Writer Manil Suri
Hes just published his first novel The Death of Vishn. The book follows the lives of the many inhabitants of a Bombay apartment building—including Vishnu, the homeless man who lives in the buildings stairwell. Based on the writers childhood in Bombay, the book has met praise from critics for its inclusion of Hindu mythology and cinema. When not writing, Mr Suri is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Maryland.
Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2001
DATE February 5, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Manil Suri talks about his career as a mathematician
and about his new novel, "The Death of Vishnu"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new novel "The Death of Vishnu" asks many questions about what is human
and what is divine and why some people have faith in God and others cannot.
The novel is set in a Bombay apartment building inhabited by Hindu families
and one Muslim family. A homeless man named Vishnu lives on the landing of
the stairs. The review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review described
"The Death of Vishnu" as a `beguiling and deceptively ambitious novel.' An
excerpt of the novel was published in The New Yorker. It's the first novel by
my guest, Manil Suri. He was born in Bombay in 1959, and grew up there in an
apartment building very similar to the one in his novel. He came to the US to
study at the age of 20. He's a professor of mathematics at the University of
Let's start with a reading from the opening of "The Death of Vishnu."
Mr. MANIL SURI (Author, "The Death of Vishnu"): `Not wanting to arouse
Vishnu, in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third
step above the landing on which he lived, tea kettle in hand. Vishnu laid
sprawled on the stone, his figure aligned with a curve of the stairs. The
laces of a pair of sneakers twined around the fingers of one hand; the other
lay outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step. During the
night, Mrs. Asrani noticed the distress. Vishnu had not only thrown up, but
also soiled himself. She had warned her neighbor, Mrs. Pathak, not to feed
Vishnu when he was so sick, but did that woman ever listen? She tried not to
look at the large stain, spreading through the worn material of Vishnu's khaki
pants, the ones that her husband had given him last Divali. What a mess. The
jamadarni would have to be brought in to clean up such a mess, and it would
not be free, either. Someone would have to pay. Her large frame heaving
against the sari in which it was swaddled, Mrs. Asrani peered at Vishnu
from the safety of the third step and vowed it would not be her.'
GROSS: That's Manil Suri reading from his new novel, "The Death of Vishnu."
Would you describe the character of Vishnu, who's living on the landing of the
staircase in this apartment building.
Mr. SURI: Yeah, Vishnu was a real person, I should say in the beginning. He
was someone who was a fixture of my childhood. He would always be on the
stairs. He lived on this landing between the ground and the first floor. And
he would always say `Salaam' to me. He would often be drunk. He would run
errands for people in the building and they couldn't pay him too much because
he would just spend it on drinks.
GROSS: Now is this kind of typical in apartment buildings in Bombay where you
grew up, that someone would be living in the landing of the staircase?
Mr. SURI: Yes, it was. Space is at such a premium in Bombay that every
little scrap of space is important. Someone like Vishnu would be better off
than someone truly on the street, where the monsoons would rain down upon
GROSS: So and was it also typical that they would do odd jobs in return for
living on that staircase?
Mr. SURI: It was more like they did the jobs for the inhabitants and were
paid for that. And what happened was that there was this symbiosis between
them because the people lived on the stairs, and as a result people, robbers,
could not come up and rob the apartments. And, of course, they preformed
errands for the inhabitants as well, and in return they got shelter and
sometimes food and money.
GROSS: Now your book is, in part, about the death of this character. How did
the real Vishnu die?
Mr. SURI: Well, I went back home in '94, and Vishnu was very sick. And he
was on the steps and I remember someone left a cup of tea for him, and that
was untouched. And I was actually not well that time--I had chickenpox--and
my mother started giving me reports about his condition. And it only took
about two days or something and she was telling me that the police just came
and took his body away.
GROSS: Now the main character in your novel is named Vishnu, and that's the
same name as the god Vishnu. What is he the god of?
Mr. SURI: He's the god of preservation. Vishnu is the caretaker of the
universe. And it was very interesting, when I started this, I started it as a
short story, and I wrote the first chapter and didn't really even think that
there's a similarity between Vishnu the caretaker of the building and Vishnu
the preserver of the universe. And someone pointed out to me, `Wait a second,
you can't write a story, have your main character named Vishnu and not say
anything about the god Vishnu.' I didn't know that much about Hindu
mythology. I didn't know that much--I hadn't read the Bhagavad Gita, so I
started looking at these things and trying to see if there were any dramatic
possibilities in them which could somehow be woven into the story.
