The long winding avenue carving through Shanghai’s Xuhui District, Changle Road, is home to stories of success, failure, and everything in between. A few weeks ago I strolled down Changle Road and enjoyed a bustling and delicious tour of a remarkable slice of Shanghai. Near the end of the street, at a small foreign language bookstore called Garden Books, I found copies of the critically acclaimed book, Street of Eternal Happiness, front and center.
Recounting the complicated and turbulent lives of Chinese people is never easy. Accounts in Chinese that try to go beyond surface level in search of the grim realities of Chinese life never get published, their authors often persecuted. English language analyses are often unable to delve deeply into the nuances of Chinese life either because they lack the language skills or the access of native Chinese, or because they focus primarily on facts and figures rather than real life tales.
In this regard, Rob Schmitz’s novel strikes a perfect balance. Schmitz himself has years of experience working in China and is a fluent Mandarin speaker. His book paints a vivid portrayal of Chinese life, and does so through innocuous and genuine conversations with friends and neighbors along Changle Road. Following its publication last year, the book has enjoyed extreme popularity, especially among China-watchers and China-based expats.
In his book, Schmitz chronicles the tales of a few of the street’s curious personalities, shining light upon real perspectives and experiences of China’s change and what it means to be Chinese. By following the lives of micro-level individuals rather than macro-level trends and changes, Schmitz is able to develop a compelling and beautiful account of the confusing, contradictory, and fascinating world that is China today.
When we spoke, Schmitz was prepared and measured. His confident and well thought out answers invoked countless previous interviews about his book, and demonstrated decades of experience on the other side of the microphone as a reporter. He spoke about China with ease and familiarity, but most importantly with a sense of appreciation.
After spending his undergrad devoted to studying Spanish, the Peace Corps found his skillset to be ideal for a farming village thousands of miles away from the nearest hispanophone country. Arriving in the early 1990s on the heels of China’s opening up process meant that locals met foreigners with apprehension. Not that they would have been able to communicate anyway. Schmitz recalls that the only people in the village who spoke decent English were his students, who he was not allowed to talk to after class to preclude their being infected with western ideology. As he puts it, “It was a lonely year for us three.”
The years in rural Sichuan province colored his views on the country. “While most people that come to China do so through language programs in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, my China was farmers. So I saw the world through their eyes.” Schmitz believes having this perspective on China was essential for writing his book, “A lot of the people in the book come from those same types of places, often with an agricultural background.”
But it is not enough to simply live in rural China to understand China. Schmitz attributes the challenging and isolated conditions of his years in Sichuan province as foundational for his Chinese study. Through his mastery of the Chinese language, Schmitz was able to conduct interviews and develop relationships with individuals who became the substance of the book. When it came to his language experience, Schmitz spoke with the humility of someone who has come far enough as to know just how far he has left to go, conceding a number of assuredly minor issues with his ability.
Schmitz also considered the stylistic and rhetorical differences between his work as a journalist and as an author. “The writing came easily, I didn’t think I would like it, because I was under a deadline,” he laughed. “As a journalist, you start a story with a bang and quickly summarize things, not much room for subtlety or more complicated themes that I think more accurately portray China.” In a book, “you can come closer to summing up some of the complexities of the country. I was writing a different way and it was really refreshing.”
Due to the strict regulatory regime in China, publishing books about politically sensitive topics can be a serious challenge. Schmitz recognized the salience of the issue, but breezed by it, suggesting that it wasn’t too serious of a problem because the book was in English and published abroad. Garden Books, where I saw the copy of his book prior to speaking to him, is one of a select few foreign language bookstores in China where regulation is lax since the books are not in Chinese, according to Schmitz.
His coolness about the book selling in China without issue prompted me to ask if there was anything at all that he held back on or chose to omit because it was politically sensitive. He chuckled and gave me a resounding “oh no…not at all.” For Schmitz, the principal issue was ensuring that the lives of those he was interviewing were represented fairly and accurately in the book. He even admitted “I didn’t actually expect the book to be translated into Chinese…but I thought it would be nice, so the people I wrote about could actually read it.” If and when the book gets translated into Chinese, however, the specter of forced changes or omissions will indeed emerge.
I looked out the window – the sky overlaid clouds with smog in an ambiguous haze. China’s rapid change over the past few decades has had significant consequences for almost everyone in China, and if anyone understood that, it was Schmitz, who boasted years of experience on the ground in China covering its people and its economy. In his book, he emphasizes that the seismic shifts occurring in the Chinese economy and government can have a tremendous effect on regular people like those living on Changle Road.
I asked Schmitz how he foresaw Chinese growth moving forward in terms of increased government accountability and safeguards for individual rights. To this, he shrugged. “It’s really tricky to look into the crystal ball with China. Once you start doing that it’s usually wrong.” He continued, “this country’s scale makes it difficult to make predictions. There are too many things at play. I think the best thing you can do is talk to people and feel things on a street level…it’s a pretty diverse country both economically and culturally. It’s a tough place to generalize about, so that’s not something I ever want to get into, because it’s just too difficult.”
Schmitz’s answers conveyed the sense that he had thought long and hard about modern China, his experiences across the country informing his perspective. But when I asked him what he believed everyone should know about China, he paused. After some thought, he tiptoed forward: “One thing folks back in the US don’t really understand is that [China is] not as difficult of a nut to crack as you think it is.” He argues that, in fact, the United States is more similar to China than it is to any other country.
He conjured an image of two enormous countries with high-powered economies, their highly patriotic and justice-hungry peoples confident about their country’s status in the world. Both the U.S. and China, according to Schmitz, feel a sense of discomfort about class, and deeply believe that any individual can transcend class if they work hard enough. I found his answer surprising – normally, people focus on the differences between China and the U.S., but apparently after enough time split between the two worlds, one comes to recognize the similarities.
It is ironic yet fitting that a tall white transplant from Minnesota crafts a seminal novel about China’s change; a hotel on Changle Road is taller than any building in his home state. As he walked down the road, the many coffee shops and boutique stores reflected a changed Shanghai, and a country that shifted almost before his eyes, for better or for worse. Though he didn’t pretend to have all the answers, one thing Schmitz made clear was that China’s story has been and will continue to be as “renao,” as the Street of Eternal Happiness.
This article was written by Jacko Walz. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: SCMP