Return to River Town

Peter Hessler, the former New Yorker correspondent in Beijing, also wrote a best-selling book in 2001, River Town, which documented his two years teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in a town that was on the verge of being consumed by the Three Gorges Dam. For National Geographic, Hessler pays a visit to Fuling, his former home, and writes about the changes he observes both in the landscape and in the people he used to know there. His essay is accompanied by a slideshow by Anastasia Taylor-Lind:

The writer’s vanity likes to imagine permanence, but Fuling reminds me that words are quicksilver. Their meaning changes with every age, every perspective—it’s like the White Crane Ridge, whose inscriptions have a different significance now that they appear in an underwater museum. Today anybody who reads River Town knows that China has become economically powerful and that the Three Gorges Dam is completed, and this changes the story. And I’ll never know what the Fuling residents of 1998 would have thought of the book, because those people have also been transformed. There’s a new confidence to urban Chinese; the outside world seems much less remote and threatening. And life has moved so fast that even the 1990s feels as nostalgic as a black-and-white photo. Recently Emily sent me an email: “With a distance of time, everything in the book turns out to be charming, even the dirty, tired flowers.”

One evening I have dinner with Huang Xiaoqiang, his wife, Feng Xiaoqin, and their family, who used to own my favorite noodle restaurant. In 1998 Huang acquired his driver’s license and told me he hoped to buy a car someday, which seemed impossible with his limited family income. But tonight he picks me up at my hotel in a new black Chinese BYD sedan. Huang drives exactly two blocks to a restaurant, and then we drive exactly two more blocks to his family home. These journeys may be short, but they provide ample time for Huang to make full use of his dashboard DVD player.

After dinner he insists on chauffeuring me back to my hotel. He tells me that his brother-in-law, who doesn’t speak English, used a dictionary to read River Town. He went word by word; it took two years. “In your book you wrote that my biggest dream was to have a car,” Huang says. “And this is the third one I’ve owned!”

Read more by and about Hessler, via CDT, and a review of River Town recently posted on the Booze, Food Travel blog.


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