Country Driving in China with Peter Hessler – Part 1/2

Most books that I’ve read of China cover its history up to Mao’s death and after 1949, it is difficult to trust almost anything one reads in the West or in China, since most of this work is either biased and/or propagandized in the West or propaganda in China since the mass media is owned by the State.

However, I’m glad that I read Peter Hessler’s memoir of China, Country Driving. Rarely does Hessler intrude with his own Western bias (if there is one), which appears to make a slight appearance near the end. I suspect that his editor at Harper Collins suggested that he add it to the story, and he complied, because the few opinions he expresses near the conclusion of his memoir do not match the experiences that he shares with his readers in the rest of the book. In fact, while reading the book, I grew to trust Hessler’s perspective of today’s China.

It is obvious that Hessler honestly loves/respects China and its people and this infatuation runs throughout the memoir. He also carefully or unintentionally avoids mention of what he thinks about his own culture, which made me wonder if there is a lot he doesn’t respect about his homeland.

Maybe the reason why he continues to return to China is because of this infatuation with a culture that values family more than most Americans do.  In fact, in the memoir’s acknowledgements, I discovered that Hessler was married to Leslie T. Chang, which even my wife—a Chinese immigrant to the US, whose first book, a memoir of growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year—didn’t know.

Leslie Chang discussing her novel “Factory Girls”

Hessler’s wife is the author of Factory Girls, which is also about today’s China. Chang is Chinese-American and a graduate of Harvard. She is also an accomplished journalist and was raised outside New York City by immigrant parents, who forced her to attend Saturday-morning Chinese school, which is so Chinese.

For example, our daughter speaks Mandarin fluently and she was born in Chicago and is a product of the US public schools but with an immigrant mother and an American step father (me), which may explain (in part) why she is completing her second year at Stanford currently majoring in biology instead of trying out for American Idol while waiting tables in a Hollywood coffee shop.

Both Peter and Leslie have published work that went on to be honored as New York Times Notable Books.

Anyway, back to Country Driving. Much of Hessler’s memoir was connected to projects he wrote at The New Yorker or National Geographic. The memoir is divided into three sections:  Book I, The Wall; Book II, The Village, and Book III, The Factory.

Throughout the book there is a common theme: the independence and individuality of most Chinese and the failure of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, which is there but often ignored by most of the people unless they can use the CCP to their own advantage.  That doesn’t mean the propaganda has no influence but the people seldom let it get in their way as they work to improve the quality of their lives.

In fact, it becomes clear in Hessler’s memoir that there are three Chinas: there is rural China, urban China and the Chinese Communist Party and many shades of gray among them.

Continued on May 29, 2012 in Country Driving in China with Peter Hessler – Part 2


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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12 Responses to Country Driving in China with Peter Hessler – Part 1/2

  1. […] for his books on China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001), Oracle Bones (2006), and Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (2010). His latest work is Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West […]

  2. […] reading Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving“, which is a great book that I plan to review when I finish it. However, his first chapter covers the months he spent driving the length of the […]

  3. merlin says:

    Nothing is quite written in stone, but I finally believe the date will be somewhere on the border of July/Aug. The job is summer temp. So either way it’s over at the end of summer. If I dont get out at the end of summer, then each day that passes will eat into the income set back for the plan. Also, going at the end of summer provides another opportunity. Most living situations want a year contract agreement. A little less than a year from my landing date, according to the plan, I should be in possession of a BA degree with a few days extra time on the lease to be used for job searching with the newly acquired legit (not fake) degree in hand while proudly wearing the Ashford Saints t-shirt. I didnt believe in distant planning before, but now it seems so easy to line the ducks in a row and with only 1 shot nail them all.

    Also, I forgot to mention in posts before, it’s not a good thing to make a Hollywood coffee shop sound so bad because a lot of the wealthy people live just down the road from Hollywood Blvd. I’ve heard stories of waiters/waitresses in F&Bs receiving nice tips capable of paying off a 4 yr college tuition at a state university. Although the likelihood of such an occurrence is slim.

    • Oh, I wasn’t trying to make it sounds as if a Hollywood coffee shop job was bad. What I meant was that many young people may not realize the odds against them that they will make the Hollywood dream become reality. The odds may be better to win a state lottery.

      As you pointed out, long distant over the Internet college degrees from reputable universities is easier than ever. My suggestion to Hollywood dreamers is that they have a backup plan and while waiting tables or tending bar to support the pursuit of their Hollywood dream; they should be also earning a reputable degree on-line that has good odds of leading to a better paying job and old age financial security just in case the Hollywood dream doesn’t materialize.

      Just because we can dream about a future that we want doesn’t mean it will happen just like that (snap).

      In most cases it takes a lot of determination and perseverance to stand a chance and might take years and decades.

      For example, Jessica Sanchez is sixteen and came in 2nd on American Idol Season 11 but she started singing at age two and never stopped. For her, the dream blossomed at a very young age when she became determined to move in that direction and keep working toward her goal. How many of us start working toward a future dream at that age.

      When I graduated from high school and went into the US Marines, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until my second year of college that I knew that I wanted to be a writer and started to work toward my dream goal and that dream didn’t materialize until 2008 with the success of my first novel and if it had not been successful, 2008 would not qualify. By success, I mean I set a goal to sell more than the average number of books the average author sells, which is more than 250 copies, which I sold the first year, and in 2012, it looks as if that first novel is going to sell beyond 10,000 copies and maybe more.

