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My thoughts on River Town

Popularity 2Viewed 2333 times 2014-5-30 14:57 |Personal category:Chongqing life|System category:Life

Recently I finished reading River Town by Peter Hessler. This book has been doing the rounds with my circle of friends for a while and at last it was my turn to read it. Reading it was a joy and I could relate to it a great deal. The book is the author's account of two years of life in Fuling, a small river town in the east of Chongqing province, in the late 1990s where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher in a small teacher training college. I like his writing style immensely: he maintains a good balance of clear affection for the Chinese people he encounters without appearing condescending and criticism for certain aspects of China and Chinese life without appearing arrogant.


I visited Fuling last September and it's clear that some things have changed considerably since Hessler lived there. The Three Gorges Dam has been completed and large areas of the town that Hessler knew have been flooded. The stone carvings that he saw on the rocks at White Crane Ridge have been preserved in an underwater museum. Nevertheless, some things remain the same as Hessler detailed in his book. Like him I had ordinary people screaming “waiguoren, waiguoren!” (“foreigner, foreigner!”) at me at the top of their lungs, which was not something I'd experienced in Chongqing. It didn't both me as much as it alarmed my poor friend Shuyu, who I'd gone to visit, as I think she was rather embarrassed by the whole thing. Fuling is still a little bit remote, but is accessible by long-distance bus which takes a couple of hours, rather than the boats that Hessler travelled on. Fuling appears less like its own city and more like a slightly smaller, slightly grubbier version of Chongqing.


In the book, Hessler documents how he (along with his Peace Corps colleague Adam) develop a sort of “Fuling English” that only they understand and use with each other. This involves incorporating Chinese words into normal English. For example, they describe something as ma fan (annoying) in an English sentence and they talk about young ladies as xiaojies. Xiaojie is quite a slippery term, it can be a respectful form of address, refer to people who work as waitresses or be a euphemism for a prostitute. There are no plurals in Chinese so adding this 's' makes it both clever and wrong. Rex, an English colleague who I worked with last year, regularly referred to us all as his pengyous (“friend” plus an 's') so it's clear that this is amusing to many people. Within my circle of British and Irish friends we say things like “Let's mai dan.” or “Have you da bao'd yet?”. Mai dan means to pay the bill in a restaurant and da bao means to have a dish wrapped up to take away. For many words we only ever use the Chinese as it's quicker: green beans are always si ji dou and aubergine is always qie zi. No one says RMB or yuan for money, it's kuai (a slang term comparable to “quid”), even if we say the number in English. So this part of the book I could really identify with.


Hessler had places in Fuling that he frequented so often that the staff and regulars knew him very well. As I've written about before, there are a lot of friendly people in Shiqiaopu where I live. There are several restaurants that we go to religiously, the pool hall where Charlie and I play every Tuesday, the post office where I send postcards. Over the past few weeks I've got to know the young owner of a small shop close to the post office selling stationary and other bits and bobs who is very friendly and invites me to sit down and chat which is very pleasant. I can think back to my time in Singapore and remember the people there who I knew well: the Singaporean uncle who worked in the coffee shop where Jasper and I would get our coffee in the morning and encouraged me to practise Chinese with him; the incredible Malay uncle who served the best ever chicken biriyani and never, ever, charged me more than three dollars for anything, no matter how much I ordered; and then there was Thai Lady who was just fantastic, calling us all her sons and serving us up plate after plate of food that we wolfed down. I can also think back to the ladies in the bakery opposite my house in Sheffield who would natter with me and ask about the progress of my dissertation, the Turkish barber who cut my hair with such skill for only a fiver and of course dear Remo and his wonderful café that we would go to every Friday after badminton. All the hard-working men and women I have described are quite simply good honest people who are cheerful from day to day, do their jobs with skill and pride and our interactions have been ones of friendship, not of mere capitalistic exchanges of currency for goods and services.


Hessler's Chinese ability that he acquired in Fuling eclipses mine completely. I think this is largely due to his greater isolation and his personal drive. Most of my Chinese friends speak much better English than I speak Chinese, although I do try to speak as much Chinese as I can with them. My Chinese has improved greatly, however if I'd had regular classes it would have improved a lot more. I've largely self-studied and learnt with friends and although it's been hard to motivate myself sometimes I do think I've generally done okay. Obviously, I have compared myself to Hessler and it's a bit depressing because looking back I could have done more, but I'm not sure that's a very constructive thing to do. I'm considering studying Chinese full time in the future and if I do so I think that total dedication to the task will really help me progress a lot.


One of the things that Hessler talks about in detail is the attention that you get as a foreigner and how you cope with it. I get the same endless questions about I'm from and my salary as he did, but normally preceded with one about my height. Having people take pictures of you was probably not as common in his day as he was in Fuling before the advent of smart phones. He also talked about the occasional confrontations that you find yourself in. You don't want Chinese people to get a bad impression of all foreigners if you act in a certain way, but in some situations when you are treated like a zoo animal or circus freak it can be very frustrating. My room mate Charlie keeps a cool head in these moments, largely because he is one part true English gentleman and one part Daoist sage of wu wei (action through non-action). On a couple of trips to the Nanping area of Chongqing city at the start of the year he told me how someone had tried to convert him to a peculiar twisted version of Christianity involving a Father God and Mother God and also someone who got chatting to him and then asked him repeatedly in English if he wanted to masturbate. I have no doubt that he remained calm in what for me would be extremely vexing situations.


For me, like Hessler, my reaction varies. Most of the time I ignore people and they quickly get bored of me and go away, or another Chinese person tells them to stop behaving like an idiot and leave me alone. On occasions I have snapped back at people who have been rude to me, or gone up very close to them to take a photograph of their face if they have just taken a photograph of me without asking permission. China, along with my friendship with Charlie, has helped me to be calmer in most situations. You have good days and bad days based on how you are feeling and you just have to try to do the best you can to do the right thing and rise above the tiny minority of people who are annoying.


River Town is a fantastic book. I can relate to it a lot and this is why I enjoyed it so much, but for people who have never been to China it gives a great insight into life in a small (by Chinese standards at least) town as experienced by an integrated and enlightened foreigner. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.


You can read an article Peter Hessler wrote for National Geographic about returning to Fuling by clicking here.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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