I never read Peter Hessler. Mainly because, having myself spent a year as an English teacher in Wuhan 1998-1999, I lived my own version of River Town. Secondly, everyone else had read him and recommended him and talked about him so I figured why bother. But then a copy of River Town came into my possession and, having finished–and thoroughly enjoyed–Michael Meyer’s new book In Manchuria, I figured the time was right. I’m glad I did. It left me groping wistfully for my own memories of early China days and the people of my China past.
Wuhan in 1998 was a different beast than Fuling of 1996. There were a lot more foreigners for one thing. At my university, the South Central University of the Nationalities (Zhongnan Minzu Xueyuan), there were 3 or 4 foreign teachers and a handful of foreign students, mainly Japanese.
I didn’t see much of the foreign students–they are a club unto themselves anywhere in the world–but the foreign teachers all lived in the same building and even though they were well older than me and had wildly different reasons for being there, we saw each other regularly simply by default.
There was Barbara, an Aussie on sabbatical from her teaching job down under. There was Richard, a not-so-undercover Catholic missionary from St. Louis via 20 years in Taiwan. There was Henk, an old Dutch priest with a wonderful medieval beard and watery blue eyes. And then there was me, 24 years old, ecstatic not to be working a real job, feeling like a rock star. In fact, the first time I entered a classroom at the university, the students spontaneously got up and started clapping. In response I made them all call me Professor Lee, correctly sensing this was my best chance to adorn myself with such an honorific.
Hessler’s depiction of his students–their strange names and odd habits–jives perfectly with my experience. How a few of them emerged from the mural of faces in the classroom to fill out real personalities. How observant and critical they were about every little thing I did or said. Hessler’s basketball fiasco? I had one too. When I first got there I played on the English department team and eventually had to drop out because things got too heated on the court. The department banquets with the baijiu-till-you-puke drinking? Check. Drinking local beers on the banks of the Yangtze because you’ve got nothing better to do? Check. The stares and shouts and crowds of locals? Check. Favorite local noodle shop across from the university? Check check check.
But Wuhan is big city, a provincial capital and a treaty port from way back. As such it was always a little ahead of the curve as far as the interior provinces go. Across the street from my university was a textile institute full of students studying fashion design. Adjacent to it was an institute of law and politics. And then a bit further away on East Lake was Wuhan University, which is well regarded in China both for academics and sakura trees. These places all had foreign teachers and plenty of foreign students. When all the commotion and strangeness of my river town became too much, I took refuge within the fledgling foreign community. There were bars and even a couple nightclubs. In fact most of my strongest memories of that time are of the foreigners I met and knew, like this guy.
But when I read Hessler, it wasn’t the foreigners which came to mind, but the Chinese–names I hadn’t uttered in years, faces which are still somehow lodged in the creases of memory. There was Nile, a short pudgy girl from Jingzhou, with her round face and round eyes and slow, soft way of speaking. I taught her the word “poop” and every time I saw her I asked her to say it and she would and I would burst out laughing and she did too after watching me because she wasn’t entirely sure why it was so funny.
There was Kern and his girlfriend Liu Qing which I always thought was Niu Qing because Kern’s Chinese wasn’t much better than his English. He was a class monitor and chainsmoked nasty cigarettes which had turned his voice into crunching gravel. He constantly had some kind of scheme up his sleeve. He taught me to play a four-person Chinese card game called Tractor and gamble. He was always smiling which scrunched up his entire face and gave him a perpetual squint.
They had a friend named Dai Lei who was a political science major. Kern was always trying to hook me up with her. He clearly imagined us as neighbors someday with my halfie kid playing with his chainsmoking hoodlum kid. She would come over randomly and try to spend the night in my apartment, but I always kicked her out. I had a secret crush on a girl named Angel who always wore black, like a Cure fan from the 1980′s, including a strip of black lace pulled tightly around her neck. She was a terrible student–one of the worst–but that hardly mattered. Once I invited her for a walk around campus after evening class, but nothing ever happened.
There was Bazula, a Uighur whom I ate lunch with a lot. Her English was excellent and the conversations were interesting. As a Uighur earmarked by the state for collaborator status, she had a lot to say. Eventually we had a falling out, over what I cannot recall.
Mr. He was the Chinese teacher. He seemed to teach Chinese to all the foreigners and often hung out with the foreign teachers, often because it seemed like he had no other place to go. He seemed embarrassed about this for unclear reasons.
There were also a few non-university Chinese. Sun Anping who worked as a cadre in the Hubei Finance Ministry. I knew his wife back in Washington, DC–she also worked at the NIH–and basically he was the one who hooked me up with the job. He also introduced me to the Liao family, who were rich. The father was an industrialist. His wife was an intellectual. They had a teenage son who was unbelievably awkward.
The Liaos would pick me up on the weekends in their car, drive me all around, feed me the best food Wuhan had to offer, and buy me gifts including, once, a cat. I was never quite clear what the relationship was between Anping and the Liaos, but it was clear why they treated me so generously–I was to speak English to the boy as sort of a living breathing flesh-wrapped foreign dictionary.
I am still in touch with Anping and the Liaos and their now-grown-and-married son. A couple years back, I went to the kid’s birthday party in Beijing which consisted of karaoke in Fuchengmen and a lot of wild promises to be best friends forever. He’s on my Wechat, so it may actually happen.
I don’t know what happened to the rest of them, but after reading Hessler I wanted to find out. Fortunately I have one of those Yahoo email addresses from way back in the day that I never completely abandoned. I crawled the archive and found various emails from them. There’s one from Dai Lei who wrote to tell me that Kern and Liu Qing would be married and move to someplace called Pinhu City, not far from Shanghai. There’s a few over the years from Nile who subsequently moved to Beijing to work for a German company. In fact I saw her in Beijing right after I finished grad school and had taken up at the Film Academy but it was a terrible time for me–one of my worst in China–and I must have really acted like a dick because all correspondence ceased thereafter.
I wrote to all of those email addresses–all digital dead ends, casualties of 163 and then QQ. I tried Renren and Kaixin Wang, but I never knew the characters of their Chinese names and none of the queries I tried yielded anything. They’ve quietly slipped over the event horizon.
And it’s not just them. Over the years there have been plenty of other Chinese people with whom I’ve shared time and life and laughs. Lilia Cai, whom Victor introduced me to in Guangzhou and who spoke the best English I’ve ever heard from a Chinese person who’d never been abroad. Jennifer Xu and Sharon and Lucy from Snowball Consulting which occupied the office above mine on Shaanxi Nanlu, my first job in Shanghai. Then of course there’s Mosquito, the legendary filmmaker from Wenzhou and the reason why I ended up at the Beijing Film Academy in the first place. Samantha, the girl from Shaoxing, who later grew up to be a beautiful woman in Hangzhou.
I still have contact information for some of them. Most not. Regardless, I haven’t kept in touch with any of them as well as I should have. I don’t know what decisions they’ve made. I don’t know if they have kids or pets or hobbies. I don’t know what they think of what has happened to China and the world. All I have are assumptions.
In the end, reading Hessler reminds me that it is Chinese people which make the China experience. It’s a trite observation, but underappreciated. Especially when you are closing in on the end of your second decade in China.
They are the real wealth of a long China life.