Peter Hessler recalls driving through a blizzard in China: Looking out his car window, he saw truckers trying to thaw out their fuel lines with lighted flares.
“There’s a sense of adventure living in China,” he told an engaged English class at Hickman High School. Hessler, who graduated from Hickman in 1988, spoke at his alma mater on Tuesday about the importance of traveling to learn first-hand about different cultures rather than just reading about foreign lands in textbooks.
He also discussed his career as a writer and offered advice to students hoping to follow in his footsteps.
Hessler is in town to accept an award on Thursday from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation Hall of Leaders Recognition, which honors outstanding alumni.
George Frissell, the head of the English department at Hickman, invited Hessler to speak to his “Classical Ideas and World Religions” class. The class was familiar with one of Hessler’s National Geographic articles called “Chasing the Wall.”
Hessler’s work is shaped by his experiences in China where he has lived since 1996. As a member of the Peace Corps, he moved there to teach English literature and American culture to Chinese college students.
“My job was to give the students a window into America and the outside world,” he said referring to China’s isolation and lack of understanding about the American culture.
Hessler warned the Hickman class that using textbooks as their only source of information about other cultures is problematic.
He read aloud an excerpt from a book titled “Survey of Britain and America” that was used as an educational resource for Chinese students.
The book, he said, had a political agenda. The excerpt addressed such issues as social problems in America and blamed “capitalistic society” for all of America’s ills.
“One of the reasons that I read this for you is just to tell you that anything you read or hear, you shouldn’t necessarily believe,” he said. “This includes things in your own textbooks and things that I’m telling you. There’s never any substitute for personal contact and personal experience.”
The students questioned Hessler about China’s government, culture shock and how he became a writer. Hessler credited his Hickman English teachers and Princeton for fostering his interest in writing and developing his writing skills.
Hessler said he knew he wanted to be a writer at age 16, and he encouraged the class to imitate authors and to think about the decisions those authors made with their writing. Hessler also explained that his experiences in China have greatly influenced him as a writer.
“One of the best decisions I made was going into the Peace Corps,” he said. “I don’t think a writer can write well without material.”
Kelly Quad, a 17-year-old Hickman senior, thought the discussion was beneficial to her and the class.
“It was very informative about a part of the world that we don’t see,” she said. “Hearing it from someone who has been there, and who is an American, really helped show the importance of other cultures.”