During Christmas of 2009 Andrew and Christine (edit) had a good feeling we would be headed for China and gifted us a book called Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. We didn’t have a chance to read the book before coming to China, but brought it because it was highly recommended by everyone and The New York Times. I started the book during our first week in Jinan, but got too caught up in teacher training and jet lag to read more than a chapter.

I mostly forgot about the book until another teacher mentioned that he had just finished Hessler’s first book, River Town, and that I should definitely read it. As soon as I opened this novel I fell in love. In 1996 Hessler had joined the Peace Corps to teach English at a University in Fuling, China, and despite the geographic distance, so many of his stories were identical to David and my experiences in Tangshan. We were treated like celebrities, taught students with hilarious English names and were interested in completely immersing ourselves in Chinese culture. It felt good to know that for many years lao-wais had been experiencing the same trials and triumphs in China, and it was comforting to hear an intelligent foreign perspective on the whole experience.

After reading River Town I picked up Oracle Bones again, but again stopped halfway through to move to Beijing. And again, Hessler was right along side us in his own migration to the “big city.” He also finished teaching and moved to Beijing to pursue a new career; although at that point his Chinese was vastly superior to ours and he published a lot higher quality written work. (But hey, we still have another year to catch up, right?) It didn’t seem like Hessler’s difficulties with obtaining a visa quite matched mine, but they were certainly there, and I even coincidentally found myself eating in the same restaurant he frequented in the Russian district of Beijing. (Hollywood in Yabaolu, if you were wondering.) I read about his visits back to Chinatown in Washington DC, a few short blocks from where I worked prior to coming to Beijing, and I have even taken an “oracle bones” class at The Hutong, the history of which is much-discussed in his novel.

So, when I saw that Peter Hessler would be visiting the Bookworm Literary Festival in March, I instantly reserved two spaces at his talk. Although I hadn’t read his newest book, Country Driving, I knew I would just love the chance to meet the guy whose footsteps we somewhat followed. The presentation about his book was interesting and I thought he spoke a lot like he writes, often dense and information-packed with moments of * but hilarious humor. Overall, an excellent story-teller. The most funny anecdote of his talk had to be how the Chinese government adapted the image on the Chinese version of his novel (the first of the three to be openly available in both languages) to look “more like China,” by enhancing his photo of a grey and dusty roadside to an image with bright blue skies and trees in full bloom. Through this presentation I also learned that Hessler would soon be traveling to the Middle East with his family to begin a new adventure and to study Arabic, which, as you may remember, is the other language I have always mentioned in conjunction with Chinese as vitally important in understanding today’s world.

After the event I was nearly devastated to hear that Hessler wasn’t signing books or staying to chat, but had to leave immediately. So, I dropped off my book to pick up later and headed home. Fortunately for me, some young Chinese attendees didn’t take no for an answer, and I found Hessler standing outside being coerced into a far too detailed conversation than the situation warranted. After some coercing on David’s part I got over my fear of ignoring his polite requests and asked for a quick photo. We quickly told him our story about moving from Tangshan to Beijing, and the story was complete. Now I just have to read his next book. China road trip anyone?!

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