Town tells the story - sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often inspiring - of this contact between American teachers and Chinese students and residents in a
small city. The learning process went both ways: while Hessler was teaching
English and American literature, he was also studying Mandarin Chinese and
trying to understand his new home. He happened to arrive in Fuling just as the
nation's economic boom was gathering steam, and he saw how locals responded to
momentous national events: the death of Deng Xiaoping in early 1997, and the
return of Hong Kong to China later that year. But in Fuling the history that
mattered most occurred at the personal level: a farm boy feverishly learning
English with the hope of leaving the countryside forever; an entrepreneur with
a small family restaurant, dreaming of buying a car; a young woman deciding to
head off alone and seek her fortune in distant Shenzhen. These are the heroes
of River Town, and their stories are told against the backdrop of the two
rivers and a beautiful, ancient landscape.
Yangtze is peopled - it has been channeled, prodded, diverted, dammed; buoys
mark its shallows and boats of all sizes crest its polluted waters. It goes to
Shanghai. The Wu - clear, green, lightly travelled - comes from the mountains.
One river is all about origin; the other, destination: this is what defines the
difference in their personalities. The Yangtze in its size and majesty seems to
be going somewhere important, while the Wu in its narrow swiftness seems to
have come from someplace wild and mysterious; and the faint forms of its
distant hills suggest that the river will keep its secrets. You can fish all
day long and the Wu will give you nothing.