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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: "Two Years on the Yangtze" - Peter Hessler speaks at Google

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PAMELA SAENGER: Hi, everyone.

My name is Pamela Saenger Thank you for coming to

today's Authors at Google presentation.

I'd like to introduce Peter Hessler over here, the Beijing

correspondent for the New Yorker here to discuss his new

book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West.

You'll notice you copies of River Town: Two

Years on the Yangtze.

Consider that a sort of teaser to whet your

appetite for his new book.

A native of Columbia, Missouri, Peter studied

English literature at Princeton and Oxford before

going to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996.

His two-year experience of teaching English in Fuling a

town on the Yangtze inspired river town, his critically

acclaimed first book.

After finishing his Peace Corps stint Hessler wrote

freelance pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times

before returning to China 1999 as a

Beijing-based freelance writer.

There he wrote for publications including the

Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the South

China Morning Post before moving onto magazine work for

the National Geographic and the New Yorker.

In 2001, New Yorker named him the first full-time resident

correspondent in the People's Republic.

His writings have also appeared in the New York

Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post,

the Newark Star-Ledger, and National Geographic.

Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for

the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001,

2004, and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports

Writing anthology of 2004.

He currently lives in Beijing.

Welcome Peter.

Thank you for joining us.

PETER HESSLER: Thank you.

It's my pleasure to be here.

As Pamela explained, the book that you were given is River

Town which is my first book, and I'm going to talk a little

bit about actually my second book which is

called Oracle Bones.

But there is a definite link between the two, and I'm going

to talk about one particular strain that

sort of connects them.

I first went to live in China in 1996 with the Peace Corps.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small city called Fuling

which was on the Yangtze River of quite a

remote part of China.

It was a town that did not have other foreign residents

apart from me and one other Peace Corps volunteer.

And before we arrived there had not been any Americans

there for about half a century.

And we were sent there to teach English

at a teachers college.

In China one of the major educational endeavors is the

study of English.

It's become compulsory in Chinese schools from sixth

grade on, and to try to meet the demand for teachers there

is an intensive effort at training young people.

And that was part of what we were doing.

So the students that we taught were college students, and

they were majoring in English.

When I taught them they were seniors.

And their intended job was to finish studying English and

then eventually go back to their hometowns and home

villages and become a middle school teachers of English.

Most of these people that I taught were from the

countryside in China.

Most of them were from very poor backgrounds, and often

the generation gap between them and their parents was

remarkable.

I had students whose grandparents, grandmothers,

had had bound feet.

A number of my students had parents who were illiterate.

But these were young people who were now

becoming college educated.

So, in a sense, they were a transitional

generation in China.

They had been born around the time Mao Zedong died in 1976.

Most of them were 1975, 1976 birthdays.

So really, in a very literal sense, they had grown up with

China's changes, and that gave them a unique perspective on

the new China that has come about since reform

and opening in 1978.

Studying English had often been an abstract

endeavor for them.

Many of them had studied for five or six years before they

ever saw a foreigner much less had a conversation in English.

And, at some point, they had all given themselves English

names because usually people in China do this when they're

studying English.

And because English was still abstract, these names were

sort of hit or miss.

I had some students who had named themselves

after famous people.

So I had a student who had named herself Barbara after

Barbara Bush.

I had a student who had named himself

Armstrong after the Astronaut.

Another young woman had named herself Keller after Helen

Keller who is a heroine to many young Chinese.

Other names were more mysterious.

I had a student who called himself Silence Hill.

I had another student who called himself Yellow.

There was a very small boy named Pen, and there was a

very pretty girl named Coconut.

And there was one boy, a very tall boy, who always wore

military uniform, full camouflage dress, who had

named himself Daisy.

I was never able to get a clear sense on why he had come

up with the name Daisy.

The dean actually asked me about it at one point, but I

liked the idea of having a mysterious student with the

name Daisy in full camouflage in the back of my class, and

so I never encouraged him to change his name.

After graduation I taught there for two years, and after

graduation most of the students became teachers

themselves.

And actually a lot of them are now teaching in the

countryside in Sichuan And I kept in touch with them.

I send letters to more than 100 of them twice a year.

And so I've learned about their lives

since leaving the college.

