MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Writer Peter Hessler spent two years teaching English to young men and women who wanted to be teachers in rural schools. Some of his students at a teachers college are featured in his new book Oracle Bones. Here's an excerpt from the book about one particularly memorable future teacher and the English name he chose for himself.
PETER HESSLER reporting:
William Jefferson Foster was born on August 18 of 1975 in Double Dragon Township No. 10 Village, No. 3 Production Team. Nothing important had ever happened there. The oldest structure was Victory Bridge, which spanned the Snail River. The stone bridge had been constructed in the 1940s, destroyed almost immediately by a flood and then half repaired so that it was just wide enough for a single person to cross.
No particular victory had been won at the bridge. But that was a popular name for landmarks in New China. The Communists had used numbers to rename the local village's administrative units for the sake of simplicity. The population of No. 10 Village was less than 1,000.
William Jefferson Foster was probably the brightest student in the class. Certainly his spoken English was the best. Originally he had taken the English name Willy, but in the spring of his last year, he suddenly changed it to William Foster. I'd barely grown accustomed to seeing that signature on his compositions when the Jefferson materialized. He always signed his papers with a flourish, all three names stretched in huge script across the top of the page.
He never asked for advice about the name changes, although he mentioned that he'd admired William Jefferson Clinton because the American president, like Willy, come from a poor part of a big country. It didn't surprise me that after graduation in 1998, William Jefferson Foster went east to seek his fortune. He was 23 years old.
NORRIS: Peter Hessler reading from his new book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. You can read more about Hessler's students at our website, NPR.org.
Tomorrow, our series on China's countryside continues with a look at how China's pollution problem has affected one village in coastal China.