China expert Peter Hessler’s Country Driving is wild and crazy ride through a China in transition. Part travelogue, part memoir, Hessler begins by describing his trips from Beijing out west along the Great Wall (make that Great Walls, because it never was one wall, but the Europeans thought it was and kept referring it to as the Great Wall so in the end the Chinese figured, “just go with it.”) He drove beaters he rented from a chain smoker who’d just laugh whenever Hessler broke the company’s rules. Throughout part one he sprinkles the questions from the drivers’ test.
133. If you drive for four hours, you must stop the car and take a mandatory rest of at least
a) 10 minutes
b) 15 minutes
c) 20 minutes.
356. If you give somebody a ride and they realize he left something in your car, you should:
a) keep it for yourself
b) return it to the person or his place of work as quickly as possible
c) call him and offer to return it for a reward.
My favourite part of the book was part two when Hessler rented a small house in rural Sancha, two hours outside of Beijing. In time Hesssler becomes “Uncle Monster,” almost part of the Wei family. Here I learned so much about life in rural China. The Wei’s are a young couple and parents of the only child in the village (because most young villagers went off to seek their fortunes). Hessler gets involved with the Wei’s who rented him the home on behalf of their cousins. When their 5 year old son gets a rare blood condition and the family is given the brush off at a hospital in a city near the village, Hessler steps up to get better healthcare in Beijing. I was stunned by how uncaring and out of touch the healthcare professionals were. Hessler saw that the parents were getting 2nd class treatment because they looked like peasants. He then began asking questions on the parents’ behalf. He wanted to make sure the boy got clean blood, but the doctor he spoke with kept insisting there was no way to be sure the blood wasn’t contaminated with HIV or hepatitis. She didn’t believe there were tests for these diseases!
I also was particularly struck by Hessler’s description of teacher-parent conferences. All the parents sit in rows of chairs as the teacher describes each child’s behaviour and progress for all to hear. “Xiao Gao always wets his pants and starts fights with other boys.” “Xiao Wang is horrible in math and is lazy.” No privacy here. When the boy was publicly called out for not sitting still his parents beat him and teased him mercilessly.
In the last part of the book, Hessler goes south to see how a rural community changes with its first wave of manufacturing comes to town. He sees the change through a relationship he cultivates with men starting a factory that makes bra wings. I know more about these metal pieces on bra straps than I ever dreamed. I also learned that most of this manufacturing boom is lead by teams where the highest level of education for its leaders may be middle school, that most factories prefer to hire young girls with little experience or education as such girls cause the least amount of “trouble.” If you lie in a job interview, even if you provide a fake ID and misrepresent who you are, you are likely to be most valued because it’s assumed you “really want work.” As I read, I couldn’t stop thinking what a house of cards this whole boom is.