Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Country Driving - Peter Hessler

Just finished “Country Driving,” by Peter Hessler. If someone were to ask me, “What was it like living in China?” I can now just hand him his book. Hessler catches it all – the massively jarring contradictions, the intense details of daily life. It’s all there.

Hessler is a very good writer. He rides the waves of China in transition without painting with too a broad brush. For example, he straightforwardly describes the process of land transfer from peasants to municipalities to private development (chapter 11, page 344), and then smoothly transitions to the effects of this process on the people he has come to know – on their lives and livelihoods, on their children and babies and dreams. He can then equally smoothly transition to describing the effects of this process on himself and his own life – his writing and world view. Although the effect is natural, his technique is prodigious and reflects years of hard work researching, refining, and writing.

And it is a great travelogue. So many stories – stories of people. Hessler speaks the language, and he walks through doors closed to those of us who lived in China only briefly as outsiders. Hessler invites us to take a drive with him, and we’re going to take our time. The leisurely pace and vibrant detail made it a book to savor – an hour here and there – with no great rush to get anywhere. We’re along for the ride in perhaps the greatest peaceful political, cultural, and economic transitions in history.

And stories of children. Hessler has a special focus, and fondness, for those trying to grow up while being carted around such a new world. I especially like his descriptions of Master Luo and Cheng Youqin's son: "In the first four months of the child's life, he had traveled twice across China, lived in a factory dormatory, and served as a pawn in salary negotiations. He had witnessed the hotpot complaint scam and he had dodged the stolen phone trick. He had been drugged and robbed. His given name was Wen, which means "Cultured." Master Luo had chosen that character because he dreamed that someday his son would become an educated man." (p. 389)

I have a personal connection to Country Driving as well. Hessler entered the Peace Corps right about the time I graduated from college. At the time I considered both Peace Corps and learning Chinese – I was overwhelmed by the commitments required for both and took different paths. He put in the time and effort, and his rewards are clear – his experience perhaps represents a best-case-scenario of a dream I briefly held 15 years ago (if I happened to be a brilliant writer and intrepid traveller like Hessler). Then, we were both living in Beijing in 2005 when he was taking his trips to Sancha. As I was fielding questions from law students about the news of Hurricane Katrina, he was fielding questions from his Sancha friends about the same event. Finally, he left China for Colorado. He was working on his book near Ridgeway while I was working not too far away in Glenwood Springs.

During my own time in China, I quickly became bogged down in the overwhelming details. The first time I took out a credit card to pay for something - at a Carrefour hypermarket - the check-out person looked at me like I had three heads. It took 20 minutes to get the card run and a crowd of employees and managers gathered to see some guy who didn't understand cash. Or how coal dust used to drift gently from the sky on every surface. Or how the university confiscated electric blankets from students because heat only starts in November. After a few months of details, I could no longer see China as a whole. For that it takes a writer like Hessler.

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