Country-Moving: The Many Journeys of Peter Hessler
Welcome to the 'Rhodes Scholars & China' interview series, where our Chinese Scholars interview Scholar alumni with work or life ties to China, including leaders in academia, journalism, business, medicine, law, and many more fields. In this second post in the series, Ryan Yan (China & Brasenose 2020) and Xiaorui Zhou (China & Pembroke 2020) interview Peter Hessler (Missouri & Mansfield 1992). Read the first post in the series, 'Researching China: An Interview with Michael Szonyi'.
Peter Hessler (何伟, Hé Wěi) is a writer of narrative nonfiction and the author of five celebrated books. In 1996, he joined the Peace Corps, which sent him to Fuling, a small city in southwestern China. For two years, he taught English and American literature at Fuling Teachers College, an experience that eventually became the subject of his first book, River Town (2001). This book was followed by two others about China: Oracle Bones (2006), and Country Driving (2010). Together they comprise Hessler’s 'China trilogy', covering the decade in which he lived in the country, from 1996 until 2007. From 2011 to 2016, he moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he covered the Egyptian Arab Spring and post-Tahrir Egypt. He wrote about this experience in The Buried (2019). Since 2000, Hessler has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, and he is also a contributing writer at National Geographic. River Town won the Kiriyama Prize, in 2001, and Oracle Bones was a finalist for the National Book Award, in 2006. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. Beginning in 2011, three of Hessler’s books were published in editions for mainland China, translated by Li Xueshun, a former colleague from Fuling Teachers College. River Town and Country Driving became bestsellers, winning multiple awards in China. His books have been translated into fourteen languages. Read Peter Hessler's full biography here and more of Peter Hessler's work in The New Yorker.
Read the Chinese version of this interview, translated by Ryan Yan and Xiaorui Zhou. For more Chinese-language content, follow Rhodes China on WeChat (ID: RhodesChina) and Weibo.
Ryan Yan (RY): In your book Strange Stones (奇石, Qi Shi), you said that the adjective Qi (奇) could also be translated as 'marvelous' or 'rare'. This semantic ambiguity reminds us of how the ambiguity of words resemble the ambiguity of life. Sometimes we have to posit ourselves dangerously in a state of strangeness or foreignness in order to get rid of our common viewing habits, and to appreciate the marvels of life and of human beings. On the other hand, the Chinese character Yi (异) could be translated into 'foreignness' or 'differences'. You've lived in many countries, and you're familiar with the psychological state of being a foreigner in a foreign land, so I'll ask questions in this regard. My first question is about your experiences as a Rhodes Scholar. We would like to know more about your experiences reading a second BA in English Literature at Oxford, and some of the most memorable things you did while there.
Peter Hessler (PH): It's been 25 years or so since I was there, and it was, when I look back, such a different phase in my life. That was the first time I had the experience of living as a foreigner. I grew up in a fairly small place in mid-Missouri, and I didn’t even have a passport in high school and college. I didn't speak any other languages. But I had this strong feeling as an undergraduate in the United States that I wanted to go overseas, and when I was a senior, I only had two ideas for how to do this. One was to apply for the Peace Corps, which I did, and the other was to apply to go to Oxford. I was actually on track to go to Africa in the Peace Corps, and then I got this scholarship to go to Oxford, so it put me to a different direction.
Because I was a little naive and I hadn't travelled much, I thought Oxford wouldn't be a very difficult transition. I had already studied English language at Princeton University. But I was very unprepared about how foreign the culture was, or how foreign I felt. In some ways I felt my time at Oxford was partly a failure, because I wasn't resourceful enough about getting integrated into the community. In my last year, I did a tutoring project at a high school near where I lived, and that was one of the things that I actually enjoyed the most. In retrospect, I should have done more things like that, to find a way to be connected, because I think it's somewhat a difficult place to feel part of local life. British culture is somewhat formal. In some ways, oddly enough, it was more of a challenge than to integrate in China. Chinese culture of course is very difficult—the language and everything—but there is an informal element to Chinese culture that reminds me a little bit of America. People were pretty patient. They would laugh off mistakes. In Oxford I didn't always feel that way, but a lot of it was my own fault. It was a good lesson, and it prepared me for the transitions I made later in life.
