We are honored to have Rob Schmitz, NPR Correspondent for Shanghai, come to speak at The Bookworm on December 7th. Get a preview of the talk by reading an interview with Rob, conducted by our bookshop manager Olivia, and buy your copy of his book Street of Eternal Happiness at our bookshop today!
BW: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What first brought you to China, and how long have you been here?
RS: I first came to China as a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer in 1996. I had just graduated from college with a Spanish degree and I had asked to be sent to South America. The Peace Corps ignored my request and offered me Vladivostok, Uzbekistan, or China. For me, the choice was obvious. Back then, the Peace Corps program in China was small, and it operated under the radar. My sitemates and I were assigned to a town, Zigong, that not only had never had volunteers before, but had not had foreign residents since before the Communists took control of China in 1949.This was before the Internet was available in China and phone calls were prohibitively expensive, keeping us isolated from the outside world. Living in Zigong felt like being sent to a faraway planet. Each day brought dozens of new and unpredictable experiences that online casino in canada would bewilder, amuse, and inspire us. After coming home, I quickly returned to China. I lived in Chengdu and I wrote for one of the first English-language websites in China, chinanow.com. I returned home to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and nearly every year after that, I kept returning to China for work. Finally, in 2010, the public radio program Marketplace hired me as their Shanghai-based China Correspondent, and I’ve lived best canadian casino in Shanghai ever since. I now work as NPR’s Shanghai Correspondent.
BW: We often see headlines about China in the international media, usually accompanied by various facts and figures. What made you decide to delve beneath all this and look at more personal stories?
RS: This stems from a radio series that I did for Marketplace back in 2012-2013. For every month of the year, I did a single story about somebody who lived or worked on a single street in Shanghai.There’s really so much news coming out of China — because of its size and its importance and what’s happening with its economy — you can begin to lose sight of what’s happening on the ground.I wanted to break away from that news cycle, control the pace a little and intensify my focus on everyday people — their hopes and dreams and setbacks, how they navigated the pace of change all around them and how they navigated the Chinese system.I thought I would make it as simple as possible — the street that I lived on. And I think what I learned is that all the stories you could hope to entice readers with, they’re all there.
BW: We know that Chinese people alive today have witnessed extraordinary change in their lifetimes. Did the experiences of any of your interviewees truly surprise you?
RS: There were many things that surprised me about each character over the course of reporting this book. A good example is the story I tell about a box of letters friends lent to me, written between a man imprisoned for being a capitalist in a labor camp on the edge of Tibet and his wife, who took care of their seven children in a lane home along my street. The letters span 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s. After reading so many historical accounts of the Mao years, it was fascinating to have in my hands specimens of raw history from the era. They told a heartbreaking story through the worst of the Mao years, and, most surprisingly, they led me to their only son.He ended upwinning the United States green card lottery and moved to New York City, where he is remaking his life, earning his U.S. high school equivalency diploma at 58 years old, with a dream to attend an American university and start a family.
BW: What is the concept of the “Chinese dream” that you refer to? How does it relate to ordinary Chinese people such as those you spoke to?
RS: The Chinese Dream is, of course, the guiding principle of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who dreams of a “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. It’s Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan applied to China, and when President Xi defined the term, he called on all Chinese people to dream collectively of a better China. What I find interesting is that this comes during a time when many Chinese are pursuing individual dreams for the first time in decades. From the Reform and Opening period of the 1980s until the first decade of the 21st century, most Chinese were, in fact, collectively pursuing the same dream: making money. The country’s dream during those decades was to improve its GDP, and individuals were hard at work to improve their own personal GDP. Everyone in China was on the same page. Now, in 2016, half the population of China lives in urban areas, they’ve made it to the consumer class, they’ve achieved the dream of attaining a degree of material wealth, and their dreams are moving on. But they’re moving on to separate and more individualistic dreams; dreams like spirituality, travel, justice, or maybe an education abroad for their children. These dreams are spreading like wildfire, and a slogan like the Chinese Dream, an attempt to corral individual dreams into one dream for the betterment of the nation, is going to be a challenge for the government. It’s the era of big dreams in China. This fascinates me, and it’s one of the central themes of this book.
BW: Did you sense a generation gap in terms of outlook and attitude? Were there any notable differences between the younger and older people you spoke to?
RS: Yes. I wanted to focus on characters from distinctive generations in order to give readers a sense of how different their worldviews are from each other. One of my main characters, Auntie Fu, was born around the time of the Communist revolution and grows up with Mao’s political campaigns. She meets her husband, Uncle Feng, after being sent to one of the many 兵团established in the Xinjiang region in the 1960s, and then the two return to Shanghai in the 1990s after a lifetime of relying on the state for all their career decisions. The result is tragic, but predictable for many in Auntie Fu’s generation: she’s suddenly surrounded by skyscrapers and an abundance of wealth in the big city, and she wonders why, as a good communist soldier, she isn’t rich, too. She throws herself into several get-rich-quick schemes and loses much of her pension in the process. Contrast this with the youngest character in my book, CK, who, in his 20s, has figured out that hard work, specialized skills (in his case, the ability to build and deconstruct an accordion from scratch), and embracing risk are the keys to success in the no-holds-barred capitalism of 21st century China. While many Chinese in their 60s who belong to Auntie Fu’s generation seem lost in this new China, Millennials like CK seem to seizing the reins of their lives.
BW: Has writing the book changed your view about the direction in which China is headed? Are you optimistic about the future for ordinary Chinese people?
RS: Writing this book has made me more optimistic about China’s future. If you focus on the often-sensationalist headlines in the Western media about China, you’ll notice that much of it focuses on the Party and how it’s clamping down on rights and managing (or mismanaging) a slower-growth economy. But when I spend time with my Chinese neighbors along my street and witness how hard they’re working and how much they push their children to excel at their studies and their work, I believe that no matter what happens to China on the macro level, the true strength of this country is found in the micro – it’s found among the 老百姓, the everyday people of this country who work hard and have a deep hunger for self-improvement. This gives me much optimism.