Storyteller embraces humor to depict life in China

Updated: 2013-05-03 11:25

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Storyteller embraces humor to depict life in China

Peter Hessler's Strange Stones (right) is his record of his "amazing" experiences in fast-changing societies like China. Photo by Darryl Kennedy / Provided to China Daily

On a visa run to Hong Kong in 1999, Peter Hessler made a stop in a tiny village with competing rat restaurants.

He was writing freelance news articles at the time, and Luogang, located in southern China's Guangdong province, had caught his attention with stories in the Chinese press.

At the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, a waitress casually asked a question he'd never considered: "Do you want a big rat or a small rat?" At the next table a little boy chewed on a miniature drumstick, content enough. A small rat, then.

Later he described the trip in an e-mail to a group of family and friends that included his former professor in narrative nonfiction, the author John McPhee, and could only do it justice in first person. How else to write about the bizarre experience of being wooed by rival rat delicatessens intent on conquering his American palette? As he'd discovered with the Peace Corps, humor was not only absolutely necessary for survival in China but also for accuracy in depiction.

McPhee forwarded the e-mail to the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, who eventually hired Hessler as the magazine's China correspondent.

A version of that e-mail, now titled "Wild Flavor", appears in a new collection of Hessler's essays. Fittingly, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West is dedicated to McPhee.

"I take humor seriously," Hessler told China Daily. "We don't do this enough when we write about the developing world, and that gives people the impression that people in these places live dark, poor lives. There are funny things happening everywhere, and sometimes in the effort to be respectful, writers can be condescending. We have to be able to laugh."

Hessler, who now lives in Egypt, is the author of three other books about China: River Town (2006), Oracle Bones (2007) and Country Driving (2011).

With Strange Stones, he expands his focus to Nepal, Japan and the US, in hope of demonstrating that his interests don't begin and end with China.

In the essay "All Due Respect," Hessler writes about his childhood friend Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based journalist who has made a name for himself writing about the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. In other essays he touches on life in Colorado, where he and his wife Leslie, also a writer, spent four years in between China and Egypt.

His position with the New Yorker affords Hessler the luxury of spending weeks and sometimes months on a story, he admits. Unlike many journalists, tasked with breaking news and often at the mercy of translators and fixers when working abroad, Hessler put his fluency in Mandarin toward the slow cultivation of relationships with people in cities all over China during his tenure.

He had lived in a Beijing hutong (alleyway) apartment for over four years before writing about the neighborhood's WC Julebu (WC Club), so named for its installation in a public restroom built in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Gradually accumulating furniture, a TV, a coal-fired grill and an unofficial chairman, the outhouse became a hot spot for a hodgepodge of uniquely Beijing characters. Hessler joined the club as a Young Pioneer, the highest rank eligible to him as a foreigner, he recalls dryly in the story "Hutong Karma."

His experience of China was consistently shaped by the way people reacted to his ethnicity, he writes in the preface to Strange Stones. As a result, first-person narrative seemed necessary in communicating an important part of the tale.

"Mostly though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt - the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado," he writes. "The joy of nonfiction is searching for balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant."

Hessler, who grew up in Missouri with a father who loved to tell stories, observes that a major difference between Chinese and Americans relates to narrative. In Colorado, new acquaintances were often prone to falling silent upon learning that he had spent over a decade in China. He found Americans to be much more comfortable talking about themselves, he said.

In contrast, the less individualistic nature of Chinese culture often made his work in China more difficult. His Chinese subjects were surprised at his interest, and lacked the instinct for which details he might find interesting.

"Americans think in terms of a story, while Chinese wonder, 'Why would anyone care about me, or what happened 10 years ago?' You can spend months with a person in China before realizing that they've experienced monumental events," he said.

Chinese were more likely to be interested in his life in America, a natural response to the opportunities that have become available to them over the last decades, he said.

"China is going through a period of intense curiosity, whereas since 9/11, the outside world has for many people in the US offered a threat," he said.

The occasional naivete of his Chinese subjects has made Hessler acutely conscious of trying not to exploit their life stories. He remains in touch with most of the people he has written about, some of whom have had complicated reactions to his essays.

Although most of his subjects have reacted favorably to publication, Emily, the focus of "Boomtown Girl", struggled with the way her love life and career had been depicted. Fortunately, the resulting discussions they shared only deepened their friendship, he said. The fact that his work now appears online and elsewhere in Chinese has also been a welcome development.

Although Hessler returned to Colorado after China in part to prove to himself he could still live in the US, he ultimately believes there is important work to be done overseas.

"In places like China and Egypt, they're still figuring out what direction they're moving in and who they are," he said. "As a writer, it's an amazing opportunity to be able to spend real time with a society in the process of major change."

(China Daily 05/03/2013 page11)