And, of course, many of them teach young students and they

give them English names often, and often they name them after

their classmates.

So now you have sort of second generation Coconuts, and

Daisies, and Pens.

There was one student who had named himself DJ.

Again, I had no idea where that came from.

But DJ called me once when I was in Beijing after I had

moved back to China.

And he said, Mr. Hessler, I want you to know that I gave

my students English names, and I named one student Peter and

one student Adam.

Now Adam was the other Peace Corps volunteer who taught

with me in Fuling.

And I was very touched, and I said, oh, thank you DJ.

That's very nice of you.

And he said, actually the student named Peter is

probably the dumbest student in the class.

And periodically he would keep me updated on how poorly Peter

was studying when I was in Beijing.

I want to talk today a little bit about one student in

particular who I've kept in touch with.

The new book Oracle Bones follows a number of strands

through modern China including some historical stories, but

it also follows two of my former students.

I want to talk about one of them.

His English name, when I first began to

teach him, was Willie.

And Willie is the kind of kid that I think every teacher has

no matter where he or she is working, but

particularly in China.

First of all he was from a very poor background.

Neither of Willie's parents could read or write.

Actually his father had never even attended

school for one day.

He'd grown up on a very small farm, and neither of his

brothers went beyond elementary school.

And somehow this kid had made it out, he

had tested into college.

And he had a gift for English.

He was obsessed with the language.

He studied it constantly.

He would listen to Voice of America, listen to the BBC.

He would read anything he could get his hands on, and

collected words.

He was fascinated.

One time I gave a lesson on foreign words that have come

into English, typhoon, and tea, and cooley and some of

these other words.

And he would always very carefully incorporate those

into his vocabulary.

He was also interested in using the local dialect, and

Sichuanese has a very fertile dialect.

For example, in the 20s, if you want to insult somebody

you call them a toothbrush.

You'd say [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

And so he would often use that term in English as well.

When I was teaching he was never the kind of kid who

would be raising his hand or always going out of his way to

participate.

Usually he was back in the back of the

room studying something.

And then when I would walk behind he'd covered it up.

And sometimes it was a dictionary, sometimes it was

something else.

I remember one time after class he came up to me and

said very carefully, he said, Mr. Hessler, how is your

premature ejaculation?

And this had been the type a term that Willie was always

studying in the back of the room and practicing his

pronunciation.

He had really a peasant sense of humor.

Nothing was out of bounds for Willie.

Willie also had a girlfriend whose name was Nancy.

And during his senior year, Willie, I remember, I started

receiving his assignments.

And suddenly I received assignments with the name

William Foster written across the top.

And Willie had decided that Willie was not good enough for

him, that he needed two names.

And then a little bit later it became

William Jefferson Foster.

And his reasoning was that I have a Chinese name that was

given to me, a surname and a given name, and he saw no

reason why he should not have the same in English.

And he had named himself William Jefferson after Bill

Clinton because Bill Clinton was from a poor part of

America but became a success.

Willie's girlfriend had the English name Nancy, and she

also went fishing for a last name.

And she happened asked Adam the fellow teacher, and she

ended up becoming Nancy Drew.

But knowing Willie, most of my students were sort of destined

to return to their hometowns and teach.

That was the plan.

And the government had intended that.

The government had subsidize their education under the

understanding that they would return home to teach.

But there were always ways out of this as with so many things

in China, if you could, sometimes you would pay a fine

or you would make the right connections.

But somehow if you didn't want to do this you could find a

way out, but it took some initiative.

But I can always pick out the students who

weren't going to stay.

And Willie was certainly one of the ones who I expected to

leave.

And this was a ritual every spring, Sichuan Province.

I sort of wish I had a map, but it's right in

the center of China.

It's a very heavily populated, mostly rural province, and

it's right in the heart of the country.

And, of course, most of the economic boom is along the

coastal areas.

And there is a ritual every spring where employers from

these coastal areas would come to Fuling, to Sichuan, to look

for new talent basically because they could hire young

people from a town like this for a fraction of the cost in

these boomtowns.

And one group that often came was private schools.

Private schools would come looking for

talented young teachers.

