+Vernezze

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eion_padraig

Maybe it's part of the deal, "Yes, we'd love to have to have you join Peace Corps in China, but we're afraid you'll have to write a book afterwards to increase understanding between China and the Western world."

@艾墨本, can you confirm or deny that you will have to write a book later?

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艾墨本
2 hours ago, eion_padraig said:

@艾墨本, can you confirm or deny that you will have to write a book later?

While you joke about it, one of the core parts of Peace Corps are the three goals:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Writing a book is an excellent way to work on goal three. As "Returned Peace Corps Volunteers" we are encouraged to find opportunities to engage and educate Americans about foreign cultures and perspectives. I don't see myself writing a book, however, I am working toward becoming a Chinese teacher. 
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Chris Two Times

Psst...I am also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from China (2000-2003), no books from me...yet! (?)

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somethingfunny
On 4/30/2017 at 4:54 PM, Chris Two Times said:

a "Hessler-esque" book

 

I think the term you're looking for is "creative non-fiction".  If I remember correctly, Hessler made a lot of the writing course he took at Princeton with John McPhee.  If anyone is interested in the style of these works, rather than connecting with the shared experiences that make up their content, then I recommend The New Yorker magazine.

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eion_padraig

I've read a number of John McPhee's books and they are good (Oranges, Assembling California, Basin & Range), but I personally think Hessler is better at it than his former professor.

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杰.克

Will give the books recommended a look! In answer to a suggestion above, I'm unfortunately British so no peace corps for me

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stapler

Sounds interesting. I might try and get a translation of one of these books. I love this topic/theme! I'm still in the process of reading a Chinese translation of Factory Girls. I like it not because it's new or interesting, but makes me nostalgic for when I was staying in Dongguan and the countryside with all the kinds of people described in the book. It feels very personal and familiar. Contrary the OP I feel like not much has changed at all in China since the early 2000s.

 

Anyway, this thread reminded me of one part of Factory Girls which I thought was really apposite to this forum. At the end of the first part of the book it describes the students all maniacally studying English vocabulary through a kind of flashcard machine for 12 hours a day. In the end they can all recite English really well but have trouble putting together basic sentences in a conversation and are too shy to use the language. To me this just sounded like the Chinese version of my own life, sitting around drilling flashcards but never actually really using the language and thus not getting anywhere! While the Dongguan factory-English seems quaint, my own "high tech" method is just as ridiculous when I think about it (except the part about doing it for 12 hours a day)

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Dongguan, in all its 严打之前 glory was quite a place! Glad I had a chance to sample it before Papa Xi brought down the hammer.

 

20 minutes ago, stapler said:

At the end of the first part of the book it describes the students all maniacally studying English vocabulary through a kind of flashcard machine for 12 hours a day. In the end they can all recite English really well but have trouble putting together basic sentences in a conversation and are too shy to use the language.

 

This amused me too and rang completely true.

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