The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving” is a pleasure cruise for Western expats in China

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

All hail, displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! As a long-time traveler and reader, I’m drawn to books set somewhere I’ve lived in or gotten to know well. Reading an absorbing travel tale covering ground I once knew intimately, I am lingering again on the streets I once walked, recapturing the taste of meals I once savored, and recalling tiny details about a place that, until that moment, had been lost to memory.

country-driving_cover_pmThis month’s book is the third in Peter Hessler’s award-winning trilogy on China, called Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. I was excited about reading it as I’ve lived in China twice.

Any of you who are China hands will be familiar with Peter Hessler. Originally from Columbus, Missouri, he initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in Fuling, a small city on the Yangtze River. Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of Sichuan province for 50 years.

After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.

I devoured Hessler’s first two memoirs on China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (based on his Peace Corps experience) and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. Peter Hessler CollageI read the first just before moving to China and the second, right in the middle of my stay. Like other China-based expats, I found that Hessler’s descriptions of teaching English in Sichuan Province, along with his detailed portraits of the people he met all across China, helped me understand—and even anticipate—many of the experiences common to Western foreigners in China.

Country Driving follows suit, weaving together stories from the many road trips Hessler took while on assignment for several Western publications: National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.

“Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles.” — Chinese proverb

Country Driving is divided into three sections. In the first, which was also my favorite, Hessler chronicles his 7,000-mile trip across northern China, following the Great Wall all the way from the East China Sea to the Tibetan Plateau, in a rented two-wheel-drive SUV he’s not supposed to take out of Beijing. The reader accompanies him through rush hour traffic, dings and scrapes with other drivers, roadside scams, rutty roads and the wide-open desert leading to the Tibetan Plateau.

As he introduces the reader to the chaos of Chinese roads, he quotes the often bizarre multiple choice questions Chinese driving students are forced to answer, e.g.:

When overtaking another car, a driver should pass
a) on the left.
b) on the right.
c) wherever, depending on the situation.

When passing an elderly person or child, you should
a) slow down and make sure you pass safely.
b) continue at the same speed.
c) honk the horn to tell them to watch out.

When he picks up hitchhikers, who are a common sight on rural highways where there’s often a shortage of direct buses, he tells us their ages, describes their appearances, and reports what their occupations and, often, aspirations are. For instance, in a passage about taking a hairstylist and her grandfather to a city near or in Shaanxi province, Hessler writes:

The old man wore a weathered cap and rough blue cotton clothes. He was mostly toothless: a wispy beard hung from his chin. His traveling companion was the most strikingly pretty woman I ever saw in the north. She was twenty years old, with hair that had been dyed a light red; her lipstick was bright pink and a tiny beauty mark had been tattooed between her eyebrows.

About halfway through the first section of the book, I realized I was reading unusually slowly. Country Driving is a meaty 400 plus pages but Hessler’s prose is smooth enough to make those pages zoom by like one of the tinted-window “cadre cars” he avoids on the highway.

What was happening?

I started paying more attention—and realized that, instead of focusing on Hessler’s descriptions, I was busy daydreaming about China stories of my own. This passage, for instance, really rang home for me:

…(We) continued on foot to the gridlock, where drivers explained what had happened. It all started with a few trucks whose fuel lines had frozen. The trucks stalled…truckers had crawled beneath their rigs, where they lit road flares and held them up to frozen fuel lines. The tableau had a certain beauty: the stark snow-covered steppes, the endless line of black Santanas, the orange fires dancing beneath blue Liberation trucks.

Except in my story it’s not a truck that has the frozen fuel line, it’s a bus. And I’m not admiring the beauty of the landscape; I’m on the bus. And the flares were straw, the bus caught fire, and soon I (and my parents, who were visiting) had to hitch a ride on a different bus.

“If you want happiness in a lifetime, help someone else.” — Chinese proverb

In the second section of the book, “The Village,” Hessler zooms in on Sancha, a rundown village north of Beijing near the Great Wall, where he and a friend end up renting a small house. Whereas before, Hessler was entertaining us with road rules, now he is regaling us with stories of small-town politics. Hessler becomes good friends with his entrepreneurial landlord, and we hear all about this man’s business ventures and political campaigning.

The landlord has a sickly son, to whom Hessler is “Uncle Monster.” At the time Hessler’s rented car is the only reliable transportation in the village, and at one point the story becomes more emotional, when Hessler helps to save the boy’s life in a medical emergency.

