Peter Hessler - Oracle Bones
From the tiny photo on the back cover of "Oracle Bones", Peter Hassler looks like a friend of mine, A., when I was at the university.
One day, around 10 years ago, I met this fellow out of our "Media and communication" department and I told him that he should have tried doing some internship in order to get the 5 credits he missed before getting his degree.
I remember how he originally wanted to take part to some sort of seminar on semiotics or something and I insisted that it was a waste of time.
"Oh come on! - I told A. - Do something practical. Why don't you look for a radio, a magazine, a local tv having an internship programme through the department".
I was working for a radio in those days and started deserting most of the university lectures due to my reporting all over the town. I wanted my friends to enjoy something similar rather than got bored over useless theory.
A. listened carefully to me but didn't seem quite sure on taking my words for granted.
A few months later I met A. again at the headquarters of Romano Prodi, a former Italian PM who was campaigning again against Berlusconi. My friend was carrying a big camera and - just like me - had a press pass around his neck. "You see? I followed your tip - he told me - it's just that they needed cameramen rather than reporters but I took the opportunity nonetheless".
Six years later I do write some daily articles from the UK for an Italian newspaper, but get my living thanks to another job which is not related to journalism. My friend A. did so much better. He became the anchorman of prime time news on a regional channel, the host of a popular radio programme and delivered some features for a national television. And he happens to be quite good in what he does.
Things are rather unexpected sometimes.
Peter Hessler has a similar but far more successful story to tell.
He left the US and Missouri when he was still freshly-faced, freshly-graduated at Princeton and 20 something. At that time, young Hessler had only published an extended etnography work on a tiny place named Sikeston somewhere in the States and spent some time in Oxford, UK as an English literature student. As a journalist he was a nobody.
Then, comes the unexpected step. As the same Hessler in this book tells us, he joined the Peace Corps and went to China as a volunteer.
After some months spent teaching English and learning Mandarin in a small town along the shores of mighty river Yangtze in which he was one of the only two foreigners, (he wrote a book about that) Hessler came back to the US.
As in his homecountry, the still freshly-faced but far more experienced was not able to find the job he looked for, he returned to China.
And in all but friendly Bejing, Hessler had more luck than in the US. Working as a humble clipper "the last one they had" for the Wall Street Journal he got money enough for renting a room of his own, wandering around the Chinese capital and spending a lot of time chatting with people in cheap restaurants and cafes.
Sometimes he did some trekking in the countryside brought his own tent and slept outdoors. Sometimes he did some random translation job. Sometimes he looked for an interesting story to cover as a freelance: at first failing quite miserably in this last respect.
I am insisting so much on the author of "Oracle Bones" because this book has very much to do with Peter Hessler. He's all but shy in talking about himself, his successes and his failures, but never intrusive. He doesn't definitely show off.
Still it's from Hessler personal life in Bejing that I learned many interesting things on how China as a nation changed from 2000 onwards.
"Oracle Bones" is a fascinating reading on two levels: in telling how Hessler made it in becoming a famous freelance reporter and in showing many things that happened when PH was writing around, the people he met, the stories he jumped into, the troubles he had with the police and so on.
All tied up with the mail and paper correspondence Hessler kept with some of his former students who seem all very confident and at ease while writing to him about their adult lives. One starts to like and sympathize with these Chinese people who - unlucky choice - are all introduced with their English nicknames.
Albeit a few unfortunate stylistic choices, this is an author who has a great passion, respect and care for China in all of its aspects and is eager to talk Mandarin with common people rather than with politicians or entrepreneurs. Hessler poses many questions to himself and is considerate enough to investigate over Chinese history.
It's "artifacts" the recurrent term here (even too much). Hessler looks for artifacts wherever he goes from Manchuria to Taiwan passing through Sichuan and Nanking. It's artifacts that matter because they can always teach you something about the people who made them and about those who discovered or preserved them during difficult times such as the so called Cultural Revolution.
After reading "Oracle Bones" I can say I learned many things I didn't know about China and I do trust the author who told me about them here.
Unlike his wife Leslie T.Chang who was a bit clumsy in mixing up her point of view and family history with the personal stories of Chinese workers in "Factory Girls", Peter Hessler is very much at ease with the subject he chose and never loses the grip on its audience.
The fact that Hessler himself has now relocated (with formerly miss Chang) to Cairo and is currently becoming fluent in Arabic in order to report from the Middle East is just another unexpected step.
I wish I knew how to make it. Unfortunately, I'm hopeless with foreign languages.
Oh well, I will let Peter come first!