And in Willie's senior year a private school came from

Wenzhou which is a city on the eastern coast. I'll talk more

about Wenzhou in a minute.

A man named Mr. Wong came, and he was an older man, very

distinguished looking.

He always wore a Mao suit, the sort of army green khaki suit

that the Chinese call a Sun Yat Sen suit

that we call Mao suit.

He said he was a member of the Communist party, and he was

particularly interested in hiring other

Communist party members.

But mostly he was looking for talented people, and he

promised that the job, if they came to teach at his private

school, that they would be paid about $100 a month, which

was more than twice as much as they would make in the

villages, and they would have free housing.

So there was sort of a buzz that went through the

classroom after this presentation by this private

instructor.

But it took a lot of guts to leave. And as a lot of

students talked about it, but very few of

them took the chance.

Now you may have heard about migration in China.

It's sort of probably one of the most important social

issues today.

There are 140 million migrants in China, people from the

countryside who have moved to the city, and usually from

rural backgrounds.

I think our image of this is often of very poor people

driven to the cities, but in a way it's very similar to

American immigration.

We also have the same tradition.

if you give me your huddled masses, give me

your tired, your poor.

But, in fact, immigrants who come to an American, who came

to America, often are the most capable people in their

communities.

They might be poor when they arrive in comparison, but they

are people who were able to find ways out and were able to

take risks, and it's the same thing in China.

Migrants tend to be people who are willing to do

this, take this step.

And in my classes I often saw that.

The good students figured out how to go.

And in Willie's case, he applied for this job along

with Nancy.

But because neither of them was a Communist party member

they weren't sort of favored.

And they were not getting any good feedback

from the college officials.

The college had to release their documents for them to

leave. And finally Willie, one day near graduation, went to

visit the Communist party secretary of the English

department.

And he sat down with him in his home, visited him in his

home and said Mr. [? P ?], I would really like to go to

Wenzhou to teach English.

I hope there's something you can do to help me.

And then he put an envelope on Mr. P's tea table and left.

And the envelope contained about $60, which was an

enormous amount of money for somebody like Willie.

His father made about $500 a year.

And he did the same thing with another Communist party

official on campus.

And sure enough his documents were released and he was able

to leave and go to the east coast and sort of seek his

fortune in this boomtown.

Now I would like to read from the first letter that he wrote

me after he left.

This was after I had returned to Beijing and was becoming a

writer 1999.

"Dear Pete, how is it going with you at present?

I hope that you are not feeling lonely while in the

city of Beijing.

Some Chinese girls will be sure to have the hots for you.

But better be careful--" Wait I'm sorry.

This is the wrong letter.

[LAUGHTER]

PETER HESSLER: Believe me, it's all the same.

OK, we got to do this in order.

You're going to notice a theme anyway.

OK, this is the first letter. "Dear Pete, I was perfectly

glad to hear from you this time.

In my view it should be a great news for China since

there is an extra foreign toothbrush from the other side

of the Pacific Ocean.

Probably you are bedding a Chinese bitch

when my letter arrived.

Anyway please read it.

It can be used as Viagra.

My job in the school isn't so good.

I feel too tired.

In fact, we are [? coolies ?]

in the school.

We are discriminated.

So there is an old bitch who is in charge of salary.

She's undersexed and mean.

She can never get any pleasure from anything except money."

Half a year passed.

"I am feeling better.

Anyway I'm glad I can come to [? Zhejiang ?]

Province.

After all there are more opportunities here.

I'm still working hard in English.

For I have zealotry in this language.

I have confidence in myself that one day I will be a VIP

not like a toothbrush anymore.

Meanwhile my teaching here is successful.

You and Adam are somewhat my icons in the teaching.

Pete, I hope that you will visit me in [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

My yahoo students have itching desire to see you.

By the way, I have several questions for you.

One, what does KTV stand four?

That's Karaoke TV in China.

Two, what's the term, the proper English term, for the

people who go to other cities to earn a living, especially

farmers from Sichuan.

Three, what's the full form of DVD?

Four, do you want to be Chinese American?

Five, how many wives do you want to have?

Six, are you still impotent?" And then signed, "Yours,

Willy"

Now this may strike you as an unusual student-teacher

relationship, but Willie was a character.