GROSS: Now you were brought up Hindu, even though you thought of yourself as
an agnostic. Were your parents religious?
Mr. SURI: My father is a very religious Hindu. He actually makes sure that
he goes to a church and a mosque and everything to cover all bases. My mother
is actually a Sikh. I was brought up Hindu, and then I forget if I was 14
or 15 or 16 or older, but I decided I had to rebel somehow, so religion was
one way that I did it, and I just said, `I'm going to become an atheist.'
And then perhaps the mathematician in me said, `Well, that's not quite fair.
Maybe that's too harsh. So let's be an agnostic.' That tempers things a
little. And that's how I came to writing this novel. At that stage I was an
agnostic, and reading these text was initially a purely intellectual exercise.
GROSS: And it became something else?
Mr. SURI: It did, I think. I just feel that my life has changed in many
ways. Just the kinds of goals that one tries to aspire towards and the ideals
that one has, they have changed.
Mr. SURI: Well, I'll give you one example. Before reading the Bhagavad
Gita, I was very obsessed with getting published. I'd tried for many years,
and the only thing I had to show for what was one very short thing called "A
Tyranny of Vegetables(ph)," and that, too, was in Bulgarian. It wasn't even
in English. And I couldn't show it to anyone. I didn't even know the name of
the journal it was in, because I couldn't read it. It was in Cyrillic.
So after that, after reading this, I just sort of said, `Well, wait a second.
I've been sending things out and I've got 50 or 60 rejection letters. Let me
just work on this, which is very enjoyable--work on this novel and try to
finish it and not worry about what happens afterwards.'
GROSS: Now the cliche would be that the math part of your personality is the
very rational part and the writer part of your personality is the more
intuitive, dreamy part. Would that just be a cliche, or is there any truth to
Mr. SURI: I think in math, too, you have to let your mind sort of wander.
When I am trying to prove a theorem, for instance, I really have to let go and
just let my mind float around and try to maybe even rifle through all the
theorems or all the results that I have experienced--I've seen. And it's
almost by fluke that sometimes you happen to come upon the right thing. And
that process is similar in writing, where you just let your mind wander again
and try to come up with characters or situations or ways to resolve different
GROSS: Now you're doing that kind of high-level math that most people who
aren't mathematicians don't really understand. Can you tell us something that
will give us an insight into the kind of math that you do?
Mr. SURI: Oh, I'd be happy to fill the rest of the hour with that, if you'd
like. I keep threatening people in the publishing business that I'm going to
give them a lecture complete with slides and everything, and no one's taken me
up on my offer yet. But the kind of math that I do is very applied. I work
with engineers. Engineers, especially in mechanical engineering or structural
analysis, often come up with very complicated sets of equations which they
need to solve to make sure that the components they're designing are strong
enough to withstand stresses.
And what my field does is it looks at the methods of approximating these
equations that these engineers come up with, abstracts them and analyzes them
to see if they do work, if they do work in all possible settings, and gives
them some reassurance or validation that their methods are accurate, or if
they're not accurate what kinds of errors they can get. It's called numerical
GROSS: Now is it a relief, in a way, to work in literature where like the
worst thing that can go wrong is that it's dull, but there isn't going to be
like a building that collapses?
Mr. SURI: Well, mathematicians like to claim that everything revolves around
them, that if some disaster occurs, it's due to the mathematician. But it's
usually the engineer who has to shoulder that responsibility. So there is
quite a bit of freedom in the abstractions that mathematicians play with. So
that wasn't so much of the relief. The relief was that you have much fewer
constraints in fiction. You can really take your characters anywhere, pretty
much. I mean, you can define them to be anything. In mathematics, since I do
applied mathematics, I do have to look at the physical problem and obey the
laws of physics and I'm constrained in that way.
There is a branch mathematics called pure mathematics where, again, people
start with some assumptions and then just build a theory based on that.
GROSS: OK. Well, that's enough about the math, isn't it?
Mr. SURI: Oh, I don't think so.
GROSS: My guest is Manil Suri. His new novel is called "The Death of
Vishnu." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Manil Suri, and he's a
mathematician and writer. His first novel has just been published to
excellent reviews. It's called "The Death of Vishnu."
Now one of the characters in your novel bases her romantic fantasies on Indian
movies. Your father worked for Indian movies, or maybe still does. What kind
of work does he do, or did he do?
