Back in 2001, Peter Hessler looked at his hands. He’d been living in China since 1996, when he began teaching English in a school in Fuling, an experience he recounted in his book, River Town. But now he wanted to go farther into the country. Since he had at least three good fingers on each hand (as well as both thumbs), he was eligible for his Chinese driver’s license, and he went in to take his test.
The test featured questions such as, “If another motorist stops you to ask directions, you should: a) not tell him; b) reply patiently and accurately; c) tell him the wrong way,” and, “If you give somebody a ride and realize that he left something in your car, you should: a) keep it for yourself; b) return it to the person or his place of work as quickly as possible; c) call him and offer to return it for a ransom.” Of course, Hessler passed, and his license was, in some ways, a passport into a China he’d never seen—a China that is changing so fast it may never be seen again. The trips he took resulted in his new book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, a triptych of pieces about his travels. I emailed Hessler and spoke with him by phone at his home in Ridgway, Colorado.