And, in a sense, this is Chinese countryside humor,

very informal, and often very close to the gutter.

One of the things that had happened to Willie when Willie

and Nancy first arrived, they went to an island off the

coast close to the city called Wenzhou which is a boomtown on

the east coast. And the moment they got there they found Mr.

Wong, and he said oh, I'm story, there must have been a

misunderstanding.

You thought that you had the $100 a month job.

Actually that job doesn't exist. You

must have heard wrong.

But I have a job for half that salary.

And he said, oh I'm sorry.

You thought that there was a free apartment.

That's not actually true.

You're going to have to find your own apartment.

And so the first thing that they realized was basically

that they had been tricked into going halfway across the

country to a place where they had no support system at all.

And the school itself was basically a fraud.

Willie realized that the school had been changing

location every year.

They would find abandoned buildings or half constructed

buildings, or old schools that were being abandoned for new

facilities, and just finding whatever the cheapest place

was they could rent and set up a private school just for the

short term.

And most of the students were people who had failed out of

public schools.

And this was a high school, and in China the compulsory

education is only nine years.

So if a student does poorly he's not guaranteed to have a

high school education, but parents who wanted to send

their kids to the private school could do that.

But in this school the kids would arrive and realize that

they too had been tracked, and that

everything was low quality.

And then they would leave as soon as possible.

And Willie was fined for every student

there who did not stay.

So it was an incredibly rough

introduction to the new economy.

And of course Mr. Wong and the wife, Willie wrote about the

wife who only cared about money.

She was the one who dock his pay if he had

students who left.

And Mr. Wong himself was always talking probably about

his years in the Communist party and his military

service, which was always mysterious.

Mr. Wong's office had only one book, the massive book that

was entitled in Chinese A Record of the

World's Famous People.

And this book, when Willie leafed through it, only name

that he recognized was Mr. Wong.

And it was seemed to be one of these things where you paid to

sort of have yourself into this book.

And it was another device that this entrepreneur used to sort

of convince people that what he was doing

was actually education.

I would like to read another letter, the second letter that

he wrote me later that spring.

"Dear Pete, how's it going with you at present?

I hope that you're not feeling lonely in the city of Beijing.

Some Chinese girls will be sure to have the hots for you.

But you better be careful because Chinese girls always

blow hot and cold.

It has been raining all these days here.

My feeling is just like the raining.

Actually I'm a little bit bored and annoyed by the

things around me in the school.

For a long time I have no mood for teaching.

As soon as I stand on the platform of a classroom I hope

that the bell rings.

All the students are yahoos.

Some of them are brutal and uneducated.

Many of the students want to drop out of the school while I

fail to block the way out for others.

Many yahoos notice that they have been had.

Surely more students will escape from the school.

What interests me most is that I can learn English via VOA

and a dictionary of American colloquialism.

I hope that in a short time I can put them into use

correctly and freely.

Afraid that my strong will will be damaged, I wish

myself a way out.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

is a very small place.

In other words, I'm somewhat isolated from the wonderful

outside world.

I'm afraid I will not be able to use English well as long as

I stay here.

You see, I have zealotry about the English language which is

considered to be my better half all my life."

I'd like to talk a little bit about his

relationship with language.

First of all, that term yahoo that he uses, my

students had studied.

I taught literature, and he had picked that up and from

Gulliver's Travels.

They had no idea about the company, Yahoo!

But they loved the word partly because it sounds like a

Chinese word.

And actually in Szechuan they can't distinguish between Fs

and Hs, so the students would often call it yafoo.

Yafoo is the way that they said it.

Willie, even when he moved to this job and was immediately

disappointed, he was convinced that he still would have

opportunities if he improved his English.

So every night he would listen to the Voice of America or the

BBC, and would transcribe pages and pages of English.

During the time that he was in this town he wore out three

dictionaries, broke the spines of three dictionaries.

And when I visited his apartment he had them lined up

proudly on his bookshelf like the way that an outfielder

would keep his gold glove, never throw it away.

One of his favorite programs was called see American

Metaphors on Voice of America where he could use colloquial

statements.

But the problem with that, of course, is on Voice of America

there's never any obscenities.