Mr. SURI: Well, he's retired now, but he was an assistant to a music
director. The Indian movies I'm talking about are called Bollywood films or
Masala films. Masala is the mixture of spices you find in Indian food, and
these movies are also a mixture of various plot elements. There's always six
or seven or eight, or now even 14 songs and dances. There's fights and there
is a villain and there's comedy and there's a lot of romance. And there has
to be at least some tragedy, so that you can pull out your handkerchief.
GROSS: And it's all pretty broad.
Mr. SURI: It's broad, but it's also, in some ways, reassuringly predictable.
You know what's going to happen, and the audience is waiting for these things
and they enjoy it immensely. And it's unfortunate that in this country only
the art films from India are usually available. These films are very
entertaining, and the character in my book that you mentioned, Cavita(ph),
she's completely enthralled by them, and she really thinks of herself as the
heroine of a Hindi movie.
GROSS: And is there any like particular fantasy that you have that you think
really comes out of the movies that you grew up with?
Mr. SURI: Well, I think that there's a lot of things that not just I but
maybe a number of people in India would think about that are derived from the
movies. I think movies are really a common thread that binds together a
society, or runs through society there. If I'd asked the real Vishnu about
movies, he would probably know the names of actors and so on.
I did try to put myself in the place of Cavita and think about, `Well, what
fantasies could I engineer in her head,' and the one that I came up with is a
well-known plot element that she falls in love with a Muslim boy--she's
Hindu--and this always causes problems. And there's a famous line in movies,
in Hindi movies, `This marriage cannot take place.' And I managed to squeeze
that into the book as well.
GROSS: What were the popular books that your generation read?
Mr. SURI: While I was growing up, people did not buy books that much.
They're very expensive in India. What people did was go to circulating
libraries, which are much like video circulating libraries here. And so you
rented out books. As a result, you only had a limited selection, and that was
mostly best-seller related. So there were many, many volumes by Harold
Robbins or Arthur Hailey or best-selling authors like that. There used to be
a British writer who's not very well known here, a crime-type writer called
James Hadley Chase, and that was one of the books that I remember in school
we used to read secretly because they were kind of banned. They were
considered very bad for us to read.
GROSS: Would you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in in Bombay.
Mr. SURI: Well, I grew up in one room of a large apartment, and we were the
only Hindu family. There were three Muslim families living in different rooms
of this apartment. We shared a kitchen with one family. There were some
common toilets at the end of the flat. My parents still live there, so a few
weeks ago, when I went back, that's where I stayed. Downstairs there's a
whole bunch of shops which have changed somewhat over the years. While I was
growing up, there was a pon(ph). Well, a pon is this beetle nut confection.
There was a cigarettewalla, a man who sells cigarettes. The cigarettewalla
now has expanded his tiny stall into a giant store, and he's even torn down
the wall behind the landing where Vishnu lived and somehow managed to find
a way to get into his storeroom that way.
And then there used to be a shop that rented out bicycles that now sells
GROSS: So you and your parents shared one room?
Mr. SURI: Yes, we did. It was a large room, but it was shared. And people
sometimes ask me if I could have written this book in India, and it would have
been very difficult, because that's where I might still be staying and there
would still be the fights with the neighbors and so on.
GROSS: What kind of privacy did you or your parents have, sharing one room
Mr. SURI: Not much. And every time I go back, it's quite startling. Because
in Maryland I live in this house and, you know, there are two bathrooms and I
have my own room and everything. And then I'm somehow deposited in
this--really it's like a fishbowl, because my parents haven't seen me for a
while and they're just always talking to me, and so on, which is great, but
certainly privacy is not what I go back for.
GROSS: What kind of conflicts did your family have with the other families
that they shared the apartment with?
Mr. SURI: Oh, just about every kind. You name it. It's just so hard to have
a common kitchen. The further complication was that that family was actually
the landlord of the entire apartment, so we couldn't really--you know, we
always had this worry that, `Well, will we be evicted?' or something like
that. So the ones that I remember, there used to be one tank that would feed
water to all the families, and that tank usually ran out by noontime or
something, and so there were always accusations of the form, `Well, you took
an extra bath,' `No, you did,' and things like that.
GROSS: You moved to America in 1979 to go to college. You were 20 at the
time. What were your first impressions of America? What did you find most
wonderful and most disturbing about it?
Mr. SURI: Well, the first thing I wanted to do was eat a Big Mac.
GROSS: Why? What had you heard about it?
Mr. SURI: I'd just seen so much about it, and I, you know, went down to the
McDonald's and ordered my first Big Mac and it was great saying everything on
it, and it was awful. It was horrible. I couldn't believe it. So in some
ways I thought that I knew pretty much everything about America, because I'd
seen so many Hollywood films, I'd read so many books; I'd read Mad magazine.
