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2021-07-19 13:02:17

In late August 2020, Peter Hessler was away interviewing in Wuhan when, back in Chengdu, his twin daughters Natasha and Ariel found a one-month-old black and white cat, wandering in the grass along a nearby river. They took it home and called it Ulysses, imagining that this kitten must have traveled around the world like the ancient Greek hero.

By then, Peter had spent about a year in China, returning to the country where years earlier he had first taught as part of the Peace Corps program and later worked as a journalist. The three books he wrote about his time there established him as an author, including in China, where readers appreciated his foreign but fair observations of their quickly changing country.

You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a SupChina-produced podcast sharing the best writing on China.

This May, however, what was supposed to be a five-year stay for Peter and his family was unexpectedly cut short. For reasons left unexplained, Sichuan University, the school in southwestern China where Peter was teaching, said it would not renew his yearly contract. The news came as a shock to those who, amid the increasingly acrimonious US-China relationship, did not want to see the one American most celebrated for connecting with China be forced out.

And so that was how, nearly a year after he joined the family, Ulysses actually went on his first trip around the world. On July 4, he flew to Colorado, USA. Awaiting him were sprawling highland pastures and a comfortable-looking house with plenty of large windows.

But not everything boded well for the cat’s new life abroad. One of his new home’s long-term occupants is a domineering Egyptian leopard cat named Morsi. The Hesslers adopted him during the five years they spent in Egypt, and he is nearly 10 years older than Ulysses.

Peter wrote an article about him, “Morsi the Cat,” which was published in The New Yorker on May 7, 2018. During the final lecture for his course “Introduction to Journalism and Non-fiction” at Sichuan University on July 1, this was the article he chose to discuss with his students.

Peter Hessler shows a photo of his pet cat during his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

Peter Hessler shows a photo of his pet cat during his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

They adopted Morsi because their two daughters had both been bitten by rats while at home. Soon, Morsi impressed the family with his violent exploits, dutifully biting the heads off two vermin after being introduced. From that moment onwards, their pesky rodent problem was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, however, Morsi was equally vicious towards both rats and humans. He scratched Natasha and Ariel, toddlers at the time, so badly that they bled, as well as Peter’s wife, Leslie Chang, who had to get vaccinated as a result.

After the family left Egypt and returned to Colorado, Morsi continued to leave headless rat corpses in his wake.

Peter asked his students: “What do you think will happen when the two cats meet?” He didn’t wait for their response before answering his own question. “Morsi will surely kill Ulysses. Anyway, the girls found (Ulysses) when I wasn’t there, so it’s not my problem.”

This is one of Peter’s typical dry jokes, which he delivers with a serious expression on his face. Those who aren’t familiar with his humor often do not get it at first. I, however, know his routine all too well. Once, he met up with a friend, who asked if Ulysses was okay. Peter replied, deadpan, “That cat had cancer. We had no choice but to drown him.” His two daughters, who were standing by his side, cleverly played along, pouting sadly. At that moment, Ulysses was probably having a grand old time, leaping about on their terrace at home.

This kind of dark humor is present all throughout Peter’s work, and also often drew laughs from his students during his two-and-a-half-or-so-hour lectures.

He said that the conditions of the apartment he lived in Egypt were very poor, and that the water and electricity would be cut off from time to time. He showed the students a dimly lit photograph in which we could only barely make out a table, a saucer, and a water glass. At the table were Peter’s twin daughters, wearing flashlight helmets like coal miners.

Peter said, “We were having dinner.” He then pointed to a dark spot in the distance. “Leslie is sitting here — can’t you see her? She is very beautiful.”

In contrast, their residence in Chengdu for the past two years can be described as a “luxury house.” It is located in the heart of the city, only two subway stops away from the busiest commercial street, in a heavily protected residential community. Visitors must register in detail and call the residents to confirm their invitation before being allowed to enter. Their spacious high-rise apartment has three bedrooms and two living rooms. On clear evenings they would sit on their terrace, enjoy the cool breeze, and admire the twinkling lights along the river. The four would toast, Peter drinking beer, Leslie red wine, and his daughters, milk.

On March 23, 2020, his article “Life on Lockdown in China” was published in The New Yorker. Although he did not write the specific location of his residence, he described the surroundings and facilities of the community in detail, and even offered his house number: 1901. Someone found me on social media and told me, “I know where he lives now!”

I relayed it to Peter and asked, “Aren’t you afraid of crazy fans coming to your door?”

“People already stop me in the street to say hello when I go running. I don’t care,” he replied.

He and Leslie, who is also a non-fiction author, both admire the enthusiasm of Chinese readers. They say that in the United States there wouldn’t be nearly as many people asking them for autographs or talking about their work in detail. Because they want to do in-depth reports in China over a long period, the two have tried their best to keep a low profile; they don’t accept interviews often and try not to participate in large-scale events. Therefore, they always take readers’ requests for private autographs very seriously.

