Chimerica: American author Peter Hessler on China vs. US life

Chimerica: American author Peter Hessler on China vs. US life

Peter Hessler talks about changing China, the growth of religion and considers who’s happier, Chinese or Americans
Peter Hessler
A true road warrior, Peter Hessler understands China one road trip at a time.

CNNGo caught up with American writer Peter Hessler to talk about his latest book “Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.” The work, the third in a series, discusses the country’s rapid urban migration and development through the eyes of regular Chinese.

We ask Hessler about the insights he gleaned through his reporting as well as his overall experience as a foreigner living in China for more than a decade, and how life here compares to that in the United States.

At this particular moment I think that Americans are struggling a little bit, psychologically, and as a result I feel like they might be less happier than Chinese people. The Chinese can roll with the punches. Americans really panic about this stuff.— Peter Hessler

CNNGo: How has your perspective on China changed since you began documenting the country in "River Town" more than a decade ago?

Peter Hessler:

I think my basic feeling about the country has been pretty stable since I finished my two years in Fuling. I’m generally optimistic about China, although I see a lot of major weaknesses -- the one-party system, the hidebound aspects of education -- that have yet to be resolved. I’ve always been impressed by the adaptability and resourcefulness of many Chinese people during this period. In Fuling, I sensed that people were improving their lives rapidly. But as time has passed it’s become even more clear to me, because now there are Chinese people I’ve known for a period of nearly fifteen years.

I did become more aware of the pressure that this puts on people, in a more personal and emotional way. People are undergoing so many transitions, and there is so much physical movement, and this is hard on communities and relationships. I’m much more aware of this now than I was when I lived in Fuling.

CNNGo: How did you get people in "Country Driving," such as Master Luo and Wei Ziqi, to open up and tell you their stories?

Peter Hessler:

It’s always an issue of time. As time passes, people get more comfortable with me, and they get a better sense of what I’m doing. Also, it really helps to watch them do their thing. People in China are not forthcoming like Americans; they don’t like to tell you their personal story. It’s a type of modesty, I think, in a culture where people are not encouraged to see themselves as the center of the universe. Americans are a different story, and it’s a lot easier to interview an American as a result.

CNNGo: In "Country Driving," villager Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to religion?

Peter Hessler:

I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao Chunmei turned to Buddhism -- because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way, especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of their fundamental material needs. 

Still, it’s very different from religion in America or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community.

CNNGo: Your book follows the lives of people who are leaving home and changing their lives in the pursuit of fame and success. Based on the people you’ve met, who are happier: Chinese people or American people?

Peter Hessler:

I see a lot of similarities between these countries. I feel like Chinese and Americans are basically optimistic -- it’s one of many qualities they share.

The Chinese relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where it’s clearly not in their self-interest.— Peter Hessler

They also tend to be informal and they have a similar sense of humor. It always struck me that in China my humor always translated pretty well, even when I spoke the language poorly. I’d tell a joke in Fuling and the people would get it. But when I lived in England people never got the jokes. To be honest, in many ways I felt more like a foreigner at Oxford than I did in Fuling.

At this particular moment I think that Americans are struggling a little bit, psychologically, and as a result I feel like they might be less happy than Chinese people. The Chinese can roll with the punches. When the economy dipped, they didn’t worry about it. Everybody in China has seen ups and downs; if they get laid off from the factory, they just go back to the village and play mah-jong. Americans really panic about this stuff. But then America has been a stable, wealthy, highly functioning society for a long time, so it’s natural that expectations are higher than they are in China.

CNNGo: What has been your most memorable faux pas during your time in China?

Peter Hessler:

There were a lot of them in Fuling, especially at the beginning. Adam and I did a unit on American democracy and showed the students our absentee ballots from the presidential election, and then we punched them out right there. That wasn’t a smart thing to do. We hadn’t been there very long and it pissed off the college officials, and there was a gloating element to it. It was important to talk to the students about the American system, but it shouldn’t have felt smug or confrontational.

CNNGo: In the villages you drive through, you describe people as very trusting, friendly and open. Do you think that will change as the country urbanizes?

Peter Hessler:

Definitely. Contemporary Chinese society is pretty hard. There’s a lot of competition and drive, and people can’t afford to be too nice to each other. I think it’s a necessary stage, but hopefully China can pass through it and achieve something a little more human.

CNNGo: Now that you’re living in Colorado, has it been hard to adjust to U.S. driving?

Peter Hessler:

Sometimes I’ve caught myself making a Chinese move, like the quick left turn on a green light. You know, it’s funny, but the thing that annoys me about U.S. driving is the constant monitoring. They change the speed limits all the time, and there are tons of highway cops, and you have to devote much of your attention to this stuff. It’s pointless and I’m sure it makes people worse drivers. So in some ways I found driving, at least long-distance driving, more relaxing in China. The cities are a mess, of course. But on the highways there wasn’t much traffic and there weren’t any cops, so I’d just relax and cruise.

The final Shanghai International Literary Festival event is with James Palmer on his biography "The Bloody White Baron", moderated by Paul French. Saturday, March 27 at 4pm, The Glamour Bar, 400-620-6006 (tickets), +86 21 6321 3599 (info), www.m-restaurantgroup.com
Schmitt is a Shanghai-based writer.
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