My course at Oxford was English Language and Literature, and it was a very different era in the sense that a lot of Rhodes Scholars still did the second BA. For me it was a very good course, because I wasn't focused enough to be ready for a graduate degree. This way, I did experience the traditional Oxford undergraduate education, where you have a tutor, and you're preparing for your exams. I learnt a lot from it and appreciate a lot from that experience. I was at Mansfield College, but I didn't live in central Oxford. I was always in the outskirts, which in some ways I felt disappointed by. But Mansfield had excellent English tutors, and I did have very good support from them academically, and I became close to a couple of them, so academically it was a great experience.
Partway through the course, I realised that I was probably not going to do what I had thought I would maybe do eventually, which was to become a professor in English literature. So I was a little bit directionless; I was trying to figure it out. I knew I wanted to write in some ways, but writing is a difficult career, because how you become a writer is very open. In some ways it's great because there's a lot of freedom, but it's also intimidating, especially when you're in your twenties. And I felt a lot of angst about that in Oxford, a lot of uncertainty. But I did feel fortunate in my tutors and in my course.
It's funny, because I thought I was done with English literature and I was up to something new in life, and of course, what I ended up doing not long after that was teaching English literature to Chinese students in a small town in interior China. That education at Oxford was actually incredibly valuable at that time, because in the 1990s in China you couldn't go on the internet and get your materials, and a lot of what I was doing depended on my memory from what I had studied at Oxford. In America people don't do exams for literature anymore, but the Oxford exam system forced me to address all of these periods in a one-week set of exams, and it really stayed in my head. So, I was able to guide my students in Fuling without great materials.
Rhodes Scholars, Class of 1992. Third row, second from left is Peter Hessler.
RY: I noticed that you left for China in 1996, two years after earning your degree at Oxford. Were there any particular experiences that contributed to this decision?
PH: It's funny how my path from Oxford to China happened. When I was in college, China was somewhat at a distance. I didn't feel connected to it. I had no interest at all in Asia—it was just too far away for me as an undergraduate. But when I was at Oxford I travelled a lot in Europe, and I had this idea of exploring the world. When I was finishing, I didn't have any idea what I was going to do next. So I thought, 'Well, instead of flying back to the United States, how about I go home through the East and make a long trip out of it?' So, instead of taking the plane ticket back to the United States—the Rhodes Trust offered you cash at that time—I took that and just started travelling by land, with a friend from my Oxford college. We flew to Prague in the Czech Republic, and from there we bought train tickets and bus tickets and slowly worked our way toward Russia. And then we took the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing, which takes six days. The only reason that I went to China is because there was that train. I wanted the experience of taking such a long train ride, and I thought that after finishing I'd go to Southeast Asia. China was just the place at the end of that train.
But when I showed up in Beijing, in August of 1994, something about the place caught my imagination. There was a tangible energy there, which really contrasted with Russia. Russia in 1994 felt like it wasn't going anywhere: it was hard to get things done, it was hard to get meals in restaurants ... It felt a little depressing, to be honest. And when we got to China, even though I spoke no Chinese at all, I could get things done. You could communicate with people. They were trying to figure things out; they were trying to understand me; if I wanted something, they'll try to find a way to provide it—of course for a price, but still, there was this tangible energy. I ended up travelling in China for six months.
While I was there, I was collecting materials for my stories, and I ended up writing stories about that journey that I published in newspapers in the United States. By the time I came back to America after six months of travel, I had decided that I wanted to reapply to the Peace Corps, but this time I wanted to go somewhere in Asia. I looked, and the Peace Corps had started a new program in China, so I said, 'That's where I want to go'. That's how it happened—it was very much by chance. It wasn't a long-term plan.
