THE CHINESE LANGUAGE has a way of transforming the familiar into the off-kilter. A location like Wyoming, for example, mutates into Wai Er Ming. The line between the uncommon and the mundane is easily breached when languages, cultures, and peoples collide. And it is these transgressions that tie together the wide-ranging chapters of Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, a collection of long-form reportage by China auteur and New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler.
In the preface, Hessler talks about his father’s graduate school teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, a Chinese immigrant called Peter Kong-ming, who had the “exile’s ability to make himself at home anywhere.” This is a skill that Hessler too has learned over the course of a peripatetic career. He has lived in 12 different homes in three countries between 2000 and 2012, the period of time over which the stories in the book were written.
Exiles are never completely at home, enabling them to benefit from a unique insider-outside perspective — one that Hessler demonstrates in his ability to always problematize the idea of the “normal.” Seen through his eyes, the mining towns of Colorado and the rat restaurants of Guangdong are equally strange in their quotidian norms.
Many of the pieces in the book are the literary equivalent of a still life. The action is subdued to the point of insignificance. But the stillness is revealing in its detail and texture. You meet characters at a crucial juncture in their lives: a young woman from Sichuan embarking on a career fraught with uncertainty in the manufacturing center of Shenzhen, in “Boomtown Girl”; a family in the process of evacuating their home as their village floods with water released by the Three Gorges dam, in “Underwater”; a group of rural volunteers for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games charged with blocking public access to the Great Wall of China, in “The Home Team.” But you do not learn what becomes of them. The outcomes are not the point.
By zooming in close to specific moments at particular times in his characters’ histories Hessler reveals more about the broader context in which they live than conventional news reporting on a subject like the Beijing Olympic Games or the environmental destruction wrought by big dams.
Some of the “strange stones” that Hessler introduces us to are people on the extreme edge of “normality.” In “Walking the Wall” we learn about David Spindler, a six-feet-seven-inch-tall American who has spent close to a decade of his life compulsively documenting the Great Wall of China, walking the structure hundreds upon hundreds of times, yet who is unwilling to publish a single word about his research for fear of it lacking comprehensiveness. And in the next chapter, “The Dirty Game,” we meet Rajeev Goyal, a Peace Corps volunteer who applies knowledge of local village politics gleaned in Nepal to launch a mind-bogglingly complex lobbying campaign in Washington, DC to increase funding for the Corps. But the book’s eccentrics are never cast as freaks. Instead, a universal humanity at their core shines through their obsessions and hubris, with Hessler deftly evoking the sympathetic along with the discomforting.
The main chapters in Strange Stones are all previously published pieces, though in some cases they have been reworked or updated for the volume. Yet there is pleasure and learning lurking within the pages, not only for those who are new to Hessler’s work, but even for those who have come across these stories before.
I am one of the latter. In fact, not only am I cognizant of some of the pieces, I actually “lived” one of them. In “Hutong Karma,” Hessler paints a portrait of life in Ju’er Hutong, an alleyway north of the Forbidden City where he lived for a number of years and where I too resided between 2002 and 2004. Like him, I had been woken on many mornings by the sound of itinerant vendors selling everything from beer to ventilator cleaning services. I had made friends with the members of the W.C. Julebu (club), a group that hung out in front of a swankily renovated public toilet at the head of the hutong. I’d had my bike fixed by Old Yang, the bicycle repairman, and bought cigarettes from Wang Zhaoxin, who ran the corner store opposite the toilet.
I remember discussing “Hutong Karma” a few days after it had appeared in The New Yorker with a fellow foreigner who lived in the neighborhood. She had been somewhat dismissive of the piece, implying that Hessler wasn’t much more than a lucky observer who happened to live in an environment that was so exotic to his readership that any description of it would elicit interest.
I understood where my friend was coming from. Hutong life is easily exoticized given how different its rhythms and routines are to the norms of life in the West. But Hessler is no peddler of the “exotic” East. To me, the story was profound. In his quiet, unobtrusive style Hessler had helped me see Old Yang, Wang Zhaoxin, and others from the W.C. Julebu gang in a deeper, more meaningful light — not just as endearing folksy characters, but as people whose “ordinary” stories fitted in with the larger “extraordinary” story of China’s dynamic and chaotic 21st-century ascent.
My only quibble with the book is its lopsided selection. The promised “Dispatches from East and West” are heavily weighted in favor of the East, and of China in particular. The United States, or rather Colorado, is reduced to the odd cameo, and a single chapter set in Japan pops up halfway through, making for a haphazardly curated selection.
But this is a minor irritant. In the chapter titled “Go West,” Hessler describes his return to the United States after having spent a decade and a half in China. He finds Americans to be great storytellers about their own lives and communities but lacking a curiosity in others. The Chinese one the other hand, he observes, had been deeply curious about others while displaying scant self-reflexivity. Luckily for the reader, Hessler combines the best of Chinese and American tendencies, blending a talent for listening with that of telling a first-rate yarn.
Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and novelist; Chateau Chongqing and Other Tales from a Europe in Crisis, will be published by Penguin in early 2014.