Examining Society in “Country Driving” through the Lens of Indigenous North Americans

In Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving”, the author paints a vivid narrative of his experiences as a driver in the country of China. As he explores the foundational years of private transportation in the nation, he encounters a wide range of people, situations, and locations that he then documents in a witty style in his book. His travels are punctuated by sections that take a deeper look at specific situations within China, creating an overall picture of a country in the throes of change. However, the stark perspective that I took away from the book is how much the adjustments of China to the modern era mirror the changes of indigenous people in North America during the European Invasion. Both time periods and locations became arenas for newly emerging economies and migrations from traditional locations to growing urban hubs.
According to Chitra Mukunnan, “Cultural awareness provides various levels of capabilities for understanding cultures (through cultural lens) and applying one’s understanding to the situation at hand.”[1] By studying the past of geographically near events within the United States in relation to the native cultures that were interacted with by the Europeans who colonized the newly discovered continent, it’s conceivable to get a better understanding of what is happening within China that Hessler encountered during his travels there.
There are plenty of differences between modern day China and the United States in the past 200 years, the largest difference being geographic location. However, this paper seeks to point out the similarities for the sake of observation alone. Whenever an area is largely opened up to a different culture, there is a shifting of the original inhabitants away from their traditional ways. One of the points of comparison between the China depicted in Hessler’s book and the interactions between Europeans and indigenous Americans is that both are experiencing or have experienced a change in their economies. Hessler points out that as the economy changes in China, acting first and thinking later are often rewarded. He writes, “[f]or this generation, the economic landscape had become as unstable as the Ordos sands. Everything shifted: the rules, the business practices, the challenges of daily life. There was always some new situation to figure out, and it was hard for people to get their bearings. Often the ones who reacted quickly without thinking were the most successful.”[2] Those who are experiencing the changes in China have to act quickly, and adapt. This is actually positive in contrast to the effects of economic change wrought by Europeans upon the Native North Americans. For them, shifting economics resulted in a negative outcome. Sutton sums it up simply when he writes, “[m]alnutrition resulted from imposed economic systems, such as forcing hunter-gatherers to become agriculturalists…”[3]
While the economy is shifting from agriculture to city jobs in China, the change for native North Americans was from nomadic hunter-gatherer economies to agricultural or fur trapping economies. However, both sets of change still centered on sustaining the group in some way. In the small village of Sancha, where Hessler rents a home to get away from Beijing to write, he explains, “The average resident’s annual income was around two hundred and fifty dollars. Almost all of it came from orchards: walnuts, chestnuts, and apricot seeds that were grown high in the mountains. They sold most of these nuts, but everything else was raised for food.”[4] The people of this town were still able to care for themselves and hadn’t abandoned their self-sustaining lifestyle entirely. In contrast, Sutton points out that trading with the Europeans began taking priority over sustenance of their own people: “Traditional economies were substantially affected. Prior to the fur trade, native economies were centered on obtaining resources necessary for the group.”[5]
Ultimately, the change in economy leads to the loss of those more traditional means of survival. The knowledge of those old ways to make a living die as the previous generations do. In China, this seems to not be something that the people mind as much. They’re eager to move forward and learn new ideas. Hessler touches on the downside of this, though, when he states, “By learning more about other places, residents had lost touch with their immediate environment.”[6] In North America, however, this is a loss of knowledge that the culture now seeks to try and revive. They find it challenging to piece together the lost arts of their ancestors. Sutton details this when he observes, “[t]raditional technology was finely tuned to a hunting lifestyle in the North. Then, in the late nineteenth century, the addition of rapid-firing guns and metal traps radically changed native technology and the people became reliant on European tools. This resulted in a loss of native knowledge, skill and technology.”[7] For both the people of China today and the indigenous people of America before, if ever these cultures want to turn back, whether for nostalgia or to revive their heritage, the knowledge of these ways of life is slowly disappearing.
While the Chinese are more enthusiastic about embracing change, the new economics of the modern day encourage them to migrate in order to take part. Hessler points out that “Chinese who leave home learn to make the best of their new environment, whether they’ve gone south during the Reform years or north during the Ming dynasty.”[8] The theme of modern China is a shifting of population away from the rural areas they’ve lived and into the urban cities, and the main cause for this is to find work. When giving a ride to a young woman and her grandfather, she tells Hessler, “All of the young people leave our village… Nobody stays there anymore. I’m not planning to go back.”[9] This is the overall impression that Hessler gets from most everyone he meets while traveling. However, in contrast, the native Americans were forced to migrate against their will, often to reservations outside of their normal homelands. While the movement still occurred, it wasn’t self-directed. Sutton writes “[f]requently, Indian children were forcibly removed from their families, taken to boarding schools, and “educated” either to “become white” or to serve as domestic help for white families.”[10] It’s only later, right around World War 2, when migration by members of tribes are able to move of their own will: “[t]he movement of Indians to the cities was accelerated by those seeking jobs in war industries and by the return of war veterans…”[11] While migration is a normal reaction to the changing cultural dynamic when there is the amount of adaptation occurring that Hessler and Sutton both write about, the types of migration experienced by the people are quite different.
As I read the book, frequently, I found myself comparing the two cultures and their circumstances. In the end, however, the major difference proves not to be the physical geography of the Chinese and the Native Americans, but rather their willingness to participate in the changes to their culture. Where the latter were forced to change as a response to stimuli that was thrust upon them, the former sees the changes occurring and chooses to take advantage of those changes while they have the chance. While this doesn’t always result in a positive outcome, and the separation of rural from urban, old from young, and agricultural from industrial serves to polarize the Chinese, their free will being preserved is what makes all the difference as they face economic change and migration.

