Friday, July 19, 2024

Writers dig into ways of China

| May 19, 2024 12:00 AM

A few months ago I rushed to check in at the airport and a guy’s babbling caught my ear. He animatedly talked with his companion as they exited baggage claim. He had the long white beard of a pioneer man descended from European immigrants.

He spoke flawless Mandarin. I felt a mix of jealousy and awe over his perfect tones, those quirks of pronunciation that give each Chinese word five different meanings.

It’s been a long time since I lived in China. Even then my tones remained hit-and-miss. I never asked anyone for a pen, for example, because if I got the tone wrong I’d be asking to borrow someone’s vagina. So, props to pioneer man.

Last month I vicariously revisited China when two writers came to town. First, Peter Hessler appeared at Flathead Valley Community College as part of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Dialogues. 

Among the first Peace Corps volunteers allowed in China, Hessler chronicled in the prize-winning “River Town” his time teaching at Fuling Teachers College, in a remote town along the Yangtze. “It was rural out the back door — water buffalo, terraced crops,” Hessler said as he talked about how he, at 5 foot 9 inches, towered over his students and saw chilblains for the first time.

He said his students “had almost no advantages but they were born at the right time.” Fast-forward 20 years and Hessler returned to teach in Chengdu and visit his former students. 

“It was striking how their financial situation changed,” he said. The kids whose English names were Youngsea and North now chauffeured Hessler around in a gold Mercedes and flaunted the fruits of hustle and opportunity. His current students, too, showed the benefits of better nutrition, improved living conditions and disposable income.

Although our countries are on opposite sides of the globe, Americans and Chinese have much in common. Both China and the U.S. are net importers of food. All of us have seen rising xenophobia as well as efforts to enforce political conformance and to curtail previously permissive reading and dressing. 

Individually, many of us share what Hessler calls an “informal, pragmatic” nature. He polled his students about the desirability of a multiparty political system. One demurred: “We already have one corrupt party; we don’t want more.”

With this “Generation Xi,” Hessler found that “history is always there but not in the way we expect.”

Nine days later, Tessa Hulls came to talk about her nearly 400-page nonfiction graphic novel, “Feeding Ghosts.” A dynamo of research and hands-on talent, Hulls had never written or drawn on such a scale before but she was obsessed with making sense of the lives of her grandmother and mother, who had left China behind.

“I taught myself this medium to do this book,” she said at her talk at Highline Design, organized by local standout author-illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.

Nine years later, her book pieces together family history, starting with her grandmother, a journalist whose mental breakdown under Mao tipped off a chain of events. “I use history as a sort of armor,” Hulls said while aiming at a future of new challenges, hungry ghosts satisfied.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at