Recent Posts

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Peter Hessler, Elephant Spotter Extraordinaire

Time to nominate some heroes of elephant-spotting: people who have traveled to distant points, had adventures, and done a remarkable job of reporting these adventures to the folks back home.

First up: journalist and author Peter Hessler, for these four reasons:

1) Hessler has paid his dues, having spent a decade and a half overseas, in England and China. His decision to see the elephant was hardly a given as he spent his early childhood in Columbia, Missouri. Still, he came to the East Coast for his education and carried on from there--first to England (on a Rhodes Scholarship) and then to China.

He initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in a small city on the Yangtze River. (Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of the Sichuan province for 50 years.)

After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.

2) Hessler also earns major elephant points for taking an unplanned trip around the world while still a graduate student in the UK. He started in Prague and continued by land and boat all the way to Thailand, via Russia and China. After returning from that trip, he applied for a travel grant to take a long hike across Switzerland, spending two months camping and hiking in the mountains, from the French border to the Italian border. Not bad for a side adventure!

3) While living in China, Hessler told his fair share of Blind Men's Tales--attempts to make the rest of us understand things from non-Western perspectives. Particularly courageous was his article for the Atlantic Monthly, written just over ten years ago, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," where he tried to explain why China cares so much about Tibet. Unsurprisingly, the article came in for heavy criticism in the United States. Americans, it seems, don't care to know the deeper historical reasons for the problems in Tibet.

4) After a decade and a half of living abroad, Hessler took the momentous decision to move back to the United States. He came back in 2006, settling with his wife, the Chinese American journalist and author Leslie Chang, in Ridgway, Colorado. He has chronicled their homecoming adventures in an article, "Go West," for the "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker (April 19, 2010). As the article points out, by the time the couple returned to their native land, Hessler had never held an American job, owned an American home, or even rented an American apartment.

What made Hessler spend such a large chunk of his life seeing the elephant--or perhaps in China's case "dragon" would be a more apt metaphor? And how has he found it adjusting back to life in his native land? The latter question will be the topic of my next an upcoming post.

UPDATE: I found an audio interview with Hessler (and with Evan Osnos, who writes the NYer's Letter from China) on the NYer site: "Back from Beijing" (mp3, 15 min).

Question: Are there any other long-term expats you think deserve "hero" status for their extraordinary feats of elephant-spotting?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your salute to Peter Hessler! He is one of the best writers on China today. Emphatic, original thinker, good reporter and he writes beautifully. Besides "River Town" I highly recommend his book "Oracle Bones."

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if she qualifies as an elephant, but I want to give a shout-out to an extraordinary woman:
Yoshiko Yamaguchi/Li Xiang Lan/Shirley Yamaguchi. Born in Manchuria to Japanese parents (though there are rumors that she has some Russian blood) she had a movie/singing career in occupied China posing as a Chinese. At war's end the Chinese arrested her and charged her with treason, but charges were dropped when it was discovered that she was Japanese. Went on to a career in Japan and a few B-movies in Hollywood (her talent never properly recognized there), and later became a Japanese member of parliament. If interested, read Ian Buruma's wonderful fictionalized account of her life, "China Lover." Find her on Youtube in Chinese, Japanese, and as Shirley Yamaguchi in the movie "Bamboo House." Here she is singing in Chinese:

Anonymous said...

Here is Yamaguchi in "Bamboo House" with some of her songs in Chinese and Japanese dubbed over the color footage:

ML Awanohara said...

I've just now watched her on YouTube, and I agree she is the most amazing chameleon--which I guess you had to be to survive those troubled times. I mean, she was even in Japanese politics at one point (served in the Upper House), though I understand she was elected because she was a talento-jin (celebrity).

Why did Ian Buruma write a **fictional** account of her life: did she refuse to give him access? And I believe she is still alive? Would love to hear her tell her story...

Post a Comment