Carol Scott reviews Peter Hessler's Country Driving

Executive and world traveler Carol Scott (Ethiopia 1966-68) spent many years working and living in Southeast Asia. Her corporate experience in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Burma, Indonesia, and Vietnam, as well as visits to China, have brought her into contact with the Chinese diaspora in the business community. Here Carol reviews Peter Hessler’s newest — Country Driving.


Country Driving A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
by Peter Hessler (China
448 pages
February 2010 448pp $27.99

Reviewed by Carol Scott (Ethiopia 1966–68)

COUNTRY DRIVING IS A VIEW OF CHINA through the windshields of a couple of cars rented from a couple of wacky car rental agencies, driven on new roads that have accelerated the movement of workers from country farms to the new economic zones. Auto accoutrements, like hitchhikers, the hilarious Chinese driving test, road building, statues of policemen along the highways, flat tires and speeding tickets tie together this look at modern China, hurtling at breakneck speed into  its new economy.

Country Driving has three distinct sections: The Wall, The Village and The Factory. The first takes you along the path of the Great Wall, which is actually an unconnected line of small walls built in different dynasties to keep out different invaders, chief among them, Genghis Khan. The odyssey is told through the lives of ordinary people: young hairstylists hitching their way back to work after a weekend with grandpa, tarty looking shop girls and factory workers, all of whom are strangely open to Hessler’s quiet inquisitiveness. The richness comes with the lengthier encounters, like the amateur historian Old Chen who knows more about the Great Wall than any schooled historian, or the tipsy tour guide at the Genghis Khan museum who longs for an independent Inner Mongolia as she sidles along a bench to get closer to Hessler.

Hessler and a friend rented a house in Sancha, a village within driving distance of Beijing in order to get a quiet place to work. In the years he stayed there, he developed an involved and caring relationship with a young family. Tracking the young father’s entrepreneurial spirit as it plays against communism’s tight hold on village life, how his wife graduates to slaving over a steaming stove at their restaurant while he pursues other avenues to success, and how  his son marches through the first years of schooling give a warmth to Hessler’s writing.

Hessler is first and foremost a reporter. One imagines him taking copious notes while interviewing locals and slurping soup at a crowded table in a roadside restaurant. He passes along his observations and relationships without drawing many conclusions. He doesn’t tell you what he thinks the shop girl is thinking; he just tells you what she  said and did. This makes his writing refreshingly judgement-free, if a bit detached.

In the village, though, the temperature rises when the young village boy, to whom he’s developed a fatherly affection, gets a disease that goes undiagnosed for so long that his life is in danger. Armed with advice from U.S. medical friends, Hessler uses the inherent power of a Chinese-speaking expatriate to intercede and second-guess local doctors in a frenzied effort to save the boy. At a point of utmost frustration with the implacable system, he escapes home to dinner alone, and writes that he felt so helpless he could hardly breathe. After hundreds of pages of cool observation, it’s hard to imagine Peter Hessler breathless, but when it happens, there’s more of an intimate connection, a clue to the level of his involvement with other  characters.

Hessler chooses an upstart factory making bra rings — those tiny circles that allow the straps to be adjusted — to tell the story of life in the new economic zones, the third and final section of the book. The government has built the roads and infrastructure to make the zones workable, and the towns spring up fast, attracting workers and the businesses to support them. It seems, though, that the free market system has been interpreted as a free for all — it’s absolute bedlam, every man for himself! In the rush to a modern economy, family life and village culture fly out the window. Children are sent  to faraway factories and progress is measured by the brand of  cigarettes you choose to share with your friends, whether you get your  home refurbished with linoleum on the floor instead of dirt, and paint  on the walls instead of newspaper. A car and a driver’s license, not necessarily in that order, come next. Hessler humor is dry and understated. He leads you to the laughter cliff, but there’s never a punch line. After the millisecond it takes to get it, you happily jump into the abyss. He became a Peace Corps Volunteer because he was a writer who wanted to go to China. It’s likely that experience has added to his ability to tell a story by relating the small encounters, the minor details of a life that add to its richness or desolation. His earlier book, rivertown-100Rivertown, is arguably one of the best Peace Corps memoirs around.

In March he was at the Asia Society to talk about this latest book. His presentation was thorough, contextual and funny, just like the book. He said he and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls, having spent a decade or more in China, and now a couple of years in Colorado, were going to move to another part of the world next. I hope they move to some obtuse Middle Eastern country so he can bring to us an open-minded look at another place the rest of the world doesn’t see clearly.

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