But Willie solved that problem one day when he found a

dictionary that was called A Dictionary of American

Euphemisms. And that turned out to be devoted almost

entirely to the scatological, and sexual, and all the things

that Willie was interested.

One time I was visiting him, and picked up the book and

just randomly opened it to a page.

And the first word that sort of jumped out at me was

dominatrix.

But this was away from him to supplement his vocabulary.

But he was, as he said, he was somewhat

isolated from the boomtown.

That was his interest. He had gone to the east to look for

life in a boomtown, and he was on the outskirts of Wenzhou.

I don't know if anybody has heard of Wenzhou.

It's one of the most famous new cities in China.

They're famous because after the reformers began in the

1980s, Wenzhou Joe was one of these places that responded

very quickly.

They had had a history of doing business before the

Communists came to power.

Because Wenzhou is geographically isolated from

the rest of China.

It's very hard for them to go to the interior.

So from ancient times on they were traitors.

They used their coastal position to do trade.

And they always had contact abroad.

There were Wenzhou people everywhere.

And so after the reformers began, even though the

government never gave them a special preference, the people

responded very quickly.

And often it was sort of bootstrap capitalism.

It wasn't for an investment.

It was local investment.

And so often they would start very small and

then gradually expand.

And what that meant was that often they

made very simple products.

And a family would start a small warehouse, and then they

would expand, expand, expand, and eventually get bigger.

And eventually Wenzhou became famous for certain things,

became famous for shoes.

Right now 600 million pairs of shoes a

year are made in Wenzhou.

They're famous for cigarette lighters.

70% of the world cigarette lighters come from this city.

I drove through this area recently, and all around this

town, all around the city are other small towns.

Each of them has found a niche in the economy,

in the global economy.

I drover through one place and I noticed that everywhere I

looked there was playground equipment.

It was called [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

And sure enough I stopped to check and there were 270

factories there that were making jungle gyms basically.

And that was 50% of the Chinese

market for that product.

I went through a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

where, in the center of town, they had an enormous statue

that had a button with wings.

And it turned out that [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

is the button capital of China.

They had 380 factories making buttons.

They're also famous for zippers.

I went over to a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and I asked

people there what do you make.

And some guy pulled out a pack of playing cards.

And sure enough, when I looked into the statistics,

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] makes more than a billion decks of

playing cards a year.

So this whole landscape is like this.

You have [UNINTELLIGIBLE] which makes

underwear and bras.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

makes hardware.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] is famous for locks.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

makes faucets.

There is a place named [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

which is known for making ping pong paddles

and badminton rackets.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] makes lace.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

makes 1/3 of the world's socks.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

makes 350 million umbrellas a year.

And there's a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

that produces 40% of the world's neckties.

And even in China it's sort of a mystery how the Wenzhou

people do it.

And when you travel in China you often see books about the

Wenzhou business model.

What can we learn from the Wenzhou people?

The last time I was in Wenzhou I stopped in the airport, and

there were nearly a dozen books

about business in Wenzhou.

One book was called The Secrets of How Wenzhou People

Make Money.

Another one was called The Wenzhou Code: Deciphering the

Culture of a Kingdom of Business.

Another one was 36 Examples of Money-earning Wenzhou People.

And another book was called The Jews of the East: the

Commercial Stories of 50 Wenzhou Businessman.

I actually met an entrepreneur who explained to me very

seriously, he said, you know in Europe, they say that the

Jews are the Wenzhou people of Europe.

That was his perspective on it.

I happen to be and Wenzhou for Valentine's Day.

It's a good place to spend a romantic holiday.

And the local paper had a survey where they had surveyed

20 Wenzhou Joe millionaires to ask them about Valentine's.

These were all men, and the asked them, what do you do for

Valentine's Day?

What do you give your wife, and these sort of questions.

And one of the questions they asked was if you had to choose

between your business and your family,

which would you choose?

60% chose their business, 20% chose their family and 20%

couldn't make up their minds.

So that says something about the Wenzhou model.

In Wenzhou the economy is 90% private, and that has actually

come to include education.

In this city even private schools have

found a distinct niche.

Now China education is still strictly controlled by the

Communist party.

You cannot start a school and begin to teach theories that

are not kosher.

