Review of the Book, “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” by Peter Hessler

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The most important thing you need to more fully experience and appreciate another culture is an open mind. And Peter Hessler has one. Because of that he was able to teach English and navigate the culture of Fuling, a small river town along the Yangtze River, and report back to his readers what it was like in a very rich way. Hessler was a volunteer English teacher in the Peace Corps for two years, serving at the Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province, China from 1996-1998. In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, he recounts his experiences and shares his insightful observations.

This book resonated strongly with me. My wife is from Sichuan and most of what Hessler writes about in the book was from his experience there. We visited Chongqing and took the Yangtze River cruise from Chongqing to Yichang in 2011. So, when Hessler talks about cruising down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, the Three Gorges Dam, and what it is like in other river towns like Fengdu, I can see it so much more vividly because of having been there. The breathtaking scenery of the Three Gorges, the enormity of the Three Gorges Dam, and the history of the Ghost City in Fengdu were such rich experiences for me.

This book has something for everybody. Above all else, it is just plain great storytelling. One aspect of the book is political. It covers all of the problems that two foreign English teachers faced as they navigated the Chinese higher education system, which is heavily influenced and controlled by the Chinese government. One hot button political issue covered was the decision to build the Three Gorges Dam, with many of the mind that the economic gains realized from building the dam outweigh the ecological risks, the relocation of over a million people, and the destruction of historical places and artifacts. And many are of the mind that the gains don’t outweigh the losses. The book is also a good starting point for someone wanting to learn about Chinese history because it touches on a number of important historical events of the 20th Century including the May 4th Movement, Nanjing Massacre, Korean War, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cold War, Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening, and the return of Hong Kong to China. One fascinating thing I didn’t know about before reading this book was the Third Line Project. Hessler pointed out that the Third Line Project occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s and involved moving much of the Chinese defense industry from Shanghai to remote areas in Sichuan and Guizhou at the direction of Chairman Mao. This was to make the factories less susceptible to a feared nuclear attack by the United States.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is also an excellent travel story about Hessler’s riverboat rides up and down the Yangtze and the towns along the way from Chongqing to Yichang. It also covers his hikes through the mountains along the Wu River. One of my favorite things about the book is the prose Hessler uses to describe his surroundings as he travels, such as this passage from page 341:

“The nighttime river is peaceful. The summer stars are out tonight; the Big Dipper glows steady above the gently rocking boat, and a quarter-moon hangs bright in the southern sky. The Yangtze is black except for the lights that streak across its water. By now there are few homes along the banks, and even fewer with their lights on. Most of the light comes from the river-from the low strips of sandstone along shore, faintly luminescent in the evening, and from the dinghies and the shore markers. Red lights blink on the south side of the river, green on the north; the night boats pass between, their searchlights sweeping silently across the water.”

This passage really evoked for me how it was pitch black up on the deck of the boat at night on our Yangtze cruise. And then we would pass from the darkness on the river that Hessler describes to the lights of a place like Hanzhou, a district of Chongqing Municipality with a population of approximately 1.6 million. The bright neon signs, in Chinese characters, shining brightly at night in the city seemed so striking and exotic to me at the time.

What Hessler did best in the book though was to capture, as good as any foreigner could have, the lives of the ordinary Chinese people, and particularly the Sichuanese, at that time in history. He was able to do this because he went there with an open mind and he was genuinely empathetic to his students and the local people. He learned Chinese and that made a big difference in his ability to be a good teacher and to reach the people, including his students, and get them to share their thoughts and life experiences with him.

Initially, Hessler struggled to learn Chinese and to adjust to life in Fuling. However, with many hours of study and determination he was able to learn Chinese pretty well by his second year. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Adam Meier, served with Hessler and they were the first waiguoren, foreigners, in Fuling in 50 years. At first, it was hard for them to adapt to everyone staring at them whenever they went out in Fuling, with a few even shouting “Hah-loo” in a mocking manner. Everywhere they went they drew large crowds of people who just wanted to get a look at the foreigners. Hessler and Meier learned to handle this with grace and understanding. It reminded me of visiting Chongqing and having so many people stare protractedly at my white face. It was a bit unnerving at first but I quickly came to see that they were just curious because even in a huge city like Chongqing white faces are not an everyday sight. Everyone was really quite friendly and I never felt threatened.

Hessler understood his role well. In the last chapter of the book he says:

“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.”

