Monday, April 12, 2010

Country Driving

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory Peter Hessler

I love how Hessler writes about China. His work is honest--this is what I observed, this is what I lived, this is my experience, it's not universal and I won't make broad sweeping claims. He's honest about the limitations and exceptions about being foreign in China. He points out the things that drive Westerners in China crazy, but obviously loves the country and the people. His research and insights will engage China scholars, but he's accessible enough for the casual reader as well. Also, the man can just write. Period. He has a gift with language that I envy.

Can I just admit now that I have a total Chinageek crush on him?

Country Driving is divided into three parts:

The first is called The Wall and is about road trips Hessler took in 2001-2002, following the Great Wall. Like in Oracle Bones, Hessler moves seamlessly between the present and ancient history, giving us a moment in time when China's car boom was just beginning as well as a history of the walls through many dynasties and modern history. The parts about the wall are the most interesting, exploring popular misconceptions and how the wall has become a symbol of China and what it means. He references a lot of work done by David Spindler, whom he also talked a lot about in his New Yorker article (May 21, 2007) about hiking the wall. Sadly, Spindler hasn't written a Great Wall book (yet?) but I really hope he does, and soon. His research sounds fascinating.

The second part, which was my favorite, is called The Village. Hessler and a friend rented a house in a small village north of Beijing, near the Great Wall, as a sort of writer's retreat. Like many small villages, it's dying-- most of the young people have fled to the cities to find jobs. There are complications with being a foreigner and renting the land, explorations of local politics, and a portrait of daily life in a rural village. There's also the tribulations of his friend and landlord, Wei Ziqi, who's determined to become an entrepeneur, and a gutwrenching story of what happens when Wei's son, Wei Jia gets really sick. In his years in the village, it changed. The road came to the village, more people in Beijing learned to drive, and more middle-class urbanites wanted to get away to the country for the weekend. It is an wonderful look at how rapidly China is changing and why and how. In three years, the average wage for a days labor in the village doubled. In the years he was there, the village got a good road, cell phone coverage, and cable. From wasting very little, the village suddenly had a trash problem. The effect was jarring on the people in the village.

"The longer I lived in China, the more I worried about how people responded to rapid change. This wasn't an issue of modernization, at least not in the absolute sense; I never opposed progress. I understood why people were eager to escape poverty, and I had a deep respect for their willingness to work and adapt. But there were costs when this process happened so fast." We see how this family changes due to the rapid success and changes-- the dad starts smoking and drinking heavily, the mom feels lonely and isolated and overworked. When we first met their son he was wiry and scrappy and tough, now he watches cartoons all day and is out of shape. The effects of such swift change were interesting to explore on a personal level.

The third part is called The Factory. Hessler finds a boom town before it booms in southern China and observes how it grows, and pays attention to one factory in particular. In the "well, I guess someone has to make it file" the factory makes underwires for bras, and the little rings used for the adjustable part of bra straps. In the factory sense, one detail I found fascinating was when the factory got a new order, the bra company would send over a sample of each strap color. Then a worker would look through his color book and mix and match colors and dyes until he matched the strap exactly and new what color to make the rings.

As a huge fan of Factory Girls, this section goes really well with that book (which, in a way, makes sense, as Leslie Chang and Hessler are married and wrote the books at the same time, in the same house.)

But throughout the book, it's the way Hessler connects with people and makes the reader connect with them, too. It's also the little insights into Chinese culture-- the role of smoking in Chinese business and what various brands of cigarette signal about the smoker (it also answered a question lingering from my 2007 trip to Beijing about why Panda brand cigarettes are so CRAZY EXPENSIVE. Turns out they were Deng Xiaoping's favorite brand and manufacture is very limited by the government.) How factory towns tend to specialize in a product and what towns specialized in what in the area of the bra ring factory. I marked so many passages and even though I got this book from the library, I will be purchasing my own copy when it comes out in paperback.

To read more, see:

Harper's Six Questions for Peter Hessler

Behind the Wheel, About to Snap (a look at the photos Hessler took during his trips)

Book Provided by... my local library

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