I'd read Archie comics. And so it was all very familiar, actually. And I
just felt myself fitting in. I didn't like Big Macs I found out, but so
GROSS: So what were the movies that really formed your impressions of America
before you got here?
Mr. SURI: Oh, there were too many to relate. I mean, I'd had a steady diet
of them for I don't know how many years. What was interesting was when I came
here, there were all these movies that had been banned in India, so for the
first year or so I was just catching up, like "Last Tango in Paris" and even
the uncensored "Godfather." And there were just so many movies.
GROSS: Was there much sex or violence in Indian cinema?
Mr. SURI: No, not at all. In fact, the classical thing is that, up until
recently, in Indian movies, when two people wanted to kiss, when the hero
kissed the heroine, they'd duck behind a tree so that you wouldn't see them
kissing. And then they came out sort of wiping their lips to show that they'd
GROSS: Now how did that approach to not showing any kind of physical
encounter affect your approach to writing your novel?
Mr. SURI: Oh, well, I had to do just the opposite. I had to make sure that
I had lots of sex and so on. And it was interesting, because I read out parts
of this in Bombay where the book was released in January, and my family was in
the audience, so I made it a point to read out the sex scenes and watch them
GROSS: And they squirmed, huh?
Mr. SURI: Oh, yes. Not just them, but the whole audience.
GROSS: Manil Suri, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SURI: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Manil Suri's new novel is called "The Death of Vishnu." We'll hear
some music from Bollywood. This is from a collection of Indian film music.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Indian film music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Peter Hessler discusses teaching English and English
literature to Chinese students
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
No American had lived in Fuling, China, for half a century. Peter Hessler
arrived there in 1996. He was 27 years old and had come to the Peace Corps to
teach English and English literature to Chinese college students who were
preparing to teach English themselves. Fuling is a poor and remote city on
the Yangtze River in the Sichuan Province. It's one of the places that will
be flooded by the controversial Three Gorges Dam. After teaching for two
years, Hessler moved to Beijing, where he continues to live and work as a
journalist. His new book, "River Town," is about life as an American in
China, his experiences teaching and his reflections about politics and
political correctness on Chinese and American campuses.
When he started teaching in Fuling, he had the students write down the names
of any English books they had read and their thoughts about those books. I
asked him to read some of the responses.
Mr. PETER HESSLER (Author, "River Town"): My students were studying
literature and I was little bit leery 'cause I was handed these textbooks that
started with "Beowulf" and went all the way to Faulkner and this is, you know,
not easy stuff. So on the first day of class, I asked them to write down any
authors they had read or anybody they'd wanted to read. And these were some
of the responses. `I enjoyed Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea." I mostly
want to study Hemingway.' `I've read Jack London and his "The Call of the
Wild," Dicken and his the "Tale of Two Cities," O. Henry and his "Last Leaf,"
Shakespeare and his "King Lear," and that made me burst into tears,' that
student wrote. `I'm most interested in "Jane Eyre," by Charlotte Bronte.
I don't know which periods it belonged to. I liked Jane. I think she's a
very competent woman, but she has an uncommon (technical difficulties). She
dared to resist wife of mother's brother and brother of cousin-ship. She's a
progressive lady.' Another student wrote, `I read "Farewell Weapons," which
is written by Hemingway. He was a tough man, but he killed himself.'
GROSS: I think I particularly like that last one.
Mr. HESSLER: Yeah, they were going from the Chinese translation. They tend
to like Hemingway a lot. He translates very nicely into Chinese. So him and
Jack London are two of the favorite authors of my students.
GROSS: What do you think it was that spoke to your students about Hemingway
or Jack London?
Mr. HESSLER: Those are two writers who translate very well just because--just
stylistically. So that's part of it. And also, they're both very--they're
both the kind of writers who write excellent plots, adventure stories, and I
think that also translates easily.
GROSS: Now you taught Shakespeare to your students, among other authors, and
it's really difficult for most American students to understand the English of
Shakespeare's time. I imagine it would be much more difficult for Chinese
students, whose understanding of English is still pretty rudimentary, to have
to learn the English of another era.