One random thing I learned from the book that I just can’t quit laughing about is a Sichuanese insult. In the Sichuan dialect you say Gui’ erzi, which means “son of a turtle.” My wife tells that the meaning of this can range from a fairly minor insult to a fairly major one, like “son of a bitch”, depending on the context.

I enjoyed this book very much and would highly recommend it to you.

Amazon Canada

Other books by Peter Hessler:
Strange Stones: Dispatches From East and West
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
Oracle Bones

What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female'(s), Part II

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When I was watching the documentary Seeking Asian Female, I felt sorry for Sandy. But Sandy is not alone. She represents a group of Asian women who lack the knowledge of American males, or the United States, so that they make wrong decisions.

With my own experience, my friends’ experience, and the research I have done in mind, I offer the following questions for Asian females who want to marry/date American males to think about. Note: As I said in What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female(s), Part I, most of what I write also applies to other western males, but I write specifically about American males because I live in America and I’m married to an American.

  • 1. What do you expect from American males?

To me, a lot of Asian females are too idealistic about American males. They have the misconception that Americans are all rich and have big houses and nice cars. But when they come to the States and reality doesn’t match their expectations, they are disappointed. In the documentary, when Steven was driving Sandy around the city, Sandy pointed to a big beautiful house and told Steven they would save money and buy a big house like that. I am not quite sure if Steven really got her point. It is her dream to live in a house like that, not in a little apartment like his. Here I want to tell Asian women not everyone in America can afford a house. And only a very small percentage of people can afford a mansion. American males are normal people, just like Asian males. Some just have enough money to make ends meet every month. Some might be in debt.

  • 2. What can you bring into the marriage?

Just like any marriage, an interracial marriage also needs balance. Ask yourself, “What can I bring to the marriage?” If you need to completely depend on your American husband, you might also experience some mistreatment. That mistreatment is absolutely wrong. But because the relationship is not balanced, it is easier to get into it. Personally, I think women are in a much stronger position if they can support themselves financially if needed. I can, and I have educated my daughter that way too. But please don’t misunderstand me,  I love my husband, and he tells me every day that he loves me. Also, I think balancing your own life with family, friends, and a job helps your marriage.

  • 3. Do you really love the American man?

As I said in What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female'(s), Part I, a marriage needs to be built on love, not using each other. For example, some females just want to use the marriage to get a green card, a pass to enter and stay in the United States. If you are thinking of doing it, please stop. I say this for your own good because you are ruining your own life as well as another person’s life. You are here in the States far away from your family and friends, suffering for the green card, and it’s not worth it at all. I’ve heard some ladies say that a few years will pass by quickly. Think about living under the same roof with a man you don’t love; those few years will be long! You need to love the American man to marry to him. At the same time, make sure he loves you too.

  • 4. How much do you know the American culture? How is your English?

You will live in a completely different culture and environment. Are you ready for that? Do you have any experience visiting a western country or staying abroad?  Is your English good enough to have basic conversations? My major was English in China, and I came to America two times before I decided to apply for graduate school here. When I was in graduate school, I am very honest with you that I constantly had culture shock. The first few months, I was learning new things every day. I am thankful that I had the Chinese Student and Scholar Association at our university. We helped each other in a lot of ways so that we were not loners. I can’t imagine my life if I spoke limited English, didn’t know the American culture, and had no support.

  • 5. How much are you willing to adjust your daily life?

As I asked American males in What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female'(s), Part I, I am asking Asian females the same question. In an interracial marriage, both husband and wife need to make some adjustments. I heard girls say, “I only eat Chinese food.” If you are that girl but want to marry an American guy, you might need to prepare for some adjustments. Compromise for the relationship, and nurture the relationship.

I hope these questions will help you think and prepare yourself. There are a lot of happy interracial marriages. I wish yours will be one of them!

Did you watch Seeking Asian Female? Please leave a comment to let us know your take on the film and/or your experiences with interracial relationships.

If you haven’t watched it yet, you can click on this link to watch it on Amazon Instant Video:

What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female'(s), Part I

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Last week, my husband and I watched Debbie Lum’s documentary, Seeking Asian Female. Quite frankly, it was pretty hard for us to watch the movie. We kept asking, “Why? Why? Why? Why are they doing this?”, as we watched the problems unfold on the screen with the relationship between a 60 year old white American male and a 30 year old Chinese female who had just arrived in America from China.