Hessler, Peter. Country Driving: a Chinese Road Trip. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2011.
Mukunnan, Chitra. "The Need for Cultural Lens in Decision Making." Academy of Life and People Skills. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://thealps.co.in/the-need-for-cultural-lens-in-decision-making/.
Sutton, Mark Q. An introduction to Native North America. Fourth ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

Peter Hessler writes about coming across an elderly man with several children while on his travels. He was trying to find a specific section of the wall and the directions between himself and the elderly man were not working out. The elderly man suggested he get shown to the landmark by one of the children, and inevitably, all of them ended up along for the ride.
            This struck me as the singular most concise example of the change in values for families in China.  Familial piety, according to Confucianism, would have demanded that the man be taken care of by his children, yet here he was, in the middle of nowhere, acting as babysitter. The segment of the book proved that this value has been either lost or turned away from.
            It is often the case, as societies change, grow, or wane, that what was once considered common practice no longer serves the society anymore. In the United States, and similar shift occurred between the 1950s and present day. Sixty to seventy years ago, having a family outside of the structure of a mother at home while the father worked would have been seen as bizarre. However, in response to stresses of the economy and societal changes such as the women’s rights movement, this structure evolved.
            In China now, because of the younger adults leaving to get jobs in cities, a similarly large shift is occurring. The elderly are left behind to care for the young, making the villages under-populated and represented by people on opposite ends of the age spectrum. This response to a modern change has done away with the idea of a woman tending to her in-laws as they aged while a husband would go out and do the work. It has turned familial piety on its head.
Moving forward, there may be even more changes that are a response to modern stressors that take the Chinese even further away from those ideals.

[1] Chitra Mukunnan, "The Need for Cultural Lens in Decision Making," Academy of Life and People Skills, , accessed May 11, 2017, http://thealps.co.in/the-need-for-cultural-lens-in-decision-making/.
[2] Peter Hessler, Country Driving: a Chinese Road Trip (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2011), 56.
[3] Mark Q. Sutton, An introduction to Native North America, Fourth ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 39.
[4] Hessler, Country Driving, 129.
[5] Sutton, An introduction , 44.
[6] Hessler, 56
[7] Sutton, 45
[8] Hessler, 82
[9] Ibid., 90
[10] Sutton, 32
[11] Ibid., 33


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