And so, in a sense, if you're starting a private school some

of your options are limited.

You can't have a radically different curriculum.

But what the private schools realize is that they can teach

the same stuff basically at a higher volume.

In a way, I mean this is an area that their economic model

basically is margin production.

They're not involved in innovation or

high value-added goods.

They are making very simple things, but they find ways to

cut the margins.

And in education they did the same thing essentially.

For example, the school were Willie taught distinguished

itself because they began teaching English in first

grade instead of in sixth grade like

local public schools.

And that became their niche.

And, of course, the public school quickly responded, but

the private school was always a little bit ahead.

For example, in Willie's school, the students who were

in their examination year would have class every day of

the week including Sunday.

The eighth graders had 75 class hours a week.

That's more than ten hours a day in the classroom, whereas

the average Chinese public school has 45.

And like so many things in China the competition was

incredibly intense.

In Willie's generation one of the lessons is of movement,

another lesson is simply competition.

This is the first generation that has been forced to

compete on the free market.

And this was something that, whenever I talked to Willie,

this weighed on him very heavily because in his school

there had been a public school that decided they were going

to drive his private school out of business.

And every year there was a cutthroat competition between

who would send the most students, graduating students,

to the good high school.

Because the goal was to have your eighth grade students

qualify for the good high school, and they competed on

these terms.

And, of course, the first stage of competition was to

study as much as possible.

They realized if you prepare diligently then you're going

to do better on the exam.

But very quickly, they realized that if you actually

know the questions in advance you're

going to do even better.

And it did not take the people in Wenzhou very long to get to

that point.

And by the time Willie was at the school an enormous amount

of energy was being invested in cheating basically, trying

to find leaks in the examination.

And so every year Willie would tell me they would invite a

member of the Ministry of Education from Wenzhou, from

the city government, to come and give a talk.

And the idea was that he would leak information because he

was known for doing this.

And so he would come in Willie said they were take him out to

a fine meal and then they would give him

a few hundred dollars.

And then they would hire a young woman to spend

some time with him.

And I asked Willie what does that mean?

Is she a prostitute?

And he said, what do you think it means?

And every year the man would give them some tips for the

exams. And every year the tips turned out to be false.

One time I ask him well, why do you continue to do this?

He said, you don't know.

Maybe next time it will be accurate.

That was the perspective in the school.

But every year it seemed to be the same ritual.

And every year I received a letter about this.

One year he wrote, "the same thing happened again.

Many other schools got the info about the high school

examinations.

Our school got a little secondhand or

maybe third hand info.

So we are doomed to failure.

Again the fucking guy from the Educational Administration let

out the secret of the examination." So he would

often give the secret to the schools that paid more, and

the other ones would be left without much.

Now I'd like to talk a bit about the climate for a young

person like this.

One of the issues of migration is simply what is it like for

a young person who goes this far from home in China?

One thing, obviously, is they suddenly enter an

entirely new economy.

The sense of competition was totally different from what

someone like Willie had grown up with.

But even the culture was totally foreign.

One year another of my former students who was called

Shirley wrote me a letter after she migrated

to that same area.

And she wrote, "Peter, until now I never get the feeling of

living in a completely different place.

It's not good to feel.

I can understand now what you and Adam said to us before.

You said you were foreigners, and that makes a difference in

people's heart.

For the native, you are a stranger.

It's hurtful because they don't group

you in their group.

You can understand what they say.

So the feeling of home clings to you naturally.

Here we can't understand what the natives say.

They're dialects are strange to us because their tone and

rhythm are so far different from ours.

We can only speak standard Chinese, but some natives can

understand standard Chinese, especially the older people."

I think sometimes we have a vision of China as a

monolithic place, and people speak Chinese.

But the truth is that it's incredibly diverse, and

especially from a linguistic point of view.

The languages of China are about as diverse as the

languages spoken in the romance parts of Europe.

And if somebody from Sichuan goes to Wenzhou, they won't

understand a word that the locals are saying.

The languages are that different.

So many of my former students who left home, at some point,

they always wrote me a letter like this.

Now I know what it's like to be a foreigner.

So, in a sense, it was the first time for them to view

their country as if through an outsider's eyes.

One year Willie wrote to me about his experiences there.

