I just finished another good book called River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. Peter Hessler was a Peace Corps volunteer in China back in the late 90s. Not only did he have a really interesting experience there, but he is also a very good writer, which combine makes it definitely worth a read.
On one hand, this book is about a changing China and Peter’s experiences living there for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, yet on the other hand it’s not about not China at all. There were many parts of this book that I could more than relate to. I could have taken an excerpt of this book and given it to any volunteer in Uganda and they would probably think it was written by me or some other volunteer here in Uganda. I feel like, for me, that is what makes this book special. It emphasizes that however different people may seem in different parts of the world, people are actually all the same at their core. I think this is a lesson that not enough people fully understand. Many people think they understand it, yet they really don’t. I had one of the teachers here ask me the other day how many Ugandan friends I had. He told me that I had to go back to America having made a lot of Ugandan friends. In fact, I couldn’t answer his question because (besides the fact that I don’t have a running tally of how many friends I have) I don’t distinguish between Ugandan friends and American friends or friends of any other nationality for that matter. It was the same when I was back in America. I had a few international friends, but I never thought of them that way. I never separated them into a different group or class of people. Unfortunately, this conversation I had last week about my Ugandan friends made me realize that many Ugandans are the same as many American in that they don’t understand that you can’t really separate people in that way because deep down they are all the same. In fact, they are even similar in the way they try to differentiate people (which is just ironic to me).
Anyway, back to River Town… As much as this book is NOT about China, at the surface it does talk a lot about where Peter lived and how things changed while he was there and how they were going to continue to change after he left. He was there for some very important events, as well, and he talks about how many Chinese people reacted to them. He was there for the return of Hong Kong from British rule. He was also there for the death of Deng Xiaoping. He also was there just before the Three Gorges Project was put in place, which would eventually change that part of China forever. China was going from a place of “eternal standstill” to a rapidly growing, constantly changing country and Peter Hessler was not only there to see the beginning of it, but in this book he captured its essence very well.
He described how he learned Chinese quite a bit throughout the book. It actually seems like he would not have been able to get around in China without knowing Chinese. I often wish I had gone to a country where I not only needed to learn the language, but also where they spoke a widespread, commonly useful language or at least a language that most people in America have heard of and can pronounce. Peace Corps Uganda keeps telling us to improve our language skills and I can’t help but ask, Why? I don’t need them because most people I come in contact with know English. And also, why should I waste my time learning this language that no one outside of Southwestern Uganda speaks. I’m just going to go home in 9 months bitter that I spent so much time learning a language that no around me speaks. I guess as far as language goes, I’m a bit jealous I wasn’t sent somewhere like China or South America.
I usually find it interesting to read about other Peace Corps volunteers in other countries, because as Peace Corps volunteers we were, at one point, just one step away from possibly being sent somewhere totally different than where we are now. In this book, I can see that a volunteer in China is going to have very different luxuries and challenges as well as a very different social life. Peter describes how when he first went to his site he was sent with another male volunteer and before both of them left there were two girls who were sent there as well, but other than these direct contacts, he doesn’t see many other volunteer too often because transportation is very long, difficult and expensive. Actually, he doesn’t seem to move around the country like we do here in Uganda at all. All of these things can be seen as different from my experience, but I can’t say his experience was any better or worse than mine. It’s just very different. As much as volunteers from around the world can have such an easy connection to each other because we are volunteers, you will never find anyone with exactly the same experience.