Peter Hessler on Mortenson

For years, I’ve found it hard to talk about Mortenson’s books. They often come up in conversation, because I’m a former Peace Corps teacher who lived in Asia for more than a decade. And yet that experience made me wary of any simple narrative that involves an American helping people overseas. Like many volunteers, I often felt overwhelmed and ineffective; it took two years of diligent study just to gain a decent facility with the Chinese language. I was still making cultural mistakes up until the day I left. If anything, I felt most positive about the Peace Corps experience because my impact was limited—I left without building anything, or changing the culture, or revolutionizing classroom patterns in my school. I always viewed it as an exchange: there was some value to my teaching, and in the meantime I learned a great deal from my students, colleagues, and friends. It seemed a tiny part of an incremental, long-term process, as China engaged with the outside world. And the key element was that the Chinese remained in charge—it was up to them to improve their country.

The above sentiments are excerpted from the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler’s thoughtful piece “What Mortenson Got Wrong”.  My own Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone has caused me to feel similarly and I also struggle with the way so many are inspired by charismatic outsiders when they choose to contribute.  (As a child I was very inspired by outsider Albert Schweitzer.) One of the many things I appreciated about my Peace Corps experience was being forced to do it for two years, not one or a few months. As Hessler points out it takes a long time to even begin to get a handle on a culture so different from one’s own.


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3 responses to “Peter Hessler on Mortenson

  1. I respond to such things from the vantage point of a person whose people are often used by hucksters out to make a buck.

    Donate a sum and provide a Native family with a turkey at Thanksgiving! Donate double that sum and help even more of them!

    Or the elderly Native woman in traditional attire, standing by her wood stove, with a leaky roof… Buy jewelry from that catalog and help her get a new stove!

    The pitch is effective. Lot of people are taken in by it all.


  2. Mark Flowers

    Laura Miller, on, had a ridiculous defense of Mortenson, in which she said the following:

    “”Three Cups of Tea” belongs to that category of inspirational nonfiction in which feel-good parables take precedence over strict truthfulness. Its object is to present a reassuring picture of the world as a place where all people are fundamentally the same underneath their cultural differences, where ordinary, well-meaning Americans can “make a difference” in the lives of poor Central Asians and fend off terrorism at the same time. Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely. “Three Cups of Tea” is a wonderful tool for eliciting donations for the very worthy cause of educating Afghan and Pakistani children, which is its purpose.”

    I thought, if this is a “defense,” what’s the attack? This seems like *exactly* the problem with Mortenson’s brand of humanitarianism.


  3. Dawn

    As a mother of many young children who consume books like moths consume wool sweaters, I appreciate very much this blog. Thank you for your reviews. :)

    Just wanted to let you know.


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