Author Peter Hessler talks on writing and teaching in China

Peter Hessler is no stranger to being a celebrity.

As a teacher in the small city of Fuling, China, in 1996, the former Peace Corps volunteer remembers when his trips to the market enticed crowds of 30 or 40 local residents.

Today, Hessler may no longer draw the same attention in the checkout line, but he has certainly earned a fine reputation in other arenas. Last Monday, the visiting author/journalist shared stories and read excerpts from his novel, Rivertown: Two Years on the Yangtze in his talk entitled “From the Peace Corps to the Press Corps in China.”

The lecture was co-sponsored by Asian Studies and the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Hessler first arrived in China in 1994 on a trip he took after graduate school. He had planned on staying for two weeks but ended up staying for six. He returned two years later, this time as one of 14 volunteers in the third Peace Corps China group.

Bearing a mere two months instruction in the Chinese language, Hessler taught English to students at Fuling Teachers College from 1996 to 1998. He and another volunteer were the first Americans to live in Fuling in over half a century.

Living in a vastly different environment opened Hessler’s eyes to the lives of Fuling’s residents, but it also altered his perception of others’ accounts of China.

“I felt like a lot of it wasn’t really what I saw there,” he said. “It was kind of frustrating.”

Now retired from the Peace Corps, Hessler is currently a correspondent for the New Yorker and National Geographic and has written for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

Empowered with what he learned in Fuling, Hessler often draws on his experiences in the Peace Corps to add familiarity to his writing and to assist his career as a journalist today.

“Obviously, it helped in the sense that I wrote a book about it,” Hessler said of his Peace Corps involvement. “But that’s not the important thing. The important thing is the way it teaches you to look at things in a certain light. It also teaches you a degree of patience, which is really a key quality for any journalist.

“I think that in some ways, the Peace Corps is simpler,” he said. “Now, you realize that you can become a voice of authority.”

Yet, Hessler sees many valuable aspects of this new journalistic role: “The thing I do like [about journalism] is that on the flip side, things are read, things have impact.”

Hessler’s responsibilities have shifted since his work with the Peace Corps, but his desire to stay connected to his former students and teachers has not changed over time. He keeps in contact with 130 students through regular e-mails.

“The thing I miss most about the Peace Corps is the community. I really work to stay in touch with my students and the people in Fuling and it’s important for me to be close with those people,” he said.

Part of that relationship involves staying alert to developments that could drastically affect Fuling.

For example, Hessler is concerned about the controversial Three Gorges Dam project that now threatens to flood parts of the city and other locations along the Yangtze. The cost of the project has been estimated at over $25 billion and the prolonged construction not only presents dangers to the surrounding environment, but could also force the resettlement of more than a million people.

“I think [the future of the project] is very hard to predict,” said Hessler. “I have deep reservations about that. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

He is primarily worried about the hazards of landslides should construction be allowed to proceed in unstable locations. With issues like the Three Gorges project, Hessler is presented with the difficult task of conveying the attitudes and concerns of China’s enormous population.

“It’s hard,” he said. “[Writing in] first person helps. I try to make it clear where stories are coming from, and some of the gaps you might have. . .Partly, it’s just about letting people know a bit of the machinery behind what you do as a writer.”

He is currently employing this strategy in writing a new book.

“The second [book] is more about looking at people’s relationship with history. Again, it’s very much focused on people and it’s less about me. I want people to know how these stories come around,” he said.

The lessons of two years in the Peace Corps gave Hessler an extraordinary education, but according to him, it isn’t necessary to travel halfway around the world to find true success in the journalistic field:

“Often the emphasis is on working your way through the field, what internship leads to what job and what kind of organization to work for,” he said. “So you end up with a lot of correspondents who know much more about their organization than they know about the country they’re reporting from. And I think that’s often really good for your career, but it’s not really what you want to be doing.”

“The main priority should be finding things that you want to write about and that you can get to know pretty well. That’s really what it comes down to. If you do that, then the rest of it will come.”