      Meanwhile, my back up plan meant becoming a classroom teacher to pay the bills and support the dream and from 1975 – 2005, I taught in the public schools while continuing to pursue my dream of becoming an author by writing on weekends and sometimes at three AM in the morning for a few hours before going to work. I never gave up my dream but at least I had a decent paying, secure job (a tough, difficult, challenging job at that) to provide a better quality life for me and my family, which is what I mean by a backup plan when the dream doesn’t materialize overnight as most don’t.

      While teaching, I earned an MFA in writing in addition to taking seven years of writing workshops out of the UCLA extension writing program in Westwood near the UCLA campus where I wrote more than one manuscript and my UCLA workshop professor found an agent for me but even then publishers said the topic I was writing about wasn’t selling well in the market so they weren’t interested even though the agent and editors said they enjoyed reading that manuscript. To attend those workshops once a week, I drove about 135 miles round trip to UCLA from where I lived in what Southern California calls the Inland Empire. This is the kind of sacrifice it takes to keep hammering away at a dream. Once one gives up, the dream evaporates.

      • merlin says:

        Reminds me of a kid I once knew. Great violinist, and had a dream to attend a prestigious college on the east coast. When he received the reject letter, he called police and jumped in the tub with an electrical device.

        Internet degrees are nice, even though my family says they are not popular in the job market. I particularly enjoy it because I only focus on 1 class at a time as opposed to 5 different classes in each semester. There is a lot of writing, but some teachers care less about the content than the formatting and references. There are no exams, just a 2 pg paper nearly every week and a 8-10 pg paper on the 5th (final) week. Books are great on Barnes and Noble as textbooks can be rented for 30 days for about 20 dollars.

        I agree that it takes a lot of determination to reach a goal. Not only that, but there are always alternative paths to a goal.

      • Back in the 1990s, a former student visited me. She’d graduated near the end of the 80s and went into the Army eventually serving in the first Persian Gulf War (August 1991 0 February 1991). She was trained to work with a Patriot missile battery during Operation Desert Storm. She told me that she was earning an engineering degree on-line from one of the California State Universities (I think it was Northridge but it might have been another one). The Army paid all of her costs and she said she would stay in the Army until she earned her Master’s degree. She said wherever she was stationed in the world, she could use her laptop and go Online to take her classes. It was advice I told my students that if they didn’t’ have the money to go to college, they could join the US military and the service would pay their tuition while serving their country.

        If a university degree is earned from a reputable, recognized university such as a state university, I don’t see why the private sector wouldn’t recognize that as equal to a student sitting in class. Many of these on-line classes have live virtual class time with instructors similar to sitting in class at a desk.

      • merlin says:

        I think the online university provides a great experience because it allows people to connect with others across the globe. We have discussion postings due each week and we need to reply to some students. The discussion posts allow for further discussion on a subject. In a normal classroom setting, everyone is from the same place with about the same thoughts/ideas, which makes for less discussion I believe. Especially when a student spends at least one semester with a teacher as opposed to the 5-wk period I’m on.

      • Merlin,

        You may not know this since I’m only advertising this hardcover give away on my novel’s Websites, you are now entered into a drawing. I’ve copied the details her (If you don’t want to be entered in the drawing, I’ll remove your name – You may see the ad here – ):

        The Concubine Saga” Web Tour – June 2012

        Leave an approved comment on one or more Blog posts found at Lloyd or iLook between May 30, 2012 and June 30, 2012 during “The Concubine Saga” Web Tour and automatically be entered into a drawing to win a limited edition, signed and numbered hard-cover copy of the novel. (NOTE: only one limited-edition, hard-cover copy is available to give away)

        Web Tour Schedule

        A few Blogs on the tour are giving away a paperback/kindle copy of the novel.

        See tour schedule.

        However, to enter for a chance to win one of those free copies, you must leave a comment or comments on those Blogs that offer giveaways.

  4. merlin says:

    I remember seeing Factory Girls in a bookstore. Always thought of picking it up, but never did.

    Hessler’s format of his book interests me. I’ve been planning recently to take my writing, and divide it into different books.

    • Merlin,

      I think you will enjoy reding Hessler’s third memoir. He wrote two earlier memoires of his time in China too.

      • merlin says:

        I’ll try to check out some of his work if I have any free time. Currently studying with Ashford over the internet, holding the pizza job, and training for another which I plan to take all the overtime I possibly can.

        In darkness I fell. The fire inside burned hotter in the descent waiting for this one moment of hope. Looking up, the light shining above seems so far away, but I believe I can make it.. I just have to be prepared once I’m out to not fall back in as I did last time.

        I’m debating skipping to Japan for a 2 day trip before taking a cruise across the Sea, or jumping to HK to replay my old Journey (but with a brain of course). As soon as I’m back on the horse, I calculated that this time I SHOULD have enough funds to successfully pull a rabbit out of a hat. If truth is told, around the time I get there I should also receive a kickback from a stipend. The map on the back of my hand is still visible as well as the exact address where a friend lives a cakewalk away from a subway exit. I dont plan on taking a lot of extra baggage as a backpack will suffice for a laptop and a few pairs of clothes.

      • It sounds like you have been bitten by the wonderlust bug.

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