Hessler is particularly good at illuminating tiny nuances of Chinese culture and life for the sake of us clueless Westerners. He provides literal translations of road signs and propaganda slogans for our amusement, and he is careful to let us in on passing conversations that point to larger issues.

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” — Chinese proverb

The third part of the book, “The Factory,” loses some of the intimacy built up in the first two sections. We go from travelogue to investigative reporting as Hessler ventures down into the mountainous coastal region of Zhejiang to observe a newly industrialized area, one virtually unknown to the outside world, where single cities produce single products.

What he loses in personal perspective, he makes up with research, interviews, and some great anecdotes. It’s only one third of the book, but could have stood alone.

The stories Hessler tells of the individuals working in this province are some of the most memorable in the whole book: stories whose subjects range from migrants seeking their fortune—at pennies an hour—on the East Coast, to the 50,000 residents of a river valley about to be dammed, to bosses under pressure to build a viable business. One entrepreneur he meets is planning to make his fortune by manufacturing the tiny rings that appear on every bra strap.

StrangeStones_bookcovrCountry Driving was excellent. It captures a lot of the aspects of China I enjoyed while living there—the plucky optimistic people I met, the amazing scenery and some of the wacky, like-nowhere-else experiences I had—but it also shines a light on many of the reasons I decided that my second time living in China would be my last: pollution, decisions made based on “face” or convenience rather than practicality or legality, arbitrary and changing rules.

Last year Hessler has published a fourth book, a collection of previously published stories, called Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, and although I’ve already read a few of the stories, I’ll be picking it up for a browse soon.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for another fascinating column! I almost feel as though I’ve been on a whirlwind trip to China, which is saying a lot, given the vastness of the territory. Readers, are you like Beth: do you like to read about places where you’ve lived as an expat? Why or why not?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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6 responses to “BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving” is a pleasure cruise for Western expats in China

  1. thatssojacob July 17, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Hey there! Just tuning in to other blog posts tagged “China” recently and found yours. My most recent post is also about China; it’s a book review of a famous Chinese novel. Check it out and let me know what you think: thanks!

  2. ML Awanohara July 21, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Hi, Beth. Thanks again for doing this review. I recall that when I first went to China many moons ago, the question every young person asked me was what kind of car I had back home (which at that point was in the UK). In fact I had an old clunker that kept breaking down, but that didn’t seem to matter. These Chinese youth simply wanted to hear that I had four wheels to call my own, as it fed into their dream of what life could be like… I also recall thinking that if they all had cars, China could get (even more) chaotic, not to mention polluted…

    When I first returned to the USA, I happened to be at a work-related lecture by environmental researcher Vaclav Smil, who was studying the potential environmental impact of Chinese owning cars. He said he knew from his own experience that once people have cars, there is no turning back. Once a car owner, always a car owner. As a Czech who’d emigrated to Canada, he had never forgotten the thrill of getting his own car and, even though he knew how to live without one, said he was now so attached to his car that he’d probably “kill” to keep it.

    Peter Hessler has been doing an amazing job at chronicling life in the “new China,” where people would not only kill to keep their cars but might also kill because of the lack of traffic regulations. And if cars don’t kill you, pollution will!

    I know you experienced the pollution, but did you ever try driving when living there? If so, was it as bad as Hessler says?

    • Beth Green (@Bethverde) July 23, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      Hi, ML. My pleasure, as always! Thanks for your comment.

      I lived in two different places in China–and I lived in one of them twice, separated by a few years. In one city, Foshan, we were first told that foreigners weren’t allowed to drive. Then, the rules relaxed (or some persistent expat finally managed to prove that it wasn’t a real rule) and some of my foreign friends started to get licenses. I never drove myself, but I was a passenger many a time. I think there’s a new generation of drivers–ones who have always experienced traffic with cars (instead of bikes and scooters)–and they’re perhaps “better” drivers from a Western standpoint. But you still see plenty of wrong-way turns, sidewalk escapes, lane shifts without warning and other things that would get you ticketed, hunted down and verbally abused in the US. The key to understanding the rules of the road, I always thought, was that people are driving the way they walk–focused forward and not worrying about anyone to the sides or behind them. It made it interesting to be a pedestrian!

  3. cindamackinnon July 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    After reading Beth’s post, I want to share my favorite book on old China:“Tales of Wonder.” A warm and wonderful memoir by Huston Smith (who wrote the famous text “Religions of World”).

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