River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Remember that retirement party back in June?  While I was there, I spent some time talking with a guy who had spent some time teaching English in China.  We discussed travel, career goals, volunteering, and seeking authentic experiences abroad.  He recommended that I read River Town, especially if I was thinking about TEFL in China.  There’s a very short list of people whose recommendations I take seriously, so I put this on the “if I get to it” list, and moved on.  Months later, I found a copy at my local library sale, paid the old lady 50-cents, and finally got around to it.

The first-person story chronicles the experiences of Peter Hessler, a Peace Corps Volunteer, as he teaches English Literature in China’s Sichuan province.  He discusses many politically difficult topics with the people, learns enough Mandarin and Sichuan-dialect to communicate, and runs in the pollution-thick air until a sinus infection bursts his eardrum.  He ends up in many awkward situations with the cultural differences, and lives much more completely than I ever have.

I realized that as a thinking person his advantage lay precisely in his lack of formal education.  Nobody told him what to think, and thus he was free to think clearly.

His remote site meant that the Peace Corps officials didn’t stop by too often, so Peter and his site-mates were left to navigate the political minefields without interference.  It was refreshing to hear that, even as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he was paid enough to live in Fuling.

That was one of the best aspects of life in the Peace Corps: my salary was so low that it was pointless to save money, but my Fuling routines were so simple and cheap that I didn’t have to worry about budgeting my expenses.  In a sense it was the richest I could ever be, because it was like toy money and I didn’t have to think about it at all.

I had thought about the Peace Corps before, a friend from high school volunteered in Peru, but I’d have to be much more qualified to get accepted.  I also don’t think TEFL is right for me, I’m no teacher.  That said, long term international volunteering is still my eventual goal.  I’d love to spend enough time abroad to learn the language, connect with the culture, grow and change.

There were good days and there were bad days.  To some degree this was what I liked most about Fuling: it was a human place, brightened by decency and scarred by flaws, and a town like that was always engaging.  For two years I had never been bored.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze