August 13, 2012
Carved with the sharp tip of a solid object. The material made of the shell of a turtle or the skull of a cow. The oracle bones were used to divine wisdom and predictions from the ancient ancestors’ spirits to the kings of China. In the same way, the relationship between a teacher and students hopes to divine guidance for the student’s pursuits. Once the divination is completed, both the teacher and the student are faced with choices and with those choices challenges arise. Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones serves as a effective personal writing piece for both himself and his former students as they encountered the challenges of living in China.
Oracle Bones can be seen as a personal memoir for Peter Hessler during his stay in China. The sequence of the book is chronological which serves as an effective writing style to create a narration of his stay. He progressed from being an English teacher to a clipper to a fully paid freelance writer for major US publications. The memoir did not stop at detailing the progress of Peter Hessler’s career, but it also included a vivid episode of sheer emotion. When I write about Peter Hessler’s vividly emotional episode, the memorable scene of Peter Hessler waking up in the middle of the night to a thief with his belongings may immediately come to mind. Next he runs after the thief until he catches up and starts to beat the man. With each punch he yelled, “Motherfucker!” until the thief broke free and fled. The emotions of the event made him write that he “recalled [,] the overwhelming rage, whose memory left [him] unsettled” (Hessler, 65). This eventful scene allows for a glimpse into another side of Peter Hessler that results in the reader to learn more of the author’s character and thinking during that period.
While Peter Hessler describes his own American challenges from living in China, Peter Hessler’s past students serves to describes the native Chinese challenges from living in China. The most common problem was escaping from the rampant disparity. The school Hessler students were in a poorer area of China, so the students had many incentives to move to away from their hometown when they got the chance. The students who were able to move away were often the student who also did better in Hessler’s classes. Emily was one of Hessler’s students who moved to the city of Shenzhen to work as a secretary in a jewelry factory. At the factory she negotiated higher wages for herself and the other workers, but she had a common problem among people who moved to larger more developed cities. When migrant workers moved to these larger cities, they sometimes felt isolated and alone. This is not a surprising result considering the culture of China in regards to other individual’s problem. Hessler wrote about this Chinese attitude towards other people’s problems when public opinion did not sympathized with the Falun Gong incident.
“Regardless of what kind of problem an individual had, it was his problem, and only he could do something about it. Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. The crackdown on Falun Gong should have been disturbing to most Chinese – the group had done nothing worse than make a series of minor political miscalculations that had added up. But few average people expressed sympathy for the believers, because they couldn’t imagine how that issue could be connected to their own relationship with the law. In part, this was cultural – the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems” (Hessler, 129)
Because of this attitude towards individuals’ problems being their own and only they could do something about it, individuals in the city may feel alone in their problems. With so many people in the city feeling this type of isolation, it is no wonder that the radio show At Night You’re Not Lonely fascinated Emily and one million others. Emily and the others in her dormitory stayed awake until the late hours of the evening listening to the radio show. The radio host’s, Hu Xiaomei, ability to listen to caller’s problems allowed both the caller and listeners know there are others in the city with problems similar to their own and that there was a sympatric ear. Emily benefited from hearing the advice from the Hu Xiaomei to a caller concerned about moving in with her boyfriend. Emily told Hessler in a letter, “Most traditional people say that you shouldn’t do this. But if the person seems mature enough, and if she’s considered the issues, then Hu Xiaomei says it’s fine to live together.” Emily took this piece of advice and many others to heart, quoting Hu Xiaomei’s advice towards common problems. Emily implemented the living with a boyfriend advice to her own life. She fell in love with a Sichuanese man name Zhu Yunfeng and she broke the traditional morality by moving into an apartment with him. She seem to have some internal quarrel with living because she still stayed at her dormitory during the week and did not tell her mother directly neither. Her actions shows some shame in what she was doing but that shame did not stop her from doing it nonetheless. She surpassed a point where other’s opinion would dictate her choices. This internal confrontation displayed itself in the real world in her on confrontation her boss. Emily skipped the dormitory curfew and her boss took notice of this the next morning. She did not back down from her boss asking if she had missed curfew but instead told him directly that she had only came back that morning. This change in character could be traced back to the Hu Xiaomei’s advice she listened to late at night on the radio.
Another set of Hessler’s students as well as Emily classmates, Willy and Nancy, had their own challenges in Yueqing city. They described in a letter to Hessler about the challenges of moving to a new place. This place had a strong sense of a single culture and people, so when migrants from Jiangxi and Sichuan moved to Yueqing, native people Yueqing city looked down on them and created stories about them. The stories the people from Jiangxi and Sichuan appeared in stories were used to scare children at night. Adults told children, “If you keep crying, the people from Jiangxi or Sichuan will come and steal you” (Hessler, 210). For once Willy and Nancy knew how it felt to be a foreigner like Hessler was when he taught them English in class. They irony was that Willy and Nancy felt like foreigners in their own country China.
As Willy, Nancy, and Emily’s challenges have shown, challenges in living China were not limited to foreigners like Hessler. Oracle Bones serves as the piece of writing to bring the reader closer to understanding the average Chinese person as well as a foreigner’s journey of living and working in China.