Wednesday, March 9, 2011

RIVER TOWN by Peter Hessler


A Peace Corps volunteer spends two years teaching English literature in Fuling on the Yangtze River and gets to know the local people and the language.


This is a thoughtful and elegant travel memoir. Peter Hessler makes astute observations about the rapidly changing China with patience and grace. He makes a concerted effort to understand his environment and the people around him. He is honest about how his opinions are influenced by his Western worldview, while still looking critically at the Communist system.

The book includes many writing samples from Hessler's students. These provide a unique look at the concerns and opinions of young people in China in the late 1990s. He writes about his own experiences in Fuling, but for the majority of the book he focuses on other people and their lives. This is a refreshing change from the current trend in travel memoirs to focus entirely on one's own struggles.

Hessler's writing style is rhythmic and rich with description, and he brings the river town to life with humor and honesty. He peppers his work with literary references and poetic analogies that are particularly welcome in a work of narrative non-fiction. Additionally, he demonstrates a genuine appreciation for literature and its ability to connect people no matter where they are.


National Geographic interview with Hessler, who remained in China and wrote from Beijing for many years


Kindle edition: $10.99

To what extent is it possible to assimilate into a new culture, especially as an adult? Do you think an outsider can ever truly understand a new country?

*Note: This author is being featured in the Hong Kong International Literary Festival


  1. I believe (from experience) that an outsider will always be an outsider no matter how hard they try to fit in.
    If you're lucky, at some point you stop trying.

  2. Quick question, Shannon: are the photos on your blog ones that you have taken in Hong Kong or are they stock photos from the Internet? Just curious; each one goes so well with the accompanying blog post!

  3. Hmmm interesting question. I love memoirs, especially the outsider kind like this one. I think, perhaps, outsiders may never completely assimilate but they do bring a broader perspective to their new culture, just as they broaden their own perspective from what they learn about their adopted culture. It's win-win for both.

  4. I read this years ago and loved it, I've also lived outside the country both times for about a year/year 1/2 - maybe too short a time to know. Agree with many of the comments above. Even if you are completely welcome, I don't know if you ever really completely fit in. But that can be okay, but as the expat it sure helps not to have unrealistic expectations, can be frustrating.

  5. I've never really worried about fitting in. I guess I like being an outsider. I have friends from all over the U.S., as well as all over the world. We're all misfits and we're o.k. with that.
    Why would you even want to fit in?

  6. Thank you for the very thoughtful comments everyone. In Hong Kong I see a big divide between those who do not try to assimilate into the Chinese culture here (the majority) and those who do what they can to get to know local folks. The latter is quite difficult.

    I'm the only foreigner at my place of work, and I get the impression that my co-workers like me, but I will always be a visitor here.

    @Julie Y: All the photos on this blog were taken by me around HK. A few are from Macau, but they just fit well with the posts :).


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