I love books like this. Written with love for stories, and build on stories upon stories. And it makes you reflect on your own life too. While I was reading this, I thought: Wow, Hessler lived in China in such an amazing time, from 1995 to 2006 (when this book was published). There were no smartphones yet, let alone WeChat, and the country was still developing insanely fast, a process that has now slowed down. People, especially twenty-somethings, were still discovering their place in the world, or more specifically; in China.
And it’s easy to envy Hessler. But then I thought about how such big changes only become clear after a decade or two. And it reminded me to appreciate living in China now. Like Hessler, I’m also meeting lots of Chinese people, and because like Hessler, I can talk Chinese now, I can also get to know the stories they hold.
The book isn’t contemporary, and yet Hessler’s China is also my China, with its ‘jiade’ and ‘chai nar’, leaving your hometown, and money before babies. Hessler is a great noticer, sensitive to people and what they say, how they say it, and connect that to bigger themes. He is also a long-form journalist, and sometimes this gets in the way. Too much reporting and facts packed together, and the parallel of archeology and especially Chen Mengjia or Polat never really ends anywhere.
But still, this is a book that is great not just if you’re interested in China, but humans in general.