Living the Chinese Dream

It is reasonable to think that a book like Street of Eternal Happiness could be written about any stretch of road on the planet — even this country hill where white clapboards and long driveways are separated by acres of margin.  Even here, I’m sure this winding road is lined on both sides with serial narratives.  The difference is, of course, that I have not lived my way into the stories behind these thermal-pane windows as Rob Schmitz has managed to do on the two-mile expanse of real estate in Shanghai that he calls home.

Lined on both sides by plane trees left over from an historic season of French occupation, the street is shaded by tangled branches overhead.  Its restaurants and shops testify to the economic boom Schmitz has chronicled in his role as NPR’s Shanghai correspondent.  Skimming around the traffic and pedestrians on his bicycle, he discovered a way of understanding the economy and interpreting the city by meeting and knowing its people.

“Better City. Better Life.”

Shanghai was showcased as the model Chinese city during the 2010 world’s fair, and the slogan “The city . . . makes life more beautiful” showed up as a slogan on billboards everywhere, reminding citizens that China was on a trajectory of growth and improvement.  A nation of contradictions, attaining the spot as  the second largest economy in the world does not guarantee the cessation of spitting on the sidewalk or of total strangers shoving each other in the line for the subway.

Beginning in a second-floor sandwich shop, Rob constructs a map in which people are the primary landmarks.  With him, we wind our  way down a lane peppered with demolished houses — still occupied by their determined owners; pop in on a bickering couple from the Lost Generation; and become embedded in the lives of a flower shop owner and her left-behind children, now adults and living the consequences of a broken system.  Street of Eternal Happiness is characterized by the journalistic excellence of Rob’s NPR Marketplace series where the story first saw daylight.  At the same time, the book incorporates all the satisfying elements of a fictional page turner.

A favorite story thread involved the discovery of  a box of antique letters, the record of a correspondence between a family based on the Street of Eternal Happiness and their father, interred in a 1950’s Maoist-era labor camp.  Hardship and shame drive the narrative which ends up in New York City where the prisoner’s youngest son has immigrated to seek a larger and broader life.

A Land of Contradictions

When Xi Jinping became China’s ruler in 2013, his first speech was a call to the nation to realize “the Chinese dream.   With millions who still remember the totalitarian Mao regime, it will be interesting to see how this will be interpreted going forward in this land of wild contradictions where old and new collide in some pretty amazing ways.

For example, in spite of its vast geography, China adheres to one time zone.  By golly, if it’s 6 a.m. in Beijing, then it’s 6 a.m. EVERYWHERE!  So, even though it is 3,000 miles from Shanghai to Kashgar (think New York to Los Angeles!), their citizens all leave for work at the same time — Kashgar citizens arrive at work just in time to watch the sunrise.

The cultural norm of children caring for elderly parents has been interrupted by the need for adult children to move to a city to find work.  Occasionally senior citizens file suit against these children for elder abuse and neglect.  Ironically,  adult children may send their own offspring back “home” to be cared for by grandparents since children are ineligible for advanced educational opportunities if they do not live and attend elementary and secondary schools in their city of origin.

Taoism is China’s only indigenous religion, but a flood of philosophies have rushed into the vacuum.  Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, a smattering of Marxism, and rampant materialism swirl into the mix, each one making just enough of an impact to bring confusion to a new generation of adults —  sometimes referred to as Fenqing (“Angry Youth”).  Any objectionable language in Street of Eternal Happiness comes from the lips of the old and the young, venting their frustration and anger over their inability to sort through so many webs created by the mix of tradition, practicality, honor and shame juxtaposed with desire and opportunity.

Two Very Different Mindsets

A burgeoning economy in a land that does not recognize or respect the notion of personal property is built on a foundation of sand.  For the American raised to believe that independence is the ultimate good and that institutions should harness the economic power of the individual, it is difficult to understand the clan-orientation of Chinese culture.  Whether based on the Communist Party or the family unit, China’s economy is geared toward a tendency to “corral dreams into a single national dream.”

For all our ability to communicate and assimilate technologically, China is still, in many ways, a land shrouded in mystery, and it’s clear that Rob Schmitz has some significant questions concerning the policies and practices of present day China. Even so, the tone of his writing does not breathe judgment into the room, but instead communicates the author’s heart of compassion and genuine interest in the individuals who surround him.

In many ways, this has been an indictment of my own insular ignorance around the lives that run parallel to my own in this rural zip code.  I’m challenged to press into the stories behind the lives and to attempt a deeper understanding of the challenges caused by context and belief systems.  Leaning in to heart beat of the story helps me to see that, in many ways, the differences that define all of us on this country road can be traced back to what we believe about the meaning of life and what we value and hope for as we go about the business of living our own unique versions of the American dream.

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This book was provided by Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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