Mr. HESSLER: Well, we took it slow. For a lot of the plays I would sort of
summarize them and we would act them out. I'd have the students perform them
and we'd work off of a simplified version. But the poetry, they were just
incredibly patient with it. I would translate the archaicisms and any
words that were not contemporary. But then after that, we would just go
through it line by line. And they were amazingly good at it, but in China,
that's sort of the strength of their cultural tradition. I feel like in
America, American students sometimes have trouble approaching poetry because I
think the American tradition is more short story and more novel. I think
that's what we're strong at. In China, the strength is really poetry and any
Chinese who is educated at all knows poetry by heart, and this is partly
because Chinese poems are short, but it's also because there's more of a value
put on them. And so all of my students, they could recite dozens of poems,
poetry from heart.
GROSS: What were some of the things that your students particularly liked or
didn't like about Shakespeare?
Mr. HESSLER: They like tragedies, and sometimes the comedies confuse them a
bit, but the traditional classics in China tend to be tragic, so they would
like a story like "Romeo and Juliet." "The Merchant of Venice" is very
popular in China, but that's popular for political reasons, because that play
has been touted by authorities as an expose of capitalism. So that was
another component we were working with. When I'm teaching these plays, I'm in
a college that's very political. It's run by the Communist Party. And it was
very common for students to tell me that they liked "Hamlet" because he cared
so much about peasants. The students also, when I asked them about "A
Midsummer Night's Dream," they would write about how the peasants were the
most powerful figures in the play because all power comes from the proletariat
and that--revolution starts.
And it was kind of difficult to respond to this because my students
themselves--the majority of them came from the countryside. They describe
their own families as peasant families. So I couldn't really--you know, I
wasn't going to tell them that actually "Midsummer Night's Dream," they're
comic relief. You know, the peasants are buffoons. And I had real mixed
reaction to this because I felt like it was wonderful to see my students
interacting with the text and it was great to see them making connections, you
know. They're taking a play and connecting it with their own lives in
Sichuan Province. But at the same time, I wasn't so enthusiastic about
Shakespeare being used for Communist Party propaganda.
So it was an issue and, you know, often I would say--for example, I had
students who told me that Shakespeare was a great author because he promoted
the working classes and because he opposed capitalism. And I said, `Well,
actually, you know, he made his fortune off buying stock in a theater company.
You know, he was a capitalist.' So we would sort of have some slight battles
there, but in the end, they were very good at just sort of focusing at the
story itself. That was really what I liked the most about teaching them.
GROSS: Now some of the political correctness that you found disturbing in
China has kind of--you found similar problems in the United States when you
were a student.
Mr. HESSLER: Well, there are certainly connections. I think that any
time--especially as a literature teacher, I would find that my students were
often pushing the Communist Party's ideas into the text, and we would have
students telling me, as I said, you know, that Hamlet is a great character
because he cares about the peasantry and they're just sort of taking these
ideas that they've been taught and bringing them to this text. And it's not
that much different from somebody in America who's, say, you know, a Marxist
and who believes that every play is about the oppression of the working man or
somebody who's a feminist and always taking that tact. And they're both
examples of people--instead of reacting to a text, you're brining your ideas
there. And it was interesting for me to see that for the first time outside
of American literature programs.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Hessler and he's the
author of the new book "River Town," which is about the years that he spent
through the Peace Corps in a small city in China teaching English to Chinese
students. And excerpt of that book was published in The New Yorker.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Hessler and his new
memoir, "River Town," is about the two years he spent in China in a small town
called Fuling teaching English to Chinese students through the Peace Corps.
Now there were aspects of Chinese politics and propaganda that cropped up
within the curriculum that were somewheres between very disturbing and very
ridiculous, and I think one example is in a textbook that your friend Adam
from the Peace Corps taught in his American culture class, and that book was
called "Survey of Britain and America." It was published in 1994, which is
pretty recent, and read us an excerpt from the passage about homosexuality.
Mr. HESSLER: OK. This was from a chapter--this book was intended to give,
sort of, history and culture of America. And one of the chapters was called
Social Problems. And this chapter read, `The American society is developing
very fast, scientifically, while the spirit of the society is becoming more
and more hollow and the society, itself, more and more corrupted.' And then
they talked about a number of problems, for example, premarital sex.
And then they came to homosexuality. And the chapter continued.
`Homosexuality is a rather strange, social phenomenon that most people can
hardly understand. It widely spreads. One reason for this may be the
despair in marriage or love affairs. Some people fail in marriage and
become disappointed with it, so they decide no longer to love the opposite
sex, but, instead, begin to love a person of the same sex as a return of
hatred to the opposite. Another reason may be that people want to find or do
something new and curious because the Americans are known as adventurers.'
