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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

How Cultures Differ—Two Different Perspectives on the Same Event

Lesson 4 for "Running" (From "River Town")

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

Students will examine the author's running race from two different cultural perspectives to see just how different the effects of culture can be.

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 practice thinking about an issue from different perspectives


  • Waiguoren: [wy-GOOR-en] Chinese for foreigner, or someone from out of the country
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Checklist of Writing Criteria (see link above)
  • Resource Sheet 1 (see link above)


  1. Begin by reviewing with the class their responses to the questions they have addressed previously:
    • Should Hessler have run the race?
    • Would there have been an advantage in letting a Chinese person win?
    • What would you have done in the race in Hessler's place?
    • How did Hessler feel about winning the race?
    • How did the Chinese press feel about Hessler's victory? How did his teachers feel?
  2. Point out to students that every story can be interpreted from more than one perspective. Tell them you would like them to practice thinking about the story from an American person's perspective and from a Chinese person's perspective. Ask students to act as newspaper reporters covering the story of Hessler's race for the next day's edition of their local newspapers. But before distributing press cards (and thereby identifying for students which perspective they will adopt), have them fill out the pre-writing graphic organizer on Resource Sheet 1 (see link above). In a class discussion, ask students for their ideas on first the American perspective and then the Chinese perspective. During the discussion, ask students to take notes in their graphic organizers in preparation for writing their individual articles. This pre-writing activity should assist them when they write their articles.
  3. Randomly distribute copies of the press cards (see link above) one to a student, thereby identifying which students will adopt which perspective.
  4. Now ask the students to write up their articles on their own, as reporters from either America or China. As an aid, provide them with the checklist of writing criteria worksheet (see link above) to incorporate in their compositions. The articles will take some time to write. Depending on how much time you have, you may want to have students discuss their articles in another class period to examine how the American perspective compares with the Chinese perspective and to obtain feedback for revision and editing purposes.
  5. Concluding Journal Activity. Ask students to respond to the following prompts:
    • What were Hessler's specific goals in going to China? [He states them early on.]
    • How important do you think it is to set personal goals? Why?
    • How far would you be willing to go to achieve your goals? As far as Hessler?
    • What new perspective have you gained on life or on the world as a result of reading "Running"?


  1. Imagine that you are Hessler and write a letter home to a friend explaining your life in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Include both facts and feelings.
  2. Write a poem or song capturing the essence of the story "Running."
  3. Working with a partner, create a script that can be used to dramatize for the class one of the events in "Running."
  4. Draw an 8-block cartoon depicting the events in "Running."
  5. Service Learning
    • Investigate the organizations in your community that help immigrants adjust to American life.
    • Check into the ways your school helps immigrants or new students feel accepted. What can students do to help?
    • Suggest that students join a walk or a run to raise money for a charity of their choice.
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