PETER Hessler is about to publish an article about the garbage collector in his neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt. The garbage collector is an illiterate young man whom Hessler had been observing and trying to understand for a while.
An Egyptian cleaner isn’t the usual subject for a Western journalist in the country, which has been undergoing transformational changes socially, economically and politically since the 2011 revolution. But it is a familiar angle for Hessler, one of the West’s best-known authors on modern China. He has used a similar perspective to reflect dramatic changes through the lives and stories of regular people in his widely acclaimed China trilogy.
He was among the first Western journalists who learned Mandarin well enough to interview Chinese farmers and workers without a translator. He also passed the Chinese driving test and drove more than 1,600 kilometers to many strange and intriguing encounters that would later be recorded in the best-selling “Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip” (2006). He has won loyal Chinese readers who have retraced his steps around the country since his books were first translated into Chinese and published in 2011.
In 1996, Hessler, then a Peace Corps volunteer, taught in Fulin, a river town in Chongqing in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River, a small place unknown to even most Chinese. At first, “the foreigner” was followed everywhere by crowds, even when just going for noodles. The experience was later recorded in “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze,” published in the US in 2001.
“Fulin is completely different the last time I went back to visit a few years ago, and I expect to see even more changes as I’m about to visit this time,” he told the Chinese press in Mandarin during his most recent visit to Shanghai.
“When I finished ‘River Town,’ no US publishers wanted to take it. Many told me it was a good book, but Americans were not interested in China, especially such a small place in China.
“In the past, most books about China were about the country’s politics, and not much about the everyday life and the changes everybody faced. That has been completely changed today, with many writers writing about various aspects of China.”
The journalist and writer has lived outside China since 2007, first in Colorado and then Cairo, partly to avoid “becoming too familiar with a place and hence too narrow.”
He came back for a short trip as his fourth book, “Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West” (2013), was translated and published here recently. The book includes a selected collection of Hessler’s essays between 2002 and 2012, mostly about China.
At first, he says he was worried about his Mandarin, especially since he has been learning Arabic for the past four years. It was fine. He finished all speeches, interviews and a Q&A session in Mandarin.
“Strange Stones” was one of Hessler’s first published stories about China, starting with the experience of a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who walked into a store selling oddly shaped stones. After walking by a shelf, some stones fall and the shopkeeper demands payment, claiming they are precious. They later learn it’s a fairly common scam.
The Chinese edition of the book added two essays about Egypt and four from “Oracles Bones: A Journey Through Time” (2006), a collection of portraits of Chinese people from migrant worker to oracle bone expert who had faced incredible challenges and changes in life. It was never published here.
“I still want to write in China,” he says. “I’ve learned the language, I’ve worked here for a long time and there are still many stories and opportunities in the country. We are likely to come back to China in the future, but just not yet.”