A walk along the street where China re­sides

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

A Chi­nese friend once gave Rob Sch­mitz a box bought at a junk store. It con­tained let­ters be­tween a wife and her hus­band, a Shang­hai “cap­i­tal­ist” fac­tory owner who was sent to a la­bor camp in the 1950s.

Decades later, Sch­mitz tracked down the cou­ple’s son, who was liv­ing in New York’s Flush­ing with his mother.

The im­pris­oned fac­tory owner once lived on Changle Street in the heart of Shang­hai, where Sch­mitz now lives, with his wife Lenora Chu, a Hous­ton na­tive, and their two young chil­dren.

The fac­tory owner’s son learned English, got a high school equiv­a­lency diploma (GED) at the age of 58 and now wants to pur­sue a college de­gree.

This is just one of the five sto­ries told in Sch­mitz’s new book Street of Eter­nal Hap­pi­ness, which grew out of his ra­dio se­ries Mar­ket Place.

“He’s a great inspiration to me,” said Sch­mitz at a book dis­cus­sion on last Wed­nes­day or­ga­nized by the Asia So­ci­ety Texas Cen­ter and Bra­zos Book­store.

The son de­clined Sch­mitz’s of­fer to take back his parents’ let­ters. “No­body cares about the let­ters,” he told Sch­mitz. “We al­ready know what hap­pened. We Chi­nese like to let by­gones be by­gones.”

“That re­flects a lot of Chi­nese’s at­ti­tude to­ward their re­cent his­tory,” said Sch­mitz, who had been a cor­re­spon­dent for Mar­ket Place in Shang­hai for the past six years and will re­turn in a week as NPR’s Shang­hai cor­re­spon­dent.

Sch­mitz first went to China in 1996 as a Peace Corps vol­un­teer teach­ing English in Sichuan. Since then he had been back to China a few times be­fore be­com­ing a cor­re­spon­dent in 2010.

Sch­mitz found re­port­ing on China to be a bit over­whelm­ing. “You ba­si­cally could do 10 items a day with an econ­omy of 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple. I wanted to sim­plify my life a bit and fo­cus on the ba­sic units of so­ci­ety, that is, in­di­vid­u­als,” said Sch­mitz.

He walked up and down the street where he lived for a year and tried to learn how much peo­ple’s lives had changed in the past 20 to 30 years as China was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its as­ton­ish­ing eco­nomic growth.

“I wanted to look at their mo­ti­va­tions and where they wanted to go,” he said.

An­other theme of the book is the Chi­nese Dream.

“Be­fore 2010, every­one in China had the same dream, every­one was on the same page: they wanted to make money,” he ex­plained.

“Now that that was ac­com­plished, they looked be­yond money at other dreams — re­li­gion, travel, study abroad, jus­tice and equal­ity. They are all thought about now by Chi­nese in­di­vid­u­als.”

By telling sto­ries of peo­ple of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions who live on a sin­gle street, Sch­mitz ex­plored their con­trast­ing ver­sions of the Chi­nese dream, re­flect­ing the re­al­i­ties of a rapidly chang­ing China.

There is a young man named CK, who made money, felt lost and turned to Bud­dhism for spir­i­tu­al­ity. There is a woman, a flower shop owner, who was lim­ited by the house­hold reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem and dreamed of equal­ity.

In an­other story, an older woman, left be­hind by China’s eco­nomic growth, was con­stantly fight­ing with her hus­band; she dreamed of get­ting rich and leav­ing him.

“I lived in Shang­hai for six years, and it has def­i­nitely shaped how I see China,” the author said.

“Shang­hai is, in many ways, an ap­pro­pri­ate sym­bol for 21st cen­tury ur­ban China,” said Sch­mitz, very much like New York of the 20th cen­tury.


Gor­don Quan (right), vice-chair­man of the Asia So­ci­ety of Texas and for­mer city coun­cil mem­ber of Hous­ton, gets his book signed by author Rob Sch­mitz (left) after a dis­cus­sion on Aug 3.

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