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A New York Times Notable Book

Winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize

In the heart of China's Sichuan province, amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. Like many other small cities in this ever-evolving country, Fuling is heading down a new path of change and growth, which came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. Hessler taught English and American literature at the local college, but it was his students who taught him about the complex processes of understanding that take place when one is immersed in a radically different society.

Poignant, thoughtful, funny, and enormously compelling, River Town is an unforgettable portrait of a city that is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.

Topics: Expat Life, Chinese History, Language, Teachers, Travelogue, Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Contemplative, Heartfelt, Adventurous, Asian History, China, Rural, First Person Narration, and Social Studies

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062028983
List price: $10.99
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I chose this book for our group because David Sedaris (my new BFF), recommended it when I saw him on tour a couple of years ago. River Town is not meant to be humorous like a Sedaris book, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Peter Hessler does write it with a light hearted tone. It’s clear that he greatly enjoys being in China and making friends with Chinese people even though he finds their culture and the people baffling or frustrating at times.Peter went by the name Ho Wei while he was in China and I absolutely loved how he explained the dichotomy between Peter Hessler and Ho Wei:“Ho Wei was stupid, which was what I liked most about him…People were comfortable with somebody that stupid, and they found it okay to talk with Ho Wei, even though they often had to say things twice or write new words in his notebook. Ho Wei always carried his notebook in his pocket, using it to study the new words, as well as to jot down notes from conversations. And when Ho Wei returned home he left the notebook on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer.”There is quite a bit more about Ho Wei vs. Peter Hessler than just the above quote and I thought it was all so clever. I really enjoyed this book. Since reading it, I have learned that Peter Hessler also writes about China for The New Yorker and has written two more books about China. I really enjoyed his perspective and I’m looking forward to reading more from him.more
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. A little dated by now but worth the time to read.more
I’m normally a bit wary about books where Americans (or any First World citizen) explore developing countries, especially when it’s a country my family happens to be from and where I spent part of my childhood. But I shouldn’t have worried this time. Peter Hessler writes tenderly but with clear-sighted accuracy. Even though I’ve never been to Sichuan, I see a lot of truth in his observations, and some that he opened my eyes to (the awkward Chinese laugh, yes!). His humour, patience, and willingness to put his ego aside made him a great writer for the subject. I also liked that he taught English lit, particularly his classes on Shakespeare. Shakespeare in China brought back a lot of memories for me! River Town is probably the best travelogue of China that I’ve read yet. Definitely recommended.more
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. I found it an insightful, sympathetic, and illuminating look at the Chinese people and their complex culture. The book is often funny and always interesting. It is a wonderful introduction to China if, like me, you know very little about this important country.more
Beautiful book. Kind of experience I wish I had had for myself after collge. This was another book that after reading it pulled me to new parts of China. Never went on a Yangtze cruise or saw the dam in my trip out west. Too many people said it was over-rated. I did, however, SEE the thick murky waters of the Yangtze when I was hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is a must read for anyone living in China. Very well written. Would love to see if he's gone back since and to read an article on how the area has changed now that the dam project is complete. And, I'd love to hear what he has to say about the dam being blamed for triggering the earth quake that decimated northern Sichuan province.more
River Town is a wonderful book for anyone who wants to learn more about China, or are planning on living abroad for an extended period of time. I thought that the book was very interesting and was fascinated with the way the Chinese of Fuling treated Peter Hessler during his stay. It would be very helpful to know a little about China's past, as Peter Hessler mentions many different movements and leaders without going into detail, which can lead to many readers feeling lost. The reader also has to remember that this book is the opinion of just one person who lived in a remote part of China and should not consider his experiences to be the norm for a forgeiner living in China.more
A book about a teacher for the peace corps who spends 2 years in China teaching. I like reading these because you always stumble onto cultural taboo's and such from the mistakes others have made. This was a good story that I recommend.more
River Town by Peter Hessler is a good story and being able to relate to it as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer makes it even better. Hessler tells his story of two years of Peace Corps service living in a small city on the Yangtze River. Hessler tells his story well and is able to weave in the thoughts and emotions of the storyline without distracting the reader. Its often difficult to relate living in a different country to people who may not ever have been to that country but Hessler does it with skill by slowly adding thoughts and insights as the story progressed. He also does an excellent job of describing certain aspects of living abroad such as perception of one's home country as well as learning the local language and customs. Although the average reader may never visit Fuling, China, they can be taken there with this book.more
This is a fantastic book, much better than Hessler's more recent "Oracle Bones." It has many telling anecdotes of Hessler's two years living in Fuling (near Chongqing, on the Yangtze River, partly flooded now from the Three Gorges Dam) as an English teacher. Very insightful.more
Peter Hessler reveals the inner life of Fuling, upriver from the Yangtze, o the River Wu. A small (for China) town of 200,000 situated in a fertile river valley, its economy is sustained by grains, tung oil and lacquer wares. Peter and his friend, Adam, taught English in the Teachers' College to gifted students from peasant families. His efforts to learn Chinese and become acculturated lead to insights and observations about this area, and to some degree, about China's recent history.more
Engaging story of a Peace Corps volunteer's two years as a teacher in a remote Chinese city. Looking forward to reading his recent book on China.more
Among the first group of Peace Corps volunteers allowed in China after the Cultural Revolution, English teacher Peter Hessler is stationed in the remote city of Fujian. Hessler writes about being a foreigner in a recently opened country in an engaging way, but he devotes most of the book to the haunting stories of his students and Chinese friends. The book is marred by a few overly poetic, italicized passages that don't fit in with the rest of the work, but on the whole, this is a beautiful book.more
excellent rendition of expatriate experience working and living with mainland Chinese.more
In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.River Town is indeed one of the best books I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon.more
Read all 16 reviews

