How Peter Hessler ruined my life in China

By THOMAS TALHELM (China Daily)
2010-03-17 11:06
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Peter Hessler singlehandedly ruined my life in China.

I've never seen Hessler, author of the bestsellers Oracle Bones and River Town, but I eke out a bitter existence every day in his footsteps.

The trauma started when my sister landed in Beijing. Until then, everything had been great. Better than great, her visit would let me cash in on the most essential benefit of living in China - regaling audiences with China adventure stories.

How Peter Hessler ruined my life in China

The greatest consolation of straddling squatty potties and riding country buses that pass blindly around mountain corners is that it makes a great story. Best of all, you get to wrap yourself in the velvety illusion that you're the first to do it. Though my logical side knows other foreigners have been here and done that, I succumb to the sweet-scented myth like everyone else.

For weeks before her visit, I biked through Beijing's cold winter streets to my ancient Chinese classes every day. My mind was ablaze, cataloguing all the great China stories I could pretend to be reminded of when we saw sights in the capital.

I had it all worked out. I'd wait until we saw the sign at the West Train Station reminding passengers to beware of pickpockets, then I'd mention that I caught a thief with his hand in my pocket at a noodle stall in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

"Did I tell you about the time " I'd start off innocently as we entered the turnstiles at the station.

My sister, in turn, would gasp in awe at the danger of my exploits. As we reclined onto our sleeper bunks, she'd praise my modesty, marveling at how I somehow thought my stories were "nothing special".

"Maybe you should write a book," she'd say. "Aww - for these little things?" I'd say, checking off another story from my mental play list.

But in reality, my sister's visit forced me to shed my self-glorifying myth. And I have only Hessler to blame.

That fateful day, I met her in the Capital Airport and started right into my first story. But she cut me off: "Oh yeah, I read that in Peter Hessler."

How Peter Hessler ruined my life in China

As we walked from the subway to my home, I tried again. "Have you heard about my home in one of Beijing's poorest, most culturally vibrant hutong?"

"Read that in Peter Hessler, too."

I knew my plan was in trouble when we checked into a hotel, but I tried again. "Did I tell you about the time a thief broke into my hotel room?"

"Peter Hessler."

I panicked and scrounged up my most sensational story. "Well what about the time the police kicked me out of town?"

"Hessler."

Thanks to my arch-nemesis, my China adventure stories made me as tedious as someone reciting the plots of famous movies. I doubt I'm alone. I suspect that every foreigner-turned-China hand has at least a little grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.

I've spent the better part of my China life scouring Hessler's writings to find faults to justify my rivalry, but I'm still empty-handed. It took my sister's visit for me to realize I was only mad because Hessler made me realize I'm not Marco Polo.

But I shouldn't blame Hessler for being an engaging writer and enterprising journalist.