Back then, not that many Americans saw China as a place where you could build a career, or learn something useful, or have a unique job or a unique life. I didn't think, 'Professionally, this is the smartest thing I can do'. It was more that something about this place felt engaging—I always wanted to study a language, and I thought that it would be a valuable experience to be in a place where I would be so different from everybody. Oxford, of course, is a quite diverse community, but still, I'm white and it's the majority in England. To me it seemed like a good experience to go to a place where I was going to stand out, where I had to make a big adjustment and transition to a very difficult language.
Peter Hessler talking on the street in Fuling, China, in 1998
RY: You wrote in Strange Stones that the Peace Corps is actually a kind of reverse educational experience . It‘s a bunch of Americans going to different places and changing their minds, and this mind-changing experience might have helped shape America today.
 'Sometimes I thought of the Peace Corps as a reverse refugee organization, displacing all of us lost Midwesterners, and it was probably the only government entity that taught Americans to abandon key national characteristics. Pride, ambition, impatience, the instinct to control, the desire to accumulate, the missionary impulse—all of it slipped away'. (Excerpt from: Peter Hessler. 'Strange Stones'. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West. HarperCollins, 2013.)
PH: I always saw it as an exchange. The Peace Corps—it depends on how you approach it—sometimes you can see it in missionary terms: you're bringing American culture to the developing world. To be honest, most volunteers really don't see it that way, and they usually don't behave like that. I was very lucky; I was in a great group of volunteers, and we saw it as an exchange. I felt like I did have some skills and perspectives that were useful for people in Fuling, where I was posted, but I also felt that those people had a lot to offer me. There were things I wanted to gain from the experience, just as there were things that I wanted to contribute to the society. To me, it was that I could learn from them, and they could learn from me. That was the perspective almost everybody that was in the Peace Corps had. So it kind of sets you up on a different footing. The other thing that was very fortunate is that most of us had not thought that much about China, or studied Chinese formally, or Chinese history, so our minds were quite open, we did not have a lot of preconceptions. For me, China was Fuling, the small town I was sent to; that was my focus. It wasn't so much on the big picture. I was trying to figure out my life there, my students and my colleagues—the people I became friends with in town.
Peter Hessler on the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, interviewing the Huangs, a fishing family, for a New Yorker story, July 2003
Xiaorui Zhou (XZ): Part two is about the character qi (奇). Going back again to your book Strange Stones, you described your encounter at a Strange Stones (奇石) store in Hebei Province. You explained how China appears as a strange stone to you, because everyone may interpret the stone the way they see it. We know that the Chinese character for strange, qi (奇), signifies not only something weird and strange, but also something magical and rare. In this section, we’ll be asking about your qiyu (奇遇), strange encounters, qijing (奇境), strange places, and qiren (奇人), strange people. What is your strangest experience in your career so far, be it weird, rare, or marvellous?
PH: The whole experience of coming to China and having it become a big part of my life was unexpected and somewhat marvellous, and there are all kinds of strange connections to my past. For example, my maternal grandfather grew up in Arkansas. As a young boy, his family didn't have money and he was sent to a Catholic monastery to be educated. Eventually, he won a scholarship to go to Rome, where he was studying to become a priest and his dream was to go to China as a missionary—this was in the 1930s. It ended up he didn't decide to become a priest, partly because they refused to send him to China. I never knew about this when he was alive—I learned about it from reading his diaries from the 1930s. That China connection was weird because I didn't grow up being aware of this, but it was a dream of his. Also, my father's advisor, when he was in graduate school, was a Chinese man named Peter Kong-ming New–this was his English name. He had grown up in Shanghai, and he was a very dynamic, very good sociologist and a great teacher—really, you know, a laoshi (老师, teacher) in the Chinese sense—his students were very connected to him and they still are thirty-five years after his death. I was named partly after him, but I didn't grow up thinking, I'm going to go to China (laughs). But after China became part of my life, I look back at these things, and there's something marvellous about that.
XZ: My second question is about the kind of countries that you've lived in. You work with surprising overlaps between cultures, reporting from the Wild West in the United States, along the Nile in Egypt, and from different parts of China, rural and urban. We're really curious about your observations of these different places. You lived in Cairo, Egypt from 2011 to 2019 before you moved back to China. How did you find Cairo? If a comparison has to be made, how would you compare China and Egypt?