And then the text continued to give some reasons for this. And the final
reason was, `However, the most important reason is the capitalist system of
America. In this capitalist society, although science and technology is
highly advanced, some people are suffering from a spiritual hollowness, thus
they start to look for things curious and exciting. Therefore, only when the
American capitalist system is ended can all these social problems be solved.'
So we, essentially, had a text that was telling the students that capitalism
GROSS: Was there anything else in that textbook we've been talking about,
"The Survey of Britain and America," that you found particularly interesting
or revealing in the Chinese government's interpretation of American culture?
Mr. HESSLER: Well, the problem with that textbook is there was a lot of
stuff in there that was true. I mean, they--the textbook also criticized
American racism and criticized sexism in America and criticized the class
system. And it was a real hard aspect to teach in there, because you're
certainly not going to tell them that those things are not issues in America.
So it's--you know, it was hard because you had to say, `Well, you know, I
think this part of this book is not very accurate. I think this is a
stereotype or an exaggeration, but some of these problems that they are
pointing out in America are accurate.'
You know, I felt like, as a teacher, that was a very hard thing to do--is that
I didn't want to play into anybody's propaganda. You know, I didn't want to
help the government criticize America for unfair reasons, but I don't want to
paint a picture of America as a place that has everything figured out. I
think that's far from the truth. And I think one of the most viable things
that people in other countries can realize is that America has a lot of the
same issues that they're dealing with. And so that was one of my goals as a
GROSS: What kind of political debates did you try to get going in class?
Mr. HESSLER: Again, this was something you had to be very careful with.
And, for the most part, we tried to avoid it. It's a situation where the
students would tend to clam up if the material becomes very political, so--and
it also became very tedious because you hear the same thing over and over. So
most of the teachers I knew--most of the foreign teachers would try to avoid
But when we did talk about it, we would usually--you had to find a roundabout
way to do it. For example, when I talked about "Robin Hood" in my literature
class, we talked about ballads. And we read a ballad about Robin Hood and we
talked about him as a hero. And I asked my students, `Is he a good role
model for Chinese people, today?' And that was an interesting instance
because it split them right down the middle. And you had one half of the
class saying, `Robin Hood is like Mao Tse-tung. He's a revolutionary. He
supports the common people. He's like a Communist.'
And then you had the other half of the class saying, you know, `We can't have
this kind of disruption in society. This is the same thing as if you have
massive protests or any kind of turmoil. We need stability,' which, really,
they were--it's sort of a touchstone to one of the big issues in China today,
which is which side of this propaganda are you going to follow because you
have a country that still worships revolution and still promotes a very
romanticized view of rebellion and violence, as far as the 1949 Communist
revolution, but is also trying to promote the status quo and to avoid any
challenge to the authority of the party.
GROSS: Were there certain subjects that were too controversial for you to
touch or certain books that you weren't allowed to teach?
Mr. HESSLER: Well, you would never talk about the protests in '89.
GROSS: Tiananmen Square.
Mr. HESSLER: That's--yeah. That would never be talked about. And to be
honest, my students really had very little clue what had happened. They were
aware that there had been protests. They knew that there had been some
violence, but quite a few of them didn't--weren't even aware that people had
died, and they certainly had no idea of the numbers. The town I was teaching
in is very far from Beijing, but I was really surprised. And that was the
first time I realized how uninformed are lot of people are in these parts of
China. So that's something you didn't talk about. You wouldn't criticize the
one-child policy. You certainly wouldn't criticize the one-party system.
GROSS: Peter Hessler is my guest and his new book, "River Town," is about
the two years that he spent teaching in a small city in China--teaching
English to Chinese students through the Peace Corps.
You wrote your book about your experiences in China and you've also written
articles for various magazines. Some of those articles are excerpts of the
book, but others, I think, were not. What was it like trying to figure out
what editors and different magazines would be interested in? Like, what kind
of stories you could pitch, the travel magazine vs. The Atlantic or The New
Mr. HESSLER: I think--one of the problems with writing about China is that I
think everybody wants to see political stories. And that is an interesting
aspect of the place. And it is the last, major Communist country. But at
the same time, I'm not convinced it's always the most accurate story because
the average Chinese--for example, the person who might be opening a noodle
shop or the person who, you know, might be a peasant--that average Chinese
person doesn't have a lot of contact with the political authorities and
doesn't have a lot of interest, sometimes. That was one thing about my
experience that wasn't very representative, in that I was at a college, which
is a very political environment, but the more that I spoke Chinese and the
more that I talk with average people in Fuling, the more I realize that they
didn't really feel this political weight that I had sort of assumed
everybody in China had.