When readers ask Peter to write a long paragraph along with his signature, he would ask me to take a screenshot of the message and enlarge it as he copied each character, stroke by stroke. His childish Chinese handwriting contrasting rather cutely with his serious words. One reader left a note saying, “The content and the form of the message is up to you.” He earnestly wrote: “To XXX, the content and the form of the message is up to you. Peter Hessler.”

A message Peter Hessler left for a student, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2021. From The Core Story

A message Peter Hessler left for a student, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2021. From The Core Story

A Family of Writers

The flyleaf of the English version of “Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip” bears a typically low-key but sincere expression of Peter’s affection, simply reading: “For Leslie.” His love for his wife and daughters is similar to his black humor: understated and succinct but touching to those who understand it.

Leslie is also continually present in “Morsi the Cat,” the subject of Peter’s final lecture. The couple come from different backgrounds but share a similar kind of restlessness. They planned for their life together and hoped to go somewhere with a long history and rich language. Though they had little interest in the formalities of marriage, they went to the county court and registered their union the day before boarding the plane to make things easier in Egypt. Just before the ceremony, Leslie rushed upstairs and paid her last speeding fine. Reading between the lines, I sensed a kind of admiration on Peter’s part.

During the past two years in Chengdu, Peter kept teaching and writing, and would often go to other cities for interviews. Leslie, who has mainly been working on her book about Egypt, takes care of the twins who attend a public elementary school. Every time I see Leslie, I always think she resembles Mulan as I imagined her when I was a kid: long hair down to her shoulders; a soft, oval-shaped face; and a determined glint in what Chinese people call phoenix eyes — with corners that curve upward. When we’d chat after dinner, she’d smile like the spring breeze in Chengdu, right before turning around and saying in a firm tone to her two girls: “It’s time to go to bed. Say good night.” If they had school the next day, the children would go to bed at eight o’clock in the evening without fault.

When eating, Leslie asks the girls to swallow their food before talking and not to stand up when reaching for food. If I was the one who made the meal, the children would come up to me afterward, look into my eyes, and say in enunciated Chinese: “Thank you, Auntie Yujia, it was so delicious.”

Serena, an English major at Sichuan University, told me that once she stayed behind to ask Peter a question. After answering, his tone suddenly turned uncharacteristically emotional: “No matter how many articles you write, how much you have achieved — in the end, what counts is your wife, your daughters, your family.”

I’ve never heard him deliver such a “cheesy” line in person before, but I remember him passing on important interviews in other cities because he didn’t want to be away too long from his family. “If the editor is unhappy about it, that’s just too bad. I can’t go into quarantine. It’d be too hard on Leslie. I have to get back and send my two children to school,” he said.

In public, Natasha and Ariel’s long hair is always arranged into two neat braids. I once asked them, “Mommy spent a lot of time doing your hair, didn’t she?” They stared at me: “What are you talking about? Mom doesn’t know how to braid! Dad’s the one who does our hair!”

The two girls, now 11 years old, no doubt know how extraordinary their parents are. They once made a document about their parents, in which they wrote: “What they’ve done: everything. What they haven’t done: nothing.” They’ve read everything their parents have written, and they each have their own favorite The New Yorker writers and cartoonists.

No matter where they are, these kids are seemingly always completely lost in a book. When I first met them, the then-nine-year-olds talked to me about “Catch-22.” Recently, they were systematically working their way through all the English translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Sometimes, when I’d come for dinner, they’d ask me to join them in a recital of the ancient poems they’d studied at school. Once, they pulled me into their room and asked me to play with them. I wasn’t sure how to entertain such small children, but they just said to me in Mandarin easily twice as native-sounding as Peter’s: “Yujia, pick a book from the shelf and we’ll all read it together.” When I took down an English version of the 18th century novel “Dream of the Red Chamber” from the shelf, they jumped up and cheered, “This book is so good!”

Another time, after Peter and a group of guests had finished discussing writing, he began to brag: “They’re incredible: they’re not even 10 yet, and they’ve already read ‘War and Peace.’ They’re able to write essays in Chinese very well. If they really want to, they could be very good writers when they grow up.” In front of his daughters, however, he hid his pride and joked, “If you grow up to be waiters, that’s already pretty good, right?” Later he told us, “Neither Leslie nor I have insurance. If one of us dies, the other can write a book about it and make money. If we both die at the same time, the kids can write the book. It’s no problem.”