PH: Cairo was great. It’s a bit of a crazy place, but it's also one of these places that has real energy to it. There's an incredible sense of history, of course, and the history there is very tangible because there's a lot of old buildings and old structures. I mean, the Egyptians have a great sense of humour. They're very gregarious and outgoing. They love to talk, they love to joke. So we really loved living there. It's a great place, actually, for small children. My daughters were very closely connected to it, and they were really upset when we left. Egypt was the whole world to them and it was a difficult departure for them. One of the reasons that we had decided to go there is we felt like after China, we wanted to have a kind of 'third country' as Americans who had lived in China. We were a little bit concerned that we'd be too focused on just these two places, and we thought it would be nice to have a different experience.
I like living in places with a strong sense of history, and that was something I really liked in China. Egypt appealed for that reason. Egypt and China certainly share this deep connection to the past. They, with the United States, also share an incredibly strong sense of identity. The United States, of course, is different in the sense of history; that aspect is not like Egypt or China. But the sense of identity is really powerful in these three places. People are very patriotic. There's generally a strong sense of unity and identity. Traditionally, Zhongguo (中国), the Chinese name for China, is this idea that you're at the centre of the world. In Egypt they use umm al-dunya ( أم الدنيا), which means 'the mother of the world', that the world comes out of here. That's a very powerful feeling, and you feel that in both places.
Peter Hessler reporting at an archaeological dig in Upper Egypt
The Chinese editions of Peter Hessler’s River Town, Country Driving, and Strange Stones, published by Shanghai Translation Publishing House
XZ: You were based in China at a very critical period during its economic take-off, but you were also away from China at a critical juncture. Can you tell us more about some of the changes you see in the younger generations now compared to then?
PH: I was a teacher from 1996 to 1998, then a writer in Beijing until 2007, and I came back to teach in 2019. That's 21 years—it's really a generation. Most of my students in the 1990s grew up with siblings and big families in rural China, but they went to work and live in the cities, and nearly all of them had only one child. Almost all of my students today have grown up in the cities, and almost all of them are only children. My students that I taught in those days had known poverty. Most of the students I teach now are very much middle class. They're not driven by poverty the way that my students were in the 1990s, but they're still very driven by something else, which is competitiveness. When I look back, my students from Fuling didn't talk about the gaokao (高考) much. I teach freshmen now, and that experience is so intense in their mind—so much of their life was focused on it.
I think the one-child policy probably has some influence on that competitiveness, because all of the resources go to that kid. The Western view of single children is that they're going to be really spoiled, coddled, and soft. I don't really think it works out that way. I'm sort of shocked, still, at how hard people work here. I'm writing now about the epidemic and about how that's been handled. The amount of work that goes into this is crazy. There still is this capacity for chiku (吃苦, ‘eating bitterness‘, to endure difficult circumstances) which has not disappeared. I've been very impressed with my students, and it's been a great experience to meet young people again and connect with them.
XZ: Speaking of the Chinese youth, you became a selector on the Rhodes Scholarship for China's final selection committee in 2019. How was the selection process for you?
PH: It's the first time I'd ever done it. I have not been on a committee or really thought about it very much, because I always was overseas in places where they weren't selecting Rhodes Scholars, and so it was a new experience for me. It was very intense, very fascinating. I think it's obviously really hard in China and I hope that they can expand the number of scholarships, which I think they're trying to do. I would like to see more geographic diversity. Part of the problem in China is that you have so much focus on a small number of key universities, and it's really hard to get around that. I see that with little kids who're like, 'I'm going to go to Beida (Peking University) or Tsinghua (University)'. People in America don't do that. In some ways, maybe people in America should think a little more about education, but in America, you can say, 'I really like the small liberal arts college experience'. Some other people say, 'This program is at a state university that's really well supported, there are great professors, and that's what I want to do'. And they'll have a great education there.