And I think, now, as a journalist in Beijing, I still feel the same way. The
people that I tend to come in contact with in Beijing are more political.
There's a lot of intellectuals there. It's a political city. But I don't
think that's representative of China. So I think, sometimes, when we write
about the country, we get so obsessed with the politics that we miss some of
the most important stories. And a lot of those are just about people finding
new ways to do things.
GROSS: And I think one of the articles that you wrote from China had to do
with restaurants that served rat in various recipes. And I'm wondering if
you thought at all that that might kind of play into stereotypes or the `yuck
factor' too much? Tell me what went through your mind before doing that
Mr. HESSLER: Yeah, I mean--and, unfortunately, that is a story that, I
think, of all the stories I've written, is probably the one that's gotten the
most attention and it's probably not the most representative story. I
mean--but I do feel like another aspect of China that doesn't get written
about is the humor. It's not a great place, in that sense. I think
sometimes it seems very grim to us. It seems like people there are under
enormous pressure. And, actually, there's a lot of laughter there. A lot of
people think things are funny. There's also a lot of just--seem to be very
funny things going on.
That story about the rat restaurant, I went to a city that had set up a
special economic zone to promote their local specialty, which was rat. And
they were promoting this as good for people's health; as, you know,
(unintelligible) turns your hair black. And everybody else says it prevents
baldness. And there were competing rat restaurants with the same--you know,
with the same dishes next door to each other. And it was--I thought it was
pretty funny, and the Chinese people think it's funny, too. So I think
that's--you know, I was a little bit leery of, you know, people getting the
impression that everybody in this country is doing things like this. But, at
the same time, I think it's worthwhile for people to realize that it's not all
serious over there and it's not all sort of Communist pressure and Falun Gong
and political oppression.
GROSS: So I might as well ask what your favorite rat dish was and how it
Mr. HESSLER: I think the spicy rat was the best one I had. It was fine. I
mean, the problem with rat is it doesn't fall too far from the tree. I mean,
you look it and, you know, you can recognize that this thing used to be a rat
and it's got these little, kind of cute ribs. And the other problem is that
they want to show you the rat before you--before they cook it 'cause that's a
tradition in China. For example, if you buy a fish--if you eat fish at a
restaurant, they always bring the fish out and show it to you just so you
can, you know, approve of it, just like in American restaurants they'd bring
you the bottle of wine. And in the rat restaurant they always had me approve
the rats. And that was a bit (technical difficulties).
GROSS: My guest is Peter Hessler, author of "River Town." We'll talk more
about his experiences in China after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Peter Hessler, author of "River Town," about his two
years teaching English to Chinese college students in Fuling, a city on the
Yangtze River in the Sichuan Province of China.
Are there any American movies, books, recordings that have really caught on in
China that you see or hear differently in China than you would if you were in
the US looking or listening or reading?
Mr. HESSLER: Well, when I was in the Peace Corps, probably the biggest one
was "Titanic." I mean, that movie was incredibly popular in China. And even
Jiang Zemin, the premier, endorsed it and said that it promoted the correct
class viewpoint because the hero, Jack, is a, you know, lower-class figure,
and so everybody in China saw it. You heard that song everywhere. I had
students who were (technical difficulties). And when I came back to America,
I had tutored at a local elementary school and I took a little boy who had
just come in from China and spoke no English. And he was allowed to choose
his English name. And he chose the name Jack, you know, from the character in
the "Titanic." So that was enormous in 1998. And even now, you know, you can
still find that movie in theaters.
GROSS: Do you think that movie looked any different in China than it might
have looked had you still been living in the US?
Mr. HESSLER: I think in the US I probably would have been more scornful of
it. I think, usually, when something is very popular in America, I think you
tend to sort of criticize it or try to deny its importance. But I think,
maybe, in China, when something's that popular, I was more interested in,
well, why is this connecting? What is it about this movie that appeals to
people? And, obviously, a lot of it was, you know, this story of somebody
crossing class barriers. And, you know, this is something that's becoming an
issue, again, in China and, you know, in a country with enormous economic
development. And so it was--in some way I took it more serious there, I
think, than I would in America.
GROSS: Do you feel like your personality has changed while living in China?
Mr. HESSLER: Well, one thing I write about is you have--you sort of develop
a Chinese personality as you learn the language. And you do that with any
language. The person that you are in French or Spanish is not the same person
you are in English. And I think that's one of the real benefits of learning
languages. You sort of step outside of yourself and you're watching yourself
interact. And it's an unusual experience if most of your life is in English.