Peter Hassler’s office at SCUPI, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2019. Fan Jialai for Sixth Tone

Peter Hassler’s office at SCUPI, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2019. Fan Jialai for Sixth Tone

Teaching in Sichuan

Regarding their departure from Chengdu, Peter feels most sorry for Leslie, saying, “So much has happened in the last two years.” He has collected enough information to write a whole new book. But Leslie, who has just finished writing her book about Egypt, had planned to spend the remaining three years exploring Chengdu and China as a whole, searching for new material, as well as writing follow-ups to previous works. Now, she has no choice but to put these plans off. “She has sacrificed so much,” Peter said.

But there are sudden changes that plans can’t account for, and all they can do is focus on the little things they can control. Upon learning that they could not renew their visas and must move back to the United States for a while, the couple stayed calm and carefully went about organizing their affairs. While Peter wasn’t teaching, Leslie took the opportunity and went to Dongguan to reconnect with a few of the migrant workers she befriended when writing “Factory Girls.” She discovered one of them has done exceedingly well for herself, now owning both a Porsche and a Mercedes.

Meanwhile, Peter calmly gave his final lecture from 6:30 to 9 in the evening. His course was an elective attended by a range of undergraduate students, from freshmen to seniors. During the last class, some students brought copies of his books and didn’t avert their attention from him for even a second. Others had taken this course before, but came specially to catch his final appearance. There were also students who busied themselves doing the homework for other subjects, as well as one student who spent the entire class on his computer, playing online mahjong at first, and then card games.

Peter loved this teaching job. His work in Chengdu was a continuation of the joyful experiences he had as a teacher in Fuling, which he recounted in his first book, “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.” He only spoke of his students in admiring tones.

Serena, the English major I mentioned before, originally dreamed of being a novelist. She first audited Peter’s class last year before applying to take it as an elective. The class inspired her to study a postgraduate course at Fudan University’s Department of International Journalism. “He encouraged me to pursue writing as a profession, which really meant a lot to me,” Serena said.

She flipped through her old homework and found one of Peter’s notes: “You should think about finding a way to use your writing and observational skills professionally, in the future. It is of course harder to figure out in China but you have both gifts and determination.”

Later, Peter wrote to her in an email: “Tenacity matters. Patience is important... And remember that the work always matters — that a lot of it is boring or unglamorous, but it has to be done, and somehow after many hours and many days it turns into something of value.”

Serena came to attend Peter’s last lecture, though she’d already finished his class the term before. “What he’s doing now is what I’d like to be doing in the future,” she said.

Peter Hessler teaches his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

Peter Hessler teaches his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

On Writing

In his two years in Chengdu, Peter published seven articles on Chinese affairs in The New Yorker, which Chinese people then translated of their own accord and published online. Peter asked me to collect the best of these translations and carefully archive them. On his computer, files such as these, spanning multiple decades, are assorted by year, location, and type into countless folders, and can be retrieved in the blink of an eye.

His articles inevitably cause heated debate in China and abroad, and he has admirers and detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. On the internet, criticism always sounds louder than praise, and one of the most common cynical remarks made about him is: “What’s Hessler’s ulterior motive when writing things like this?”

When I brought up such comments, he smiled faintly. “What’s my motive? Earning writing fees.”

I often feel that he is a simple person. Although he has encountered all sorts of people, he just strives to document what he sees and hears. As for the reader’s interpretations, that’s their business. As Leslie said, “He’s always written what he wanted to write, never censoring himself for fear of saying something taboo.”

Meanwhile, perhaps because it is so far from both China and the United States, Peter’s work on Egypt rarely stirs up controversy. In his final class on “Morsi the Cat,” Peter asked his students if they’d noticed a character who appeared in virtually every article he wrote about Egypt.

The students all smiled knowingly, before exclaiming: “Sayyid!”

“Yes, Sayyid the garbage collector. So The New Yorker’s fact-checker had to go looking for Sayyid again.”

He probably had already mentioned The New Yorker’s fact-checking system in one of his previous lessons. I also have ample experience in this matter. For many of his articles, I helped out by making initial contact with potential interview subjects. As a result, in the few days leading up to the publication of each article, I’m inevitably contacted by fact-checkers. Every scene described must be supported by a picture or video, while each statistic must be supported by more than two credible sources. I’m asked questions like, is it really “a lot,” or is it only “some”? Many times, I end up muttering curse words to myself as I reply to such emails, but I at least have complete faith in the accuracy of his work.

He smiled warmly as he spoke to his students about Sayyid the Egyptian garbage collector. Peter’s not the kind of “vampire”-like writer who sucks the life out of his interviewees before sending them on their way. He said he had spoken to Sayyid on the phone not long ago, who told all was well and he hadn’t been ill.

Peter seemingly does his best to keep in touch with everyone he interviews. In the past two years, he has gone back to Fuling several times to see his old students from the 1990s. Later, he also went to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Yiwu, Zhangjiakou, and elsewhere, each time to visit old friends, get new stories from them, and find new subjects to interview. Once, using a phone number he gave me, I helped him reconnect with an old friend in Lishui, a small city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, whom he hadn’t seen in decades. As soon as this friend heard his name, they let out a hearty laugh and said, “Of course I remember him — he was so good to us back then. He’s welcome to come back and hang out with us!”