I am a Chinese American, while my husband is white. Since ours is an interracial marriage, our life together is shaped by both of our cultures. We continually seek to learn more about both cultures. We try to get to know people like us, and we read and watch things that help us to understand each other better.

Seeking Asian Female

‘Steven Kisses Sandy’ Photo Credit: Debbie Lum

Here I want to share my ideas about interracial marriage between Asian females and American males. Most of what I write also applies to other western males, but I write specifically about American males because I live in America and I’m married to an American.

I’m sure you are aware that “Beautiful, submissive, loyal, hardworking, family-oriented” are some characteristics that people generally attribute to Asian females. As an Asian female, I would say there might be some truth about some of it.

Let’s first start with “beautiful”. Different people have different criteria about beauty. Slim figure, long black hair, and smooth skin might be things that attract American males to Asian females. In my opinion, to keep a long-lasting marriage, appearance and attraction alone are not enough at all. They are important, especially at the beginning of the relationship. You have to be attracted to the woman so that you want to date her, and further on to marry her. Also you may have noticed that Asian females generally look younger for their age, and they don’t change a lot in figure when they get older. In the documentary, Steven and Sandy have 30 years age difference. Sandy’s friends asked her, “Why don’t you marry somebody younger?” She said that it seems they are compatible. If that is the case, 30 years, or even 40 years, age difference might not be a problem. But later she said several times, “After I get a job, I will leave him.” To me they are not that “compatible.” Therefore, if you are dating a beautiful and/or young Asian woman, you might ask yourself, “Does she really love me?” “What does she want to get out of the marriage?” “What can I give her?” If you marry her just for romance and sex, she may also have some purpose for marrying you, such as a green card or money.

Now let’s look at “submissive”, or “subservient”. If you think Asian females are submissive, you are wrong. They are not aggressive, but they are not submissive, either. My husband always jokes about it, saying, “I don’t know where people get that idea. If they talked to my wife for 10 seconds, they would know she is definitely not submissive.” As a matter of fact, nowadays in China, for the young couples, the wife is more dominant, especially in the cities.  Back in the old China, women were submissive because they had to depend on their husbands financially. If the wife is financially independent, why would she be submissive? Who wants to be submissive if there is a choice? A strong relationship is based on mutual respect and equality. Both my husband and I have a full-time job, and both of us hold leadership positions at work. At home, we share household chores. For example, if I cook dinner, he cleans up, and if he cooks, I clean up. Then we enjoy the rest of the evening together. To a girl like Sandy in the film, she might be subservient for a short while because she just came to the United States and she needs to depend on her husband. With that said, you could see that Sandy has a pretty strong personality, even from the beginning. “Submissive” or “subservient” are definitely not the right words to be used on Asian women in the 21 century.

Let’s take “loyal”. Sometimes, loyalty is not a positive word to me if we use it on a person. We say dogs and cats are loyal to their owners. However, I am going to take loyalty as a positive word here. Yes, Asian women are loyal to their marriage. They devote themselves to their husbands and families. But the foundation for that is that the marriage is a healthy marriage, one where the husband and wife love each other, treat each other equally and with respect, and put the family at a very important position in their lives. This goes back to the first word “beautiful”. If the marriage is built on using each other for a specific purpose, not love, loyalty might not be in that marriage. Who wouldn’t expect to be loved?

How about “hard-working” and “family-oriented”?  These are true for Asian women. They work hard at work, do what they are expected to do, and try to keep to themselves. At home, they are good moms and good wives. They want their children to have the best education they can get. They do a lot for the family, like cooking, cleaning, and gardening. They put their husbands and children before themselves. Chinese are known for money-saving. Besides the necessary expenses each month, they save the extra money for their children’s education, for houses and cars, for emergency use, and for retirement. Every Sunday evening, I paint my own nails for the coming week. My husband always tells me, “Honey, we can afford for you to go to a nail spa.” I always answer him, “I appreciate that. Why would I give my money to them if I can do it myself? Yes, we can afford it. But I can also save the money for something else.”  Traditionally, Chinese value their families, and they support and help each other. In America, you see Asian grandparents come here from their home country to take care of their grandchildren. Do they want to be here? For most of them, the answer is no. They don’t speak the language, can’t drive, don’t like the food in the restaurants, etc. But they come because they want to help take care of their grandchildren so that their children (the young couple) can focus on work. The grandparents believe that it is their responsibility to do so.  When the grandkids grow up or get to a point that they can go to school, the grandparents go back to their home country.

