New Yorker Staff Writer and Best-Selling Author Peter Hessler (China 96-98) says, ‘You Can’t Beat the Peace Corps’

For an investment in American foreign policy, you can’t beat the Peace Corps.  Volunteers give their host communities a positive impression of America, and they tend to stay connected after their service is finished.  This is especially true nowadays, when improved phone and Internet services make the post-Peace Corps relationship very different from what it was in the past.  Twelve years after finishing my service in China, I’m still in contact with over one hundred of my former students.  I hear from one of them almost every day on email.  They are teachers now, mostly in rural China, and their continued contact with an American informs their perspective.  There may be anti-America rhetoric in some parts of China, but you don’t hear it in those classrooms in Sichuan province.

Those of us who volunteered in China also continue to take an interest in the country, both personally and professionally.  The majority of the people I served with have become teachers in the United States, where they are able to give their students an unusually personal and accurate introduction to China.  Others work for NGOs, educational exchange programs, and the State Department.  A large number of Peace Corps volunteers have become successful journalists in China, working for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Newsweek, and Cox News Service.  During the past five years, former China volunteers have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Magazine Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and two Overseas Press Club Prizes.  The Peace Corps China program was started in 1993, initially at a very small scale (ten to fifteen volunteers per year), and already four books have been published by former volunteers, another book is coming out shortly, and one more is under contract.  This means that since 1993, former Peace Corps China volunteers have produced more books than the China bureaus of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, and Newsweek combined.  When it comes to giving American readers an introduction to China, the Peace Corps has arguably been more successful than many of our most respected media institutions.

I was fortunate to attend Princeton and Oxford universities, but the most important part of my education was the two years I spent in the Peace Corps.  I learned to teach and communicate with people very different from myself, and I learned Chinese — but the most important lesson was one of perspective.  I saw the world differently, and that viewpoint has informed everything I’ve written since.  This is true of many former volunteers in many walks of life:  teachers, organizers, diplomats.  It’s a shame that in a country with such an active foreign policy, relatively little attention and support has been given to the Peace Corps.

Peter Hessler (China 1996-98).  Currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and a contributing writer at National Geographic Magazine.