I made the mistake this morning of reading the closing three pages of Peter Hessler’s River Town on a public bus, No. 115, to be precise. I was on my way to work, having in recent weeks finally gathered the courage to take on Beijing’s bus system.
The bus had just passed the Pacific Century mall as I started the final section of the chapter titled “Upstream.” I felt the emotion mounting as Hessler described his farewell to Fuling after having lived and taught there for two years. Like a video camera, Hessler pans across the faces of those who’ve gathered to see him off, his students and colleagues, and each name brings back the memories of their stories, some of them unbearably poignant.
I was doing okay until I got to his description of his students standing in the rain and crying as he boards the boat leaving them, probably forever.
It’s odd enough to see a white man on the 115 bus. But seeing one standing there and being so obviously moved with feeling is probably somewhat less common. Like the students Hessler was describing, I tried to hold back the emotions and keep an even expression. I succeeded, but it wasn’t easy. And I had to put the book down and finish the last two paragraphs after the trip.
As I read the simple sentence that touched the nerve – “Most of them were crying as they stared out at the river” – I looked away from the book, determined to think about something else so I wouldn’t look ridiculous. It was then I saw that, impossibly, the bus had turned onto Tuanjiehu Lu, the street I lived on when I first came to China in 2002. It’s the one spot in all of China that still evokes painful memories and wistful whispers of, “If only….” I remembered saying my own goodbyes to China and those I loved here on that very spot. The coincidence was too much.
I put the book down and looked stern and serious. Maybe nobody on the bus noticed how moved I was (I am good at some things, but hiding emotion has never been one of them).
I had got to the final chapters of River Town weeks ago. I had been holding off finishing it because I didn’t want it to end. I kept it by my bed and read only one or two pages a night as I neared the final chapter. Some things you just want to savor.
Maybe when I get back into blogging mode, which doesn’t seem to be anytime soon, I’ll do a full write-up. In the meantime, if you haven’t read it, now’s the time. I don’t believe you can possibly live in China and read this book without feeling a fundamental shift, a deeper appreciation of everything you see, a greater sadness at some of the nonsense and a more powerful love and appreciation of the people and all they’ve gone through and the miracle that they are where they are today. Hypnotic, merciless, unforgettable, and sublime.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.