I have my students have debates about the gaokao and Chinese education because it's something they like to talk about, and they often say, 'We need to have a broader sense of what you can do to find your path'. In some ways, in China, it still is too much of a funnel that's pointing people at a certain small number of institutions. And as the Rhodes Trust, I think it would be good to be engaged in that and try to expand a bit so that we're also looking at other universities that aren't just in a narrow part of the east, especially in a country that is as ethnically diverse as China.
Peter Hessler (centre) speaking with finalists at the social engagement dinner of the 2019 final selection for the Rhodes Scholarships for China
RY: The Rhodes Scholarship application requires you to think deliberately about your personal choices. How can we encourage students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and geographical regions to apply and make life choices that might seem riskier, even though they have to go into the gaokao system?
PH: It's a hard question to answer. I've only been here for less than a year now and the year is so disjointed because of this epidemic, so it's hard for me to feel totally comfortable analysing the university system. Obviously, there needs to be outreach. I've been having some incredible students here at Sichuan University. The course is well-known, and a lot of students have applied. I've had some really first-rate writers in my journalism class and people that are really good at observing and reporting, so there's a lot of talent.
The idea of risks is a big one, and it's a problem. For college students right now, it seems like almost everyone goes to graduate school. You go straight to graduate school because it's easier, and the government encourages it. That's a structural issue, and it's really a shame, I feel like it would be great for people to just, say, teach for two years in some small area, to have a little sense of adventure, right? And to try to contribute something to society.
Apart from China, as a Rhodes Scholar, I always thought this was an issue, too. Sometimes, when you're at these elite universities in the US, it becomes harder to take a risk. I was lucky in a way because I didn't grow up in an elite family. I was in Missouri. My father was a professor of sociology and my mother taught history. They are very well-educated, but they are not ambitious and they are not competitive at all. They never said 'you gotta go to Princeton' or something. I just stumbled into this path in a way, and they never cared about money or prestige—that was not important to them, and in some ways that was very liberating.
For example, I left Oxford and made the decision to join the Peace Corps to go to Fuling, some place in China that I never heard of, that nobody ever heard of, to teach for two years, making $120 a month. There were not many people who I knew from Princeton or Oxford who wanted to do that. The weird thing is that it turned out to be probably the best professional decision I ever made. That wasn't what I was thinking about then. I was thinking about my personal growth, about having an interesting life, and a useful life. And sometimes those are the best things to really think about when you are a young person.
XZ: The Rhodes Scholarship prides itself in 'fighting the world’s fight', while your work often documents the extraordinary lives of mostly ordinary people in many different cultures from a micro angle. How do you envision achieving structural changes with your work from the position of a writer?
PH: You know, it's funny, I was never a very political person. I guess I work a lot at the individual level as a researcher and teacher, but I've never been involved in trying to develop policy. I feel like that's for other people to do, and maybe my skills lie elsewhere. I feel, sometimes, a little guilty about that because I don't necessarily have the overarching vision. I do believe in education, I believe in cultural exchange, and I believe in contact between countries like the United States and China. I think that by living here, by writing about China, by teaching people here, and by talking to people in the United States, I can contribute something along those lines.
Ryan Yan (China & Brasenose 2020) graduated with a BSc in Applied Psychology from Nanjing University, where she did research on a neural marker for affective disturbances. She also investigated the interplay of sleep and emotion at Stanford University. Outside of academics, Ryan loves literature and cares about equality. She is now studying for a MSc in Clinical and Therapeutic Neuroscience at Oxford.
Xiaorui Zhou (China & Pembroke 2020) graduated with Highest Honours in History from the NUS-Sciences Po Dual BA Programme. Her thesis, 'Homebound Women', received the Wong Lin Ken Memorial Medal for best thesis. Xiaorui is now reading an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford.
Edited by Yan Chen (China & St John's 2019) and supported by other members of the 2020 Rhodes China Publicity Team: Yuhan Li (China & Magdalen 2018), Naying Ren (China & Linacre 2016), and Jackson Zhao (China & Green Templeton 2019).