Return to River Town

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson.

I think I’ve been very lucky in my life and lots of English teachers feel the same way. We’re lucky because we can live and work in many different places around the world. Our language is a magic key that opens doors for us. We can teach our language and explore interesting countries. But the best thing about being an English teacher is not teaching students, it’s learning from them. The article here about working in China explains that very well. It’s taken from the March 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In 1996, Peace Corps volunteer Peter Hessler arrived in Fuling, a quiet town on the Yangtze, to teach English. He went back recently to find the landscape and his former students transformed.

I am in the White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum near the city of Fuling. The museum is the strangest sight  here – it’s under 40 metres of water on the side of the Three Gorges Dam*. I’ve known the museum director, Huang Dejian, since before the museum existed. The last time I saw him, the Three Gorges Dam was still under construction 450 kilometres down the river. Fuling is at the junction of the Yangtze and the Wu Rivers.  In the mid-1990s it felt sleepy and isolated. There was no main road or railway line. The Yangtze ferries took seven hours to reach Chongqing, the nearest large city. Foreigners were rare – if I ate my lunch in the town centre, a crowd often came to watch me. The city had one escalator, one nightclub, and no traffic lights. I didn’t know anybody with a car.

From 1996 to 1998, I worked at Fuling Teachers College. My students came from rural homes and they wanted to be English teachers. My students taught me many things. They helped me to understand people’s experiences of moving from the countryside to big cities. They also taught me about the complexities of poverty in China. My students didn’t have much money, but they were optimistic and they had opportunities.

During my return visit, about 15 students come back to Fuling to meet me. They tell me about their classmates who have left Fuling. One is a Communist Party official in Tibet, another started a taxi company and became a millionaire. One woman presented a radio show for years. My old students are interested in analysing their society. One, who gave himself the English name of Mo Money says, ‘Life is competitive. I think this is a special stage for China. In the past we criticised capitalist America. But now we are in a similar situation.’ Another, Emily, tells me about her cousin, who has become richer, but not happier.

My last meeting on this visit is with fishermen, Huang Zongming and his brother Zongguo. I was here when they moved out of their homes in June 2003, when the first stage of the dam was completed. Now I am surprised to discover that everything is almost the same for them. They are still fishermen. The fishing on the river is still good. The dam has not changed everything in Fuling.


*The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River stretches for nearly 2.5 kilometres and is the largest concrete structure on Earth. It’s five times as wide as the Hoover Dam in the United States and is the world’s biggest power station.

Read more about the Three Gorges Dam in the Find Out More section below.


competitive (adj) used to describe a situation where people try to be better or more successful than other people
countryside (n) land which is away from towns or cities
fishing (n) the sport, hobby or business of catching fish
optimistic (adj) hopeful about the future or the success of something in particular
poverty (n) the state of being very poor
rare (adj) very unusual and therefore interesting or valuable
rural (adj) far away from large towns or cities
similar (adj) things that are similar have features that are the same
society (n) the people who live in a country or region, their organisations and their way of life
special (adj) different from normal, or better or more important than other people or things
strange (adj) unusual or unexpected

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1 The town of Fuling ...
is near the Three Gorges Dam.
is now under the water of the Three Gorges Dam.
was built at the same time as the Three Gorges Dam.

2 Peter Hessler describes ...
his job at the Fuling Teachers College.
the changes he sees in the Fuling region.
the Three Gorges Dam project.

3 How is Fuling different today?
It's quieter than before.
Lots of people speak English.
Some people are richer.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4 Huang Dejian and Peter Hessler …
have not seen each other for several years.
have recently met.
were students together years ago.

5 Fuling ...
used to be a busy town.
used to be difficult to get to.
used to have lots of foreign visitors.

6 Peter's students ...
wanted to work in rural parts of China.
mostly came from the city.
were training to become teachers.

7 Peter's students ...
found that they didn’t have enough money for city life.
were poor but felt positive about the future.
were unhappy because they were poor.

8 After Peter’s students left college …
some of them did surprising jobs.
they returned home to teach.
they stayed in Fuling city to work.

9 What does Peter say about his old students?
They are unhappy about how Chinese society has changed.
They don’t understand the changes that have happened in their country.
They explain how life is changing for people and what the changes mean.

10 What does Peter say about the two fishermen?
He expected them to have different lives.
The dam has affected them as much as everyone else in Fuling.
Their lives are better than before.