What do you think about when you think of China? One of the oldest civilizations, China today is full of contradictions. It’s a world power that is still ruled by the Communist Party while seeing incredible wealth and even more incredible poverty. You hear about Chinese tourists bringing shame to a nation of one billion people, remember the incredible displays of sheer manpower during the Olympics, and raise an eyebrow regarding most news stories that come out of the Middle Kingdom.
I have a lot of feelings when I think about China, because it does seem to be in a huge transition, and has been since the Communist Party took over. What I feel even weirder about is the fact that much of what I have learned about China’s modern history has been not from my family who lived through it but from white outsiders like reporters and historians, or through my (white) teachers at school. I didn’t know about the Cultural Revolution until high school, and it occurred to me that my grandparents were probably reeducated. (They were.) It’s not something that would just come up in casual conversation with my family. Can you imagine a conversation going:
Hey Dad, was grandpa reeducated in the countryside because he was a judge?
Yes, and most of the friends he made died of starvation, along with millions of other Chinese.
Oh. And did you really kill sparrows during the Great Famine?
Yes, all of us children would pile the bodies of the birds. It wasn’t until later that we learned that eliminating sparrows was allowing worse vermin to destroy crops and worsen the famine.
Not really a conversation that just comes up. But I always wondered about how China became what it is today. What’s the context for all of the growth and suffering that occurs in China today? What is the context for everything I see when I go back to visit my family?
The Street of Eternal Happiness does a really amazing job of helping to answer the questions I never even knew I had about modern China. The style of the book is super easy to read. If you’ve read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (which I would really recommend as well), it’s a very similar narrative style. A reporter tells the stories of residents in a neighborhood, and weaves their story with the narrative of their country, providing context for how things became what they are and capturing the people’s sentiments and fears and dreams. It reads like these fantastical stories but both books are non-fiction, with just some names and personal details changed.
Rob Schmitz, a blue-eyed 外国人 (waiguoren, foreigner) who speaks Chinese to the excitement and delight of the people he interviews, is a reporter living in Shanghai with his family while he reports on the Chinese economy. As a foreign reporter, he has access to stories that domestic reporters do not, and he has an outsider’s perspective that wasn’t affected by propaganda campaigns or the personal investment of having family and legacy on the line. While it felt strange to me to have a white man tell me about China, I realized that I did identify a lot with his outsider’s perspective, to take a few steps back to take a lot of different cultural factors into consideration to explain the phenomenon.
Schmitz follows different generations of Chinese people living on the “Street of Eternal Happiness”, 长乐路 Changle Lu, in a series of stories that you can find during the radio series that he was writing that inspired the book. We meet hipster millennials who did not have to live through the bitterness of the Cultural Revolution, but did have to endure the bitterness of their parents and supervisors and teachers who did. We meet people watching their way of life get trounced by the new money flowing around them in China, desperate to get their deserved piece of China’s growing wealth, knowing nothing but the many obstacles behind and in front of them. Schmitz writes very candidly about how the Party’s policies have negatively impacted its people, from the 户口 hukou policies that prevent migrant workers’ children from attending good schools in the city where they were raised to the illegal demolitions of homes to make room for the rich to get richer. He talks about how China’s cultural traditions are being tossed aside by the nouveau riche, and how the people getting left behind with these traditions are left wondering where they went wrong.
China has always been a fascinating country, with rich traditions and so much potential. While it has been so exciting to watch it grow and soar to new heights, it’s important to remember that cost of that growth. Read this book about the stories of people left behind, traditions left behind, entire luxury complexes left behind. Rob Schmitz has done an amazing job exploring the contextual history and culture around what has made the different tiers and generations of Chinese society what it is today, and where it could go in the future.
Go get it and read it. You’ll close the book knowing more about China than you realized you didn’t know. And hungry to learn more.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.