Sunday, September 4, 2011

Take Me to the River

The visits I've been able to make to China with my job in the past couple of years have left me with a couple recurring thoughts. Yearnings, really. Primarily, I wish I could get a better sense of what life is really like in these places (to say nothing of all the places in China I've not seen, many of which must differ greatly from what little I know). Even after all my wanderings I'm still quite in the dark about how people actually live. Not how they make a living, exactly, but how they spend their time and what their home lives are like. I've made note of appearances often enough, but my sense is that the reality of all the billion plus lives passing here is still quite hidden from a Westerner's eyes. I wish I spoke the language, or, maybe more accurately, I wish there were some reasonable means for me to learn to speak the language. I bought the Rosetta Stone for Mandarin (but have yet to even open it), and I know I can take classes and maybe even hire a tutor, but without any means of regularly applying the language I have little faith in my ability to make progress.

I've just finished Peter Hessler's River Town (2001), a book about someone who experienced in reality the things I've been thinking about and much more besides. River Town chronicles Hessler's two years in the central Chinese city of Fuling as a Peace Corps English teacher at the local teacher's college. Hessler is the author of three books, River Town being his first. His second book (which I read first) is Oracle Bones; and his most recent is Country Driving, about his acquisition of a Chinese driving license (this is on deck).

At the time of Hessler's arrival in 1999, Fuling (which lies near the Eastern edge of Sichuan province) had seen very few Westerners, and his presence with another American Peace Corp teacher was quite an event for the town. A crowd formed wherever he went (regardless of what he was doing), and it took all of their two years plus a few dust-ups and the arrival of several more Peace Corps teachers in rotation to get the locals used to these foreign devils in their midst, and they never did fully squelch the pointing and whispers and (more rarely) outright hostility.

But a pretty deep immersion in the culture came automatically with the assignment, and Hessler got to really know people from all walks of life--teachers, laborers, shopkeepers, party members, peasants. His students were cautioned not to get too close to him (though all were cordial enough), but he inevitably made friends. And his reporter's way of asking questions and probing gained him much information that officials seemed to wish him not to have. On top of this, the sheer oddity of a Westerner in China opened doors to many experiences simply not available to a mere observer. He taught several classes of English literature, and used the opportunity to probe his students about political matters and to absorb their sense of their own culture in the world and their impressions of the rest of the world--he writes brilliantly and insightfully about these all-encompassing cultural differences. And he took daily Chinese lessons with a pair of older tutors from the Teacher's College--the passages about these lessons give one pause about the utter foreign-ness of the language to a Westerner and the difficulty in learning it.

It's an excellent book in any case for anyone who loves travelogs, but especially for anyone with a pointed interest in modern China it's indispensable.

I'll include a few quotes (my apologies for not giving a page number, as the number of pages in the electronic version varies with font size; a new issue we must grapple with!):

Street scenes:
Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth--a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch.

About the role of literature in school:
But mostly I was disturbed by the politicization of literature in the West: the way that literature was read as social commentary rather than art, and the way that the books were forced to serve political theories of one stripe or another. Very rarely did a critic seem to react to a text; rather the text was twisted so that it reacted neatly to whatever ideas the critic held sacred.

And several quotes addressing an issue I was especially interested in, this idea of a society built entirely on the collective rather than the individual:
...collectivism was limited to small groups, to families and close friends and danwei, or work units, and these tight social circles also acted as boundaries: they were exclusive as well as inclusive, and the average Fuling resident appeared to feel little identification with people outside of his well-known groups.

...There were lots of small groups, and there was a great deal of patriotism, but like most patriotism anywhere in the world, this was spurred as much by fear and ignorance as by any true sense of a connection to the Motherland.

...Despite the self-destruction of the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent rush to open to the outside world, there was still a definite sense of what was Chinese, and I believed that this would help them survive modernization. But there was also a narrowness to this concept, and it seemed nearly impossible for a Chinese to go to a place like Xinjiang, learn the language, and make friends with the locals. In the five thousand years of their history it was striking how little interest the Chinese had in exploration, and today that same characteristic limited them, even within their own borders. They seemed completely content in being Chinese, and they assumed that this feeling was shared by everybody else.

...Everything was further complicated by the influence of traditional collective thinking. The longer I lived in Fuling, the more I was struck by the view of the individual--in my opinion, this was the biggest difference between what I had known in the West and what I saw in Sichuan. For people in Fuling, the sense of self seemed largely external; you were identified by the way that others viewed you. That had always been the goal of Confucianism, which defined the individual's place strictly in relation to the people around her: she was somebody's daughter, somebody else's wife, somebody else's mother; and each role had its specific obligations. This was an excellent way to preserve social harmony, but once that harmony was broken the lack of self-identity made it difficult to put things back together again.
Writing about visiting an old priest and how the man uses language:
He traces the ten characters on the surface of the low table in front of min, stroke by stroke, dipping a finger into his tea. This is a common Chinese habit when speaking with foreigners--because so many characters have the same sound, a conversation will sometimes pause as the speaker writes a word in order to clarify the meaning for the waiguoren listener [foreigner]. They write them in the air, on the palm of their hand, in tea water on a table; and to watch a Chinese person do this is to realize how unique the written language is, and how its words are truly shapes--not just sounds, or collections of letters but tangible things that are handled and touched.

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

I do like books like this that do a good job of making you feel like you are actually there. For places that are unlikely for normal westerners to ever visit, that is a special insight.