With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
I enjoyed Peter Hessler’s memoir River Town, about his time in the 90’s volunteering in China as a teacher for the Peace Corps. I was struck by how his arrogance increased his likability. Granted he was a middle to upper-middle class white guy, educated at Princeton, assertive, cocky and competitive so the arrogance was going to be part of the package, but mostly recounted his two year stint with sensitivity, elegance and grace.
His attention to detail about life in Fuling, a river town along the Yangtze, made for breathtaking reading. However, his talent for storytelling shone through in his personal interactions with the people from the Sichuan province. Especially since he learned Chinese while living there.
I remembered The New Yorker piece he wrote several years ago about when he was in school at Oxford and participated in police line-ups. This story was a perfect example of the adage Just Because It Happened To You Doesn’t Make It Interesting. It takes someone who knows how to do something with a simple story and make it come to life. Just like David Sedaris does seemingly blindfolded.
But this isn’t meant to gush over Hessler. The focus is on how many times I said “God, what an asshole!” out loud while reading River Town. It was a combination of how fearless he appeared and how he measured his actions with its rewards. He often faced off against residents when he felt was being unjustly disrespected.
But you know where this is going. I saw my fearfulness in his fearless acts. I wished I could be like him. So confident and cocksure and powering through, whatever the consequences. Was it genes or how he was raised or his education or tremendous luck? It goes back to how I stalled my writing career in my twenties out of fear. And the memoir I eventually wrote of an even briefer time than his doesn’t sell my confidence but my fear, my gutlessness, and my ability to be an asshole.
I remain impressed by this book and plan to read his others. He still writes for The New Yorker though he no longer lives in Beijing. He now reports as a local correspondent. In Cairo.
Reading more this year inspires me to reclaim my thirst.