And, you know, in Chinese I can't speak as well as I do in English. I have a
heavy accent. You know, I found myself--that I was much more willing to laugh
at myself. You know, I was much--in some ways, more laid back with that
personality. And also, because I was trying to talk to people and trying to
learn Chinese, I was open. If somebody sat next to me, I wanted to talk to
him. I don't do that in America. If I'm on a plane and I'm sitting next to
somebody, I'll probably fall asleep or read a book. But in China I was always
interested probably because I was just trying to improve my language skills.
But it also helped me learn about average people.
GROSS: I always really regret that the only language I really understand or
speak is English. And it just, you know, limits my ability to travel through
the world and be able to communicate while doing it. Do you miss being able
to, say, tell jokes to people in China because--or understand their jokes or
irony? That's the kind of thing that really requires having language work on
several levels at one time, which you can only do when you're really
comfortable with the language.
Mr. HESSLER: I think it's--you know, you can't do--yeah, I can't do very
sophisticated jokes or sophisticated humor, but there's other things
that--for example, if I were in--when I was in Fuling, I would always refer
to myself as `the foreign devil,' which was kind of an old-time insult for
foreigners. And people found that hilarious, you know, that I would refer to
myself in those terms, as if it was a very--a great honorific. And so it
was, actually, pretty easy to still joke around. And you could poke fun at
yourself pretty easily, as a foreigner. And your accent was funny. If you
spoke the local dialect, people found that hilarious to have a foreigner
speaking a little bit of Sichuanese. So I didn't really feel like that part
was cut off. If anything, I had to be more relaxed and more humorous, in
GROSS: Do you find that your personal relations with Chinese people is
affected at all by the status of the Chinese government and government
relations of the moment?
Mr. HESSLER: Well, I think--certainly, I think the relations between our
countries is very complicated and relations between me and my Chinese friends
were, at moments, complicated for the very same reasons. I think these are
two cultures that make a really interesting mix. And I think it's--there's a
real attraction, but at the same time there's, you know, a certain repulsion.
I think there's a lot of similarities. I think the main similarity is that
when you're looking at--when you're comparing America and China, these are
both incredibly self-centered and really, I think, pretty arrogant cultures
and countries. And I think it's very hard for Americans, sometimes, to see
the outside world clearly. And it's very hard for Chinese to do that, as
And we sort of--we come to that for different reasons. I feel like the
Chinese are incredibly proud of this 5,000 years of continuing civilization;
of this incredibly rich culture. They're proud of being the first to have
invented so much technology. But at the same time there's a bit of an
insecurity about their current (technical difficulties) and their status since
the 19th century on. There's a bit of an inferiority complex there.
And I feel like Americans are incredibly proud of our current condition; the
fact--you know, our political power, our economic might. But I think there's
a bit of an insecurity on our end on the cultural level. I think, sometimes,
Americans sort of worry about the sort of things that we're exporting to
other countries, as far as movies and music; and sometimes worry about the
cheapness of our culture. So I think it makes for a fascinating relationship
between these two countries. And, I think, naturally, there's a lot of
tension, but, naturally, there's also a lot of attraction. I think the
Chinese look at America and are very fascinated by this sort of power and
success of our country. I think Americans look at China and are fascinated
by the richness of that culture.
GROSS: Are you still interested in teaching and would you want to teach in
the United States?
Mr. HESSLER: I'm interested. I think it would have been hard to go straight
from China to the US. I had some friends in the Peace Corps who did that.
And I think they found it difficult 'cause they're used to being in a
classroom where the students were pretty easy to teach. I mean, they were so
eager. They were so happy to have an outsider there. You didn't
have--certainly no issue of discipline. And I think it would be a little
hard to shift back, but, I think, eventually, I would be interested in
teaching, maybe, at the college level because the one thing that I did miss
while I was there was that sense of questioning the teacher and questioning
the system. And I think that's one thing that the American schools have that
the Chinese don't--is that, in America, you're just--you're not supposed to
accept what you hear. And that was--if there was one lesson that I was
trying to push on my students, it was that one; you know, `Go ahead. Don't
believe what's written in your textbook. Don't believe what I say,
necessarily. I mean, take it all with a grain of salt and do your own
research.' But I think that lesson is much more natural here in America than
GROSS: Well, Peter Hessler, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HESSLER: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Peter Hessler is the author of "River Town: Two Years on the
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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