Peter Hessler details rapid changes in China



  • 'STRANGE STONES: DISPATCHES FROM EAST AND WEST' by Peter Hessler; Harper Perennial ($14.99)

Between 2001 and 2010, Peace Corps volunteer-turned-New Yorker writer Peter Hessler delivered three entertaining, richly detailed books on China told through his interactions with everyday people.

Hessler left China several years ago, moved to Colorado and now lives in Cairo, but his new book, "Strange Stones: Dispatches From East and West," is a compilation of ground-level short stories mostly about the Middle Kingdom. Fans of his New Yorker work will find most of these dispatches familiar, though quite a few are a delight to reread.

Some, like the opening piece on the rivalry among two restaurants in the town of Luogang specializing in rat - Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City - have a timeless quality, with Hessler deftly capturing in detail the quirky (and not infrequently disturbing) aspects of eating and doing business in China.

Other tales, such as one related to youngsters migrating to work in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen in the late 1990s, or another on the nation's preparations for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, or a third on Yao Ming's 2002 foray into the NBA and its ramifications in China, cannot help but feel dated.

But somehow, reading them with a few years of distance almost heightens our appreciation for just how much China, and its laobaixing, or ordinary men and women, have witnessed, built and endured over the last decade and a half. The economic boom has brought unprecedented prosperity - new roads, new public toilets, Olympic gold medals - and problems.

Hessler chose not to arrange his anecdotes chronologically, which may have robbed the compilation of a bit of its power to serve as a time-lapse documentary of China's transformation over the last 15 years.

But that is a minor quibble. More puzzling is Hessler's decision to include five (of 18) chapters set totally outside of China. The result can be more jarring than enlightening, like a greatest hits album interspersed with obscure B-sides thrown in on a whim. One U.S.-set piece that does nicely complement the rest of the work is the penultimate chapter, "Go West." This sees Hessler moving to a remote corner of Colorado, engaging with the locals and reflecting upon the differences between Chinese and Americans - and where he fits in between the cultures after so much time abroad.

Americans, he rediscovered, were more solitary yet more accomplished raconteurs, eager to share personal topics.

Compared with rural Chinese, who would pepper him with queries about the United States and the West, Americans were frequently more parochial, he found to his dismay.

"At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me," he says. "I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren't the same."

But, he added, "it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves and their communities. They weren't reflective - they preferred not to think hard about their own lives. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived."

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