'Strange Stones': Exploring Peter Hessler's China From the Ground Up

The American author, now based in Cairo, leaves behind an extraordinary collection of books limning the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
motorbike.jpgThe American author Peter Hessler has written movingly on the subject of China's rural population (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Like other Americans, I draw a sharp line, linguistically and symbolically, between mice and rats. But one thing I learned during my first trip to China a quarter of a century ago was that the distinction between these two kinds of rodents, both typically called laoshu in Chinese, is fuzzier there. When posters went up in Shanghai to accompany a campaign to purge that metropolis of vermin, they showed Mickey Mouse with a spike through his heart. These images shocked me but local residents seemed to find them unremarkable.

Those Mickey-the-Rat posters came to mind for two reasons while reading New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler's Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, a wonderful collection of previously published pieces, which are issued here in revised and in some cases updated form, along with an engaging set of introductory comments by the prize-winning author. One reason I thought of Mickey Mouse -- Mi Laoshu in Chinese -- is that the book continually showcases Hessler's gift for telling tales of cultural difference and mutual misunderstanding in a way that is both humorous and deeply empathetic. In his hands, the story of the posters would be presented in a way that left readers unsure at the end as to whether they should find it more curious that such images appeared in China or that they would never show up in an American city.

One of the book's loveliest chapters, "Hutong Karma," an evocation of the changing rhythms of life in the Beijing alleyway district Hessler once called home, includes passages on a local McDonald's that shows just how adept the one-time Peace Corp volunteer can be at limning the meaning of American icons that take on unexpected meanings in China. At first, he writes, he was baffled by the uses to which his neighbors put a new outlet of the franchise. Over time, though, it struck him as completely natural that a place associated in America with quickly consumed meals became in Beijing one where you could expect to find people socializing and doing homework, often without buying anything. He soon took it in stride that there, you could "always, always, always find someone sleeping," and the way he describes his own shift in attitude subtly encourages those he is writing for to ponder the possibility that it is the Golden Arches near their Western homes, rather than his former Chinese one, that are put to exotic uses. This chapter prepares us for later ones, written about the United States after his return there from China, which subject the land of his birth to the kind of analysis we expect from an ethnographer reporting back from foreign setting.

The other reason the Shanghai posters came to mind is that laoshu appear at the beginning and end of Hessler's book. Following a brief introduction, the book's first chapter, "Wild Flavor," starts with one of the work's many strikingly memorable opening lines: "'Do you want a big rat or a small rat?' the waitress asked." After its final chapter comes an acknowledgements section that starts off with the statement that the origins of "Strange Stones" can be traced back to an email Hessler sent to John McPhee describing his experiences in a city known for its varied rat dishes, which his former teacher and mentor decided to forward to New Yorker editor David Remnick. Visitors to Disneyland are told to keep in mind that, for the theme park's creator, "It all started with a mouse." For Hessler, too, apparently, we also need to keep in mind the ways that a laoshu can make all the difference in a special career.

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