Often they would experience prejudice

of one form or another.

For example, when Willie was in that town he noticed that

the teachers from Sichuan tended to be

paid lower, paid less.

He noticed that factories sometimes would have signs up

that would say, we don't want anybody from Sichuan Province

or [? Zhejiang ?]

I was recently in one of these factory towns watching

recruiting at a factory.

And as workers were coming in looking for jobs, potential

workers, there was a guard at the gate who was checking

everybody's ID, and anybody who was from Wenzhou Province

he turned away.

And I asked him why, and he said, well,

we don't like them.

They fight too much.

And really because Wenzhou was a fairly

poor part of the country.

It's like, in America, if you had a guard at the gate saying

nobody from Alabama can come here, no workers from

Mississippi.

And Willie once commented to me that when he was a child,

he said, when he was growing up, his parents would often

threatened, or adults in the village would often threaten

children if there are bad by saying, if you don't behave,

the foreigners are going to come and steal you, or the

foreigners are going to come and eat you.

And in Wenzhou, in the new economy, he would hear people

say, if you're not good the migrants are going to get you,

the people from Sichuan or the people from [? Zhejiang ?].

So, in a sense, they had become foreigners.

One year he wrote to me, "I completely understand what

you're feeling when you're treated differently in China.

Obviously the Sichuanese people were treated

differently by other people.

For Sichuan is very famous for being poor and backward.

Here the same thing happens.

People from Sichuan and [? Zhejiang ?] were always

looked down on by the natives.

I don't care much about that.

I know that China is not their China only.

Each citizen in China has the equal right to go anywhere in

China."

So I think this is one of the more interesting aspects of

migration is, first of all, the new perspective, but also

the sense of being an individual.

He was making a decision that it doesn't matter

what group he's from.

He is the same as anybody else, and he should be treated

the same way.

Of course, the flip side of this is when you look at a

young person like this in China, what is the option if

you were from the countryside?

And this is something else that's quite striking.

For a young person from the countryside, more and more

living in the village is not sustainable.

There are still jobs there.

There are still farming positions.

But compared to these boomtowns, the gap is growing

wider and wider.

And by now Willie was one of the first from

his class to migrate.

But by now he says pretty much everybody that he grew up with

is gone, is gone from the village.

And he often described to me how when he went back to his

hometown nobody was there except the older people, and

nothing had changed.

And he's living in a place in these factory towns where the

infrastructure is being built constantly.

Everything is changing day to day.

And then he would go back to the village and

it would feel dead.

One year after returning home and visiting his parents he

wrote, "when I am home nothing has changed and the roads are

still rough and people are getting older.

It makes me sad that I cannot find familiar people or

friends who I knew well when I was young.

Sometimes I think this kind of life, going out to the coastal

regions without a stable home, is the saddest and most

stressful thing in the world."

In some ways, whenever I read these kind of comments, it

made me think of descriptions of the industrial revolution

in England and in Europe where young villages were basically

emptying out as people went to the centers of productivity.

And in China we're seeing the same thing but at a much

faster pace.

There are villages in a Beijing outskirts where I

often go hiking and camping.

And a number of times I've come upon villages that are

completely abandoned, just totally empty, a group of

maybe ten houses.

One time I stumbled onto a group of ten houses that were

just the walls were falling apart, the

roofs were caving in.

It was like a ghost town.

But then when I went in the houses had been wallpapered in

the traditional countryside manor with newspapers.

And so you can read the headlines and read the dates.

The newspapers were from 1986, 1987.

And that told me that the houses had been lived in

fairly recently, but it showed how fast this

change had come about.

In the matter of less than 20 years a place to go from being

a vibrant village where people were improving their houses to

being a ghost town.

So this is the climate for young Chinese.

I think actually this is sort of an

introduction to Willie's story.

But I don't want to go too long before I get to questions

because I want to give you a chance to see

what interests you.

His story is something that I continue to follow in this

book, Oracle Bones looking at how he copes with this new

environment and with new competition that he

experiences there.

So now I'd just like to leave the floor open for any sort of

questions that you might have about his story or about

anything else in China.

The Description of "Two Years on the Yangtze" - Peter Hessler speaks at Google