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Excerpt: 'Oracle Bones'

Cover of 'Oracle Bones'

The Voice of America

May 1999

Beijing was the first place I had ever lived as a full-time writer. In the past, I had been either a student or a teacher, and previously in China, I had been both. From 1996 to 1998, I had served as an English instructor with the Peace Corps in a small city called Fuling, where I also studied Chinese.

At Fuling Teachers College, most of my students had come from peasant homes, and they trained to become English teachers in rural middle schools. A generation earlier, the subject had been taboo -- any contact with foreign languages was risky during the political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. But in today's China, English was compulsory from the sixth grade on, and the language had become an obsession among the younger generation. During my first year of teaching, I sometimes wondered if the knowledge would ever have any practical use. I was one of only two foreign residents in Fuling, and most of my students would end up teaching in even more remote places. Nevertheless, they worked hard, finding whatever English materials they could. In the evenings, they wandered around campus with shortwave radios, listening to the BBC or the Voice of America.

After I moved to Beijing, I was often lost in my new life: the chaos of the May protests, the petty details of freelancing, the file cabinets of the Wall Street Journal. But all of it disappeared whenever a former student wrote or telephoned. One afternoon that spring, I received a call from Jimmy, who was teaching in a village near the Yangtze River. He sounded thrilled; he had a girl

friend now, and he enjoyed his new job. I asked how many students he taught.

"There are ninety-four," he said.

"How many classes?"

"One class."

"You have ninety-four students in one class?"

"Yes," he said. "It's very crowded!"

After the conversation, I tried to imagine what it would be like to teach English to ninety-four middle-school kids in a remote Yangtze village. From my perspective in the bureau, it was completely abstract:






Another day, I received a call from D.J. Like many of my former students, he had chosen his English name for mysterious reasons, and now he taught in one of the poorest parts of Sichuan. He earned less than forty dollars a month. A classmate told me that when D.J. received his first paycheck, he was so excited that he bought a new soccer ball and spent an entire afternoon kicking it around, all by himself.

"I have given my students English names," D.J. told me on the telephone.

"Most of them I named after my classmates from Fuling. But I want you to know that I named one student Adam and another student Peter."

Adam Meier had been the other Peace Corps instructor who arrived with me in 1996. I was touched, and I thanked D.J. When he spoke again, I could hear his smile. "The student named Peter," he said, "is possibly the stupidest student in the class."

Like most Chinese from the countryside, my former students tended to marry early, and that spring I often received letters describing their courtships.

Freeman sent notes that had been printed out by computer, which was unusual in rural areas. He had named himself after seeing a photograph of the actor Morgan Freeman in an American magazine. In one of his letters, he described how he had relied on matchmaking relatives to find a wife:

From graduating Fuling Teachers College, my parents and relatives all wanted to introduce girlfriends to me. So they introduced one and one, but the one and one passed me and didn't become my wife. There were nearly three dozen girls I knew through theirs introducing. Some were very fat like pigs; some were so thin that they were the same as flag-sticks and fishing-sticks; some were also very beautiful, but when they saw me, they at once went away and left a word, 'The toad wants to eat the swan's meat.' Of course my family had spent a lot of things and money on my girlfriends.

Now I find a girlfriend finally, she will be my wife after 2000. She isn't beautiful, there are many black points on her face, but I love her, because she has more money than me, maybe I love her money more....

I am teaching Grade Two, Junior English. I think teaching is very difficult in this place, here is very poor, people don't still see the importance of the education....

I have many things to say, but I can't write out. This letter is typed from my girlfriend's computer. I will write you again.



In the past, it was rare for Chinese to leave their home regions, and four-fifths of the population was rural. But this began to change after 1978, when Deng Xiaoping decided to institute free-market reforms. Eventually, this policy became known as Gaige Kaifang, "Reform and Opening." In the 1980s, capitalist-style changes first gained momentum in the coastal regions, where factory towns sprang up to serve the new foreign trade. Migrants flooded in from the interior, working construction and assembly-line jobs. By the late 1990s, one of every eleven Chinese was on the move.

It took guts to leave. Migrants tended to be more capable than the ones who stayed behind in the villages, and often the best rural students headed toward the coast after they finished school. Among my own pupils, the decision was particularly difficult, because the government provided stable teaching jobs if they remained in their hometowns. Every spring, the classroom buzzed with talk of going south or east, where salaries were higher but where migrants wouldn't have the safety net of a traditional danwei, or work unit. A lot of my students talked about it; few took the chance. The ones who left tended to share certain characteristics: they were at the top academically, and they were outgoing and lively. They spoke good English. Their ideas were different -- usually, their compositions had shined.

William Jefferson Foster was one of the students who stood out. Originally, he had taken the English name "Willy," but in the spring of his last year, he suddenly changed it to "William Foster." I had barely grown accustomed to seeing that signature on his compositions when the "Jefferson" materialized. He always signed his papers with a flourish, all three names stretched in huge script across the top of the page. He never asked for advice about the name changes, although he mentioned that he admired William Jefferson Clinton because the American president, like Willy, had come from a poor part of a big country. It didn't surprise me that after graduation in 1998, William Jefferson Foster went east to seek his fortune. He was twenty-three years old.

Willy was probably the brightest student in the class; certainly his spoken English was the best. The others preferred using Chinese when they telephoned, but Willy insisted on English -- he was determined to learn the language. But I can't say for certain that his path was the most remarkable; it was simply the story that I came to know best. He was one migrant out of a hundred million.

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Peter Hessler