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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Confronting Two Challenges—One Physical, One Intellectual

Lesson 2 for "Running" (From "River Town")

Asia, China
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Cross-Cultural Understanding, Environment, Foreign Language, Health, Language Arts & Literature, Social Studies & Geography

Students will examine how the author confronted the challenges of a new language and a new culture.

About the Story

"Running" is excerpted from Chapter Three of Peter Hessler's memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler describes his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1996 to 1998 in south-central China. He discusses his adjustment to life in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the challenges, in particular, of trying to understand and learn Chinese. Hessler describes his relationship with his Chinese language tutors and his determination to learn despite his discomfort with local teaching methods, which rely on criticism rather than praise. Hessler also addresses his participation in the Annual Long Race to Welcome Spring and how that challenge relates to his struggle to learn the language.

Dean Fu, in the story, is identified earlier in the memoir as Dean Fu Muyou, head of the English department at the college where Hessler taught.

About the Setting

China, the fourth-largest country in the world in area (after Russia, Canada, and the United States ) has a population of close to 1.3 billion. Beijing, the capital, has a population of more than 13 million; that is 5 million more than New York City and 9 million more than Los Angeles.

China is divided into 23 administrative provinces. It has one of the world's longest rivers, the Yangtze, and it shares the world's highest mountain range?the Himalaya?of which Mount Everest is a part. The climate ranges from desert to tropical to subarctic.

With one of the world's oldest civilizations, China has a written history of more than 4,000 years. The country has had a long history of being wary of foreigners?and for much of its history it has been isolated from the outside world. To this day, the Chinese term for foreigner, waiguoren, has negative connotations in many places.

In 1993, the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in China to assist in a teacher-training project. Volunteers have taught at more than two dozen colleges and institutions across southwestern China. The primary goal of the English education project is to teach English to students at teacher-training colleges, who plan to become English teachers themselves upon graduation. To learn more about the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China, go to the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.

About the Chinese Language
A major portion of "Running" addresses how difficult it was for Hessler to learn Chinese?and his dogged determination to conquer the task. Students will better appreciate the author's challenge if they understand the complexity of written and spoken Chinese.

The Chinese language encompasses seven major dialects. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mandarin Chinese, spoken in Beijing and its adjacent provinces, was mandated by the government to be China's official spoken language. Seventy percent of China's population speaks Mandarin Chinese. Other dialects, such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, are completely different spoken languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. The province of Sichuan, where Hessler lived, has its own dialect, Sichuanese, which was initially problematic for Hessler, since he had been trained in Mandarin Chinese.

Even without the issue of dialects, spoken Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn. It is a tonal language, in which the tonal inflection of a word changes its meaning. Spoken Mandarin Chinese has four common tones, which can be applied to the same general sound to effect four different words and meanings.

Chinese also is difficult for Westerners because the written language is based not on an alphabet but on symbols, called characters. The Chinese language has more than 50,000 characters, most of which are known only to scholars. However, even reading a newspaper or a book requires a person to know between 3,000 and 5,000 characters.

About learning Chinese, Hessler wrote: "In good conscience I could not live there for two years and not learn how to speak Chinese. To me, this was as important as fulfilling my obligations as a teacher."


To examine how the author's penchant for running featured in his adjustment to the culture of Fuling and in his learning of the Chinese language

  • Ambivalent: [am-BIV-uh-lent] Having mixed feelings about someone or something
  • Skittish: Easily excitable or made nervous
  • Cadre: a member of a small leadership group
  • Stick-stick soldier: A porter or laborer in China who carries heavy loads in freight yards or construction sites on short, bamboo poles (sticks) tied together with rope
  • Blurt: To speak suddenly, often without stopping to think first
  • Cagey: Shrewd; sneaky; crafty
  • Waiguoren: [wy-GOOR-en] Chinese for foreigner, or someone from out of the country
  • Voyeurism: [voy-ER-ihz-em] Watching other people, especially secretly
  • Propaganda: Ideas or information spread specifically to promote one idea or point of view exclusively or to discredit another one
  • Trite: Unoriginal, stale
  • Cant: meaningless talk or communication 


  • "Running" by Peter Hessler (see link above)
  • Map of China (see link above)


  1. Identify students in the class who enjoy running as a sport or pastime, including any on the school track team. Ask them to think about and explain to the rest of the class why they run?the incentives, the sacrifices, the euphoria, the pain, the injuries, the rewards. See if you can elicit from the class some of the aspects of running that Hessler experienced: the personal satisfaction, the bolstering of self-confidence, the time for reflection, the privacy from the hubbub of daily routines, the sweetness of victory.
  2. Ask the class what obstacles to racing Hessler faced. [Standing out in the crowd; dangers of large crowds on an unsafe course; consequences of possibly beating all the local competitors; the X-ray.] How does he address each issue?
  3. How did the opening of the race strike the author? How was it different from those he had experienced in the United States? Why does he say about the start, "It was China?"
  4. Why does the newspaper article about the race suggest that patriotism is an element of the competition? Do students think this is something peculiar to Chinese culture or does patriotism feature in other sports? If students think that patriotism is common in sports, can they name sports and events in which patriotism has played a large role? [World Cup soccer; America's Cup sailing competition; Olympic events.]
  5. Does the class think Hessler should have run the race? Should he have won, knowing how important winning was to the Chinese? Ask students to explain their opinions. What would the students have done in Hessler's place?
  6. Have students write a short essay about a time they participated in a contest any contest, for example, art, chess, writing, sports, spelling, math. Ask them to describe their motives; difficulties they had to overcome, including nervousness; their feelings before or during the competition; whether they won or lost; what difference, if any, the outcome made in their life.
  7. Ask the class what difference there was for Hessler between his daily runs and the organized race in which he participated?on a personal level, in the community, in his relationship with Teacher Liao.
  8. Much of the chapter called "Running" is actually devoted to the author's struggle to learn the Chinese language. Ask students to explain why Hessler chose to combine running and the challenge of studying the local language in the same chapter. What did running and studying have to do with each other for the author?

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • Cultures differ in their approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Achieving one's goals takes persistence and determination.
  • Learning the language of another culture helps in understanding that culture and in being accepted by the people.
Essential Questions
  • What factors affect how hard it is to learn another language?
  • Is learning another language worth the effort? Why, or why not?
  • What does it feel like to be an outsider?
  • What does it take "to belong"?

English Standards: 1, 2, 3, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 9, 10, 12, 14
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).

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