Peter Hessler, the American writer of bestselling Oracle Bones and River Town, has singlehandedly ruined my China life. I’ve never actually seen Peter Hessler in China, but I live everyday in his footsteps.
I’ve always had an adversarial jealously of Hessler, seeing as how he’s achieved the fame and success as a China writer with Princeton connections that I’d take in a moment. I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything.
Living in China in the shadow of Peter Hessler is a bit like what a real-life Harry Potter would feel toward J.K. Rowling if Potter were an aspiring novelist and he one day discovered someone had beaten him to the punch—and made a tidy sum in the process. I suspect that nearly every Princeton in Asia fellow has a tinge of jealousy-based grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.
To understand how Hessler has stolen my thunder, it’s necessary to understand one of the most essential benefits of choosing to live in China. That is you get to wrap yourself in the plush, velvety illusion that you’re the first one to experience all of the crazy aspects of China life.
One of the greatest consolations of frequenting squatty potties and buses that drive blindly around mountain corners is that it makes a great story. As much as I know that other Americans have been here and done this, I succumb to the sweet-scented myth just like any other.
Yet my sister’s recent visit to China forced me to shed this self-glorifying myth, and I have only Hessler to blame. In the weeks leading up to my sister’s landing in Beijing, I started a mental store of all of the great China stories I could pretend to be reminded of when we saw sights in the capital.
I had it all worked out in my mind, as I biked to and from my ancient Chinese classes day after day. I’d wait until we saw a sign reminding citizens to beware of pickpockets, and I would pretend to be reminded of the time I caught a thief with his hand in my pocket at a noodle stall in Guilin.
“Did I tell you about the time…” I’d start of innocently, indicating my innocence by adding a high pitch to my voice.
My sister, in turn, would be amazed with both the depth and excitement of my experience, as well as my modesty in thinking of the stories as nothing special.
“Maybe you should write a book,” she’d say.
“Aww, for these little things?” I’d say, checking off another of the stories I’d put on my mental playlist.
In reality, my sister’s response was: “Oh, yeah. I read that in Peter Hessler.” This exact sentence came out of my sister’s mouth so many times in response to my stories that she soon dropped the expression of surprise and then the subject of the sentence. “Read that in Peter Hessler.” After another couple days, the same information was contained in a monotone “Peter Hessler.”
“Did I tell you about the time that a thief broke into my hotel room?”
“Oh yeah, I read that in Peter Hessler.”
“Have I shown you my home in one of Beijing’s poorest, most culturally vibrant hutongs?”
“Read that in Peter Hessler.”
“Did I tell you about the time I was picked up by the police?”
Thanks to my arch-nemesis, my China adventure stories quickly became no more interesting than reciting the plots of famous movies.
In the end, I shouldn’t blame Hessler for being an engaging writer, for being an enterprising journalist, nor for being in the right place at the right time, when interest in China started to take off. Then again, if I can’t live in the beautiful illusion of being the number one China explorer, at least I should be able to revel in my jealousy of the person who did it first.