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.

From 1996 to 1998, Peter Hessler was a Peace Corps volunteer. He was an English teacher in China. He worked in a region near the Yangtze River. It is now part of the Three Gorges Dam*. Last year, he returned to the region on a visit.

I am in the White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum. It’s a very strange museum – it’s under 40 metres of water on the side of the Three Gorges Dam. The director of the museum is Huang Dejian. I knew him before the museum existed and before the Three Gorges Dam existed. I taught English at the local college in the town of Fuling. Fuling was quiet and isolated. There wasn’t a motorway or a railway line. The river ferry to the city (Chongqing) took seven hours. Foreigners were very rare. When I ate my lunch in the town centre, a crowd often came to watch me. The city had one escalator and one nightclub. There weren’t any 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 but they wanted to be English teachers. I learned many things from my students. They helped me to understand people’s experiences of moving from the countryside to big cities. My students didn’t have much money, but they were optimistic and they had opportunities.

During my visit, I meet about 15 of my old students. They tell me about their old classmates. Many of them have left Fuling. One is a Communist Party official in Tibet, another started a taxi company and became a millionaire. One woman is a radio presenter. Another now teaches English to the children of rich factory owners. My old students are interested in analysing their society. One student, Emily, tells me about her rich cousin. She says that he is richer now but he isn’t happier.

My last meeting on this visit is with Huang Zongming and his brother Zongguo. When I lived here, they were fishermen. When the first stage of the dam was completed, they left their home. I was sure that their lives were changed forever. But now I 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 some things in Fuling.

*The Three Gorges Dam is on the Yangtze River in China. It is nearly 2.5 kilometres wide. It is the largest concrete structure on Earth. Read more about it in the Find Out More section below.


company (n) a business organisation that makes money by selling things or services
crowd (n) a large group of people who are together in one place
dam (n) a strong wall that is built across a river to stop the water and make a lake
factory (n) a large building where machines are used to make things
ferry (n) a boat that carries people and vehicles across a river or the sea
isolated (adj) a long way away from large towns and difficult to reach
meeting (n) an occasion when you see someone by chance or by arrangement
motorway (n) a long, wide road that is for cars to travel fast and for long distances
railway line (n) the metal tracks that trains travel on
rural (adj) far away from large towns or cities
traffic lights (n) sets of red, yellow and green lights at the places where roads meet. They control the traffic.

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1 The town of Fuling ...
is near the Three Gorges Dam.
is under the water now.
is the same as in the 1990s.

2 Peter Hessler describes ...
his job at the Fuling Teachers College.
Fuling and its people.
the Three Gorges Dam project.

3 During his visit, Peter ...
eats in the town centre.
teaches some English classes.
meets old friends.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4 Why is the museum strange?
It didn't exist in 1998.
It's only 40 metres long.
It's under water.

5 Huang Dejian …
knew Peter Hessler when he worked in Fuling.
was one of Peter Hessler’s students.
was Peter Hessler’s teacher.

6 In the past, Fuling …
was a busy town.
was difficult to get to.
had a lot of foreign visitors.

7 Peter's students ...
were experienced teachers.
came from the city.
taught him about a lot of things.

8 After Peter’s students left college …
they also left Fuling.
they all worked as teachers.
they did many different things.

9 What does one of Peter’s students say about her cousin?
He has more money than before.
He is happier than she is.
His life is better than her life.

10 What has changed in the lives of the two fishermen?
not very much
their jobs