With all that said about Asian females, I want to offer the following questions for any American man who is considering getting into a relationship with an Asian female to think about.

     1. How much do you know about Asian culture, or specifically the culture of your wife or girlfriend?  Are you interested in the culture?

If you are married to a woman from another culture, you will get involved in the activities of the culture. That is for sure. As I said earlier, my husband is white. But he is very interested in my culture, listening to Chinese music (although he doesn’t understand the lyrics), watching Chinese movies (with English captions), going to Chinese gatherings/activities etc. If your attitude is “I live in America, why should I know that?”, then I would say you might not be completely ready for an interracial marriage.

     2. How much are you willing to change your daily life?

If you are married to an Asian woman, you would expect the food on your dinner table would change and the decoration in your house would change some. It would be hard for a couple to eat two different kinds of food for dinner regularly. If your wife is from a different culture, she will prepare dinner in the way she knows how, no matter how many years she has been in your country. I have been in the states for more than 15 years, but I still like to cook Chinese dishes. I’m very blessed on that because my husband enjoys eating it. He eats them all! He also cooks, and I enjoy his cooking/grilling to the most. In What You Should Know About ‘Seeking Asian Female’(s), Part II, I suggest to Asian females that they too need to make adjustments. But if your wife just came to your country from Asia, like Sandy in the film, it might take a while for her to make the adjustment.

    3. How much can you two communicate?

We would all agree that communication is very important in a relationship. So, how much can you communicate with your Asian wife, either in English or her native language? When my husband and I were watching the documentary, we teased each other saying, “They cannot even argue with each other. Now we appreciate our arguments.” If you marry somebody who doesn’t speak much English, you really need a lot of patience. Are you ready for that?

I hope this post is helpful to you. Be looking for What You Should Know About Seeking Asian Female’(s), Part II, which I will post here sometime in the next few days! In it, I will present some questions for Asian females who want to date/marry American men. Are you anticipating these questions?

As always, I look forward to your comments. Have you ever been in an interracial relationship or thought about being in one?

You can watch the film on Amazon Instant Video by clicking on the following link:

Gaokao, China’s College Entrance Examination

In China, Gaokao, the annual college entrance examination, was just over. By reading articles and watching videos that relate to the examination on Chinese news sites, I can strongly feel the extreme pressure of the students, their parents and their teachers. I can also see the attention the whole country gives to the students.

First, I want to give a brief introduction to you about Gaokao. Gaokao is held once a year on June 7 to June 9 (it used to be July 7-9). Graduating high school students take the difficult exam covering Math, Chinese, English and other subjects in order to go to college. The result of the exam decides what level of college a student may be accepted to and what major a student is qualified for. A good college with a popular major is the first important step for a good career.  Every point on the Gaokao counts!

For the exam, the Chinese students work hard from first grade. It’s common to see elementary school kids carrying big backpacks full of books and notebooks. Besides the work at school, they also have homework everyday. Some kids also have after school classes like sports, dance, music, and English.  Parents want their children go to a high-rank (zhong dian) elementary school. Their logic is: A zhong dian elementary school leads to a zhong dian middle school, then a zhong dian high school.  As a result, the kid will have the hope to go to a good college and major in what he/she wants or what is popular. When the students are at high school, they work extremely hard. Especially in their senior year, it is normal for them to study 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. When my daughter was at college, she went to China to visit her cousin who was a high school junior at that time. She went to visit his school and was very impressed by the diligence of the students.

High School Classroom in China

High School Classroom in China

Second, I want to talk about the parents.  If a family has a high school senior, everybody is nervous. The child is absolutely the center of the family. They spend a lot of money on the child’s food, to pay for tutorials, and to provide the best environment they can for the child to study or sleep. If a student’s home is far from school, they usually live in the school dorm. But if the child can’t sleep well in the dorm, the parents rent an apartment close to school for the student if they are able to financially. Then one parent, most of the time the mom, would quit her job and move into the rental apartment to take care of the child.

To encourage their kids to do their best, some parents offer a reward to them for reaching the goal. The reward could be some nice clothes, a trip, or even a car. If a student gets high scores and is accepted by a prestigious university, it is not only the pride of the student, it is also the pride of the family.  If the student is from a village, it is the pride of the whole village.

Good luck to all the graduating high school students who took the 2013 Gaokao!

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