In some ways, Peter’s first stint in China seems to be a golden age of the past, when foreigners weren’t viewed with mild suspicion by default. During these past two years, I sometimes helped him contact interviewees, to whom I’d introduce him, using his Chinese name, as “He Wei, the writer and university professor.” A lot of people only realized that he was a foreigner upon meeting him. They would agree to go through with the interview as a courtesy but would later message me on WeChat: “He’s a foreigner?!” I would feign ignorance, but I had confidence in his ability to win them over. He knows how to adapt to his interviewees and get them to open up.

There are also some people who outright refused the moment they heard the word “interview,” claiming that they barely had enough time to earn a living. Unable to convince them on my own, I once asked Peter, “Can’t you first come up with an excuse to meet them, like wanting to talk about a business deal?” Dead serious, he replied, “No, you have to be completely honest about your intentions from the beginning.”

I can’t think of many other occasions when he’s told me what to do so seriously. I later realized that he was probably afraid of The New Yorker’s fact-checkers.

Peter Hessler teaches his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

Peter Hessler teaches his last class at Sichuan University, July 1, 2021. Courtesy of He Yujia

Life is a Cycle

After he’d finished talking about Sayyid, Peter asked the students another question: had they noticed that many things in the article came in pairs?

There are many pairs in “Morsi the Cat”: his twin daughters, the twin brothers in the building, the Pharaoh and the Queen, Upper and Lower Egypt. The ancient Egyptians believed that many things came in twos — they even had two separate words for “time,” neheh and djet. Neheh pertains to cyclical time: sunrises and sunsets, seasonal turnovers, and the annual rise and fall of the Nile. Djet, on the other hand, is static. When the Pharaohs pass away, they enter djet: the eternal realm of gods, temples, and pyramids. In djet, something has been completed, but it doesn’t go away — it continues to exist forever in the present.

Peter recalled that, after the article was published, a Jewish physicist emailed him saying that his family had been expelled from Egypt years earlier and that, judging from the descriptions in the article, they had probably lived in the same apartment building. Peter asked him to send photos and to describe everything in detail. It turned out that the physicist’s family had lived in the exact same apartment — and, not only that, he also had twin daughters whose names were very similar to Natasha and Ariel.

Amid a smatter of exclamations from surprised students, Peter concluded: “Time can be long, and it can also be very short. Time can help you memorize everything. Time can reveal stories and details you weren’t aware of. Stories are never truly complete; life is a cycle.”

I was reminded of meeting him for the first time in Chengdu, in the late summer of 2019. He was wearing his trademark sea-green plaid shirt, with a pen poking out of the chest pocket and a black electronic watch on his wrist. Now, during his last class at Sichuan University, he was still wearing the same shirt (did he have multiple of the same shirt? — I never thought to ask, nor did I really care), with a pen in his left chest pocket and a black electronic watch on his wrist. I imagine that, the next time I see him, he will be dressed exactly the same. To me, his dress code seems to exist in djet, sealed in the eternal realm.

One time I met with Peter in Fuling, I managed to find the apartment building where he used to live. The high-end building that was once specially offered to foreign teachers is now deserted, and all that’s left are old flower pots that nobody thought to move. The “Fuling Normal College” mentioned in the book has since been renamed as “Yangtze Normal College,” and boasts a new campus. However, through the gaps in the buildings, I looked out at the turquoise waters of the Wu River and was surprised to hear the whistle of the steamboat described in the book. For a second, I felt like I’d gone back in time. Cities are constantly changing, but the feelings left by words last forever.

Through his writing, Peter documented places that, while figments of the past, will forever exert an influence on the present — whether it’s Fuling in the 1990s, Beijing before and after the Olympics, Chengdu in the past two years, or China as a whole, where momentous things are happening and will continue to happen in the future.

“The time is right now, many things are taking place as we speak — please record them all.” After his explanation of the Egyptian theory of time, this piece of wisdom was Peter’s parting gift.

Leslie and Peter have told me on multiple occasions in the past that “recording everything” is a skill that all non-fiction writers must possess. But Peter’s remark at the end of his final class was more like a reflection on the responsibility that we all bear, as well as an expression of his own personal wish.

Having shared this wish, Peter quietly said, “That’s all. Good luck to all of you.” Then, an abrupt announcement in Chinese: “Class dismissed!” Just like that, his final lecture at Sichuan University had officially come to an end.

The students hesitated for a second before breaking into lukewarm applause.

A version of this article was originally published by The Core Story. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A photo of Peter Hessler, reedited by Sixth Tone. From the website of SCUPI)