A few weeks ago I was traveling with a student group in China. We had just boarded the bus, soaking wet, tired, and ready for some down time, when our tour guide unaccountably decided to start reading riddles into the microphone: "What room has no doors or windows?" "What has hands but no arms?" For the next 20 minutes, he tried to bewilder us with riddles and magic tricks, but these were easily the least baffling things we'd encountered since coming to China. That very day's newspaper reported that a piece of pork purchased in the market was found to glow in the dark. A gym teacher punished his students for tardiness by ordering them to build a 10-foot high snowman. In our local marketplace, a man kept spraying his wrist, then exposing it to a snake. Drivers turned head-on into oncoming traffic to make a U-turn. While we had no trouble answering "mushroom" and "a clock" in response to our guide, it was much harder to interpret the many other puzzles posed by our daily encounters with China.
This is why I felt particularly smug at having Peter Hessler's new book, "Country Driving," as my real guide on this trip. Hessler, Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker and author of "River Town" and "Oracle Bones," has made a career of interpreting contemporary China and, for my money, nobody does it better. "Country Driving" is composed of three interrelated narratives: The Wall, The Village, and The Factory. The first, which details Hessler's 7,000 mile road trip paralleling the Great Wall (a trip sustained by a trunkful of Gatorade, cola, Oreos, and candy bars) vibrates with historical and cultural detail about the Wall (no, it can't be seen from outer space) even as it critiques China's emerging -- and often terrifying -- car culture. I laughed out loud at the samples from the written driver's exam, but Hessler draws a serious point from their unintentional comedy: "The questions of the written driver's exam suggested a world where nothing could be taken for granted."
Part two, The Village, chronicles a peasant family's successes, failures, and dislocations as the breadwinner reinvents himself as an entrepreneur, a process which requires learning not only business skills but also mastering guanxi (roughly translated as connections) in its subtlest manifestations, such as the hierarchy of cigarette brands. "In a world where much is left unsaid, every gesture with a cigarette means something"; offering the wrong brand could kill a business deal. The final section, The Factory, probes China's frenzied industrialization by focusing on one particular instance -- the managers and workers at a newly established bra-ring factory in Lishui. The three sections of Country Driving are neatly interwoven; the frantic road-building and car-buying chronicled in the first section open up the village of section two to "nostalgic city customers" and quite literally pave the way for the factories that pop up like mushrooms in the new development zone of Lishui.
The New China is a country on the move, and not just figuratively: the migrant population grows by an estimated 10 million every year. Hessler is a magnificent guide to this largely uncharted territory, witty, insightful, keenly aware of the ironies of this communist-capitalist society. Every page of "Country Driving" helped me interpret the China I was seeing. My only complaint is that I still don't understand what the deal was with the snake.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.