Reviews

I chose this book for our group because David Sedaris (my new BFF), recommended it when I saw him on tour a couple of years ago. River Town is not meant to be humorous like a Sedaris book, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Peter Hessler does write it with a light hearted tone. It’s clear that he greatly enjoys being in China and making friends with Chinese people even though he finds their culture and the people baffling or frustrating at times.Peter went by the name Ho Wei while he was in China and I absolutely loved how he explained the dichotomy between Peter Hessler and Ho Wei:“Ho Wei was stupid, which was what I liked most about him…People were comfortable with somebody that stupid, and they found it okay to talk with Ho Wei, even though they often had to say things twice or write new words in his notebook. Ho Wei always carried his notebook in his pocket, using it to study the new words, as well as to jot down notes from conversations. And when Ho Wei returned home he left the notebook on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer.”There is quite a bit more about Ho Wei vs. Peter Hessler than just the above quote and I thought it was all so clever. I really enjoyed this book. Since reading it, I have learned that Peter Hessler also writes about China for The New Yorker and has written two more books about China. I really enjoyed his perspective and I’m looking forward to reading more from him.more
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. A little dated by now but worth the time to read.more
I’m normally a bit wary about books where Americans (or any First World citizen) explore developing countries, especially when it’s a country my family happens to be from and where I spent part of my childhood. But I shouldn’t have worried this time. Peter Hessler writes tenderly but with clear-sighted accuracy. Even though I’ve never been to Sichuan, I see a lot of truth in his observations, and some that he opened my eyes to (the awkward Chinese laugh, yes!). His humour, patience, and willingness to put his ego aside made him a great writer for the subject. I also liked that he taught English lit, particularly his classes on Shakespeare. Shakespeare in China brought back a lot of memories for me! River Town is probably the best travelogue of China that I’ve read yet. Definitely recommended.more
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. I found it an insightful, sympathetic, and illuminating look at the Chinese people and their complex culture. The book is often funny and always interesting. It is a wonderful introduction to China if, like me, you know very little about this important country.more
Beautiful book. Kind of experience I wish I had had for myself after collge. This was another book that after reading it pulled me to new parts of China. Never went on a Yangtze cruise or saw the dam in my trip out west. Too many people said it was over-rated. I did, however, SEE the thick murky waters of the Yangtze when I was hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is a must read for anyone living in China. Very well written. Would love to see if he's gone back since and to read an article on how the area has changed now that the dam project is complete. And, I'd love to hear what he has to say about the dam being blamed for triggering the earth quake that decimated northern Sichuan province.more
River Town is a wonderful book for anyone who wants to learn more about China, or are planning on living abroad for an extended period of time. I thought that the book was very interesting and was fascinated with the way the Chinese of Fuling treated Peter Hessler during his stay. It would be very helpful to know a little about China's past, as Peter Hessler mentions many different movements and leaders without going into detail, which can lead to many readers feeling lost. The reader also has to remember that this book is the opinion of just one person who lived in a remote part of China and should not consider his experiences to be the norm for a forgeiner living in China.more
A book about a teacher for the peace corps who spends 2 years in China teaching. I like reading these because you always stumble onto cultural taboo's and such from the mistakes others have made. This was a good story that I recommend.more
River Town by Peter Hessler is a good story and being able to relate to it as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer makes it even better. Hessler tells his story of two years of Peace Corps service living in a small city on the Yangtze River. Hessler tells his story well and is able to weave in the thoughts and emotions of the storyline without distracting the reader. Its often difficult to relate living in a different country to people who may not ever have been to that country but Hessler does it with skill by slowly adding thoughts and insights as the story progressed. He also does an excellent job of describing certain aspects of living abroad such as perception of one's home country as well as learning the local language and customs. Although the average reader may never visit Fuling, China, they can be taken there with this book.more
This is a fantastic book, much better than Hessler's more recent "Oracle Bones." It has many telling anecdotes of Hessler's two years living in Fuling (near Chongqing, on the Yangtze River, partly flooded now from the Three Gorges Dam) as an English teacher. Very insightful.more
Peter Hessler reveals the inner life of Fuling, upriver from the Yangtze, o the River Wu. A small (for China) town of 200,000 situated in a fertile river valley, its economy is sustained by grains, tung oil and lacquer wares. Peter and his friend, Adam, taught English in the Teachers' College to gifted students from peasant families. His efforts to learn Chinese and become acculturated lead to insights and observations about this area, and to some degree, about China's recent history.more
Engaging story of a Peace Corps volunteer's two years as a teacher in a remote Chinese city. Looking forward to reading his recent book on China.more
Among the first group of Peace Corps volunteers allowed in China after the Cultural Revolution, English teacher Peter Hessler is stationed in the remote city of Fujian. Hessler writes about being a foreigner in a recently opened country in an engaging way, but he devotes most of the book to the haunting stories of his students and Chinese friends. The book is marred by a few overly poetic, italicized passages that don't fit in with the rest of the work, but on the whole, this is a beautiful book.more
excellent rendition of expatriate experience working and living with mainland Chinese.more
In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.River Town is indeed one of the best books I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon.more
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