River Town by Peter Hessler

December Read: River Town

At last. The final book of 2016: River Town (2001) by Peter Hessler.

16 years after it was first published, a Chinese director plans to make a movie out of an adaptation of this award-winning memoir. But I admit the news doesn’t excite me, because River Town is just such a personal story about a unique period in a town that has since developed into an unrecognizable state from how it was described in the book. And while I don’t know how the adaptation has made adjustments, this is one movie I don’t think I’ll be watching.

Anyway, the book itself recounts Hessler’s two-year period in Fuling, where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a fan of narrative non-fiction, Hessler manages to pack a lot of it into this 402-page book.

River Town by Peter Hessler

One detail I kept in mind while reading this was that he was 26 when he first arrived in Fuling, learning so much about an entirely different culture, people, and language. It helps put my own life into perspective, because I’ve been feeling lost this past year, but knowing that there is still so much time to learn, develop, and transform myself if I wanted to—it gives me hope.

It’s easy to want to rush into “real life,” but Hessler’s account reminds us the importance of slowing down and appreciating whatever state and place we’re in. This is real life.

A somewhat unfortunate theme of my 2016 was speed. I was caught up with the feeling of being in limbo, and as a result, I made rash decisions that continue to affect me. I find myself having dreams brimming with deeply rooted feelings and indecipherable situations that end up with me reaching over for my phone when I wake up in the middle of the night and squinting at the too-bright screen as I attempt to type what I can remember before I forget and fall back asleep.

When morning comes, I scroll through a growing list of scattered dreams that I cling onto for meaning.

But life in a town such as Fuling in 1996 didn’t require such deep introspection into the mazes of our minds, but rather a more simple mindset when faced with the daily routines in rural China. As Hessler wrote, whenever he and his fellow Peace Corps volunteer ventured into town, it wasn’t Peter Hessler interacting with the locals. It was his Chinese Ho Wei, a self-deprecating, slightly dumbed down version of himself. In such a state, it was much easier to find enjoyment and stay open-minded to new experiences.

Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it to be.

Happy holidays, everyone.