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.


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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49 thoughts on “Living the Chinese Dream”

  1. I saw this book highlighted in WORLD magazine and since my family has missionary connections to China, I really look forward to reading it. Thanks for your good review.


  2. You have peaked my interest Michele! It is interesting to read from an outsider’s perspective – to gain insight and empathy for the people behind the policies. Thanks for the review! (Thanks for linking up today!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So interesting! I know that I tend to view things through the lens of being American and don’t understand how other cultures think. Books like these help me see differently!


    1. Yes, I’m so happy when I can find a book that takes me outside myself and helps me to see the world through a different lens.
      Always good to hear from you, Jerralea!


  4. “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.” This really touched me, as I continue to pray and learn about my Vietnamese daughter-in-law’s family and culture. Sometimes it feels like the gulf is too wide to understand, but then I remember that Jesus has already crossed that gulf! Thanks for the encouragement that you brought here! Blessings to you!


    1. OH! This is so well said, and I love knowing one more fact about your life and your days. Aren’t daughters-in-law just the best thing? I’m so blessed to have two, and even though they are born and bred Americans, I still want to be careful to understand their “cultural” underpinnings.
      Blessings to you, Bettie!


  5. Hi! Michelle,

    I really enjoyed your review, you have a great writing style! I love learning about new cultures. Thanks so much for sharing! #ChasingCommunity

    Blessings, Misty


  6. Michele, the boy on the cover of this book looks just like my friend’s son! So cute. 🙂 Thank you for this review … I love these kinds of books and can’t wait to read it when my library hold comes in.


  7. When I read things like this, I feel especially blessed to have been born into this free land, through no fault of my own. And, sometimes I wonder why. Why me and not them? The lifestyles are so different–the mindsets, too. It’s easy to get caught up in our busy and forget there are others a world away, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing, Michele. ((hug))


  8. Michele,
    We almost took a job assignment outside Shanghai. You don’t have a car, you have a driver or you ride your bike. I just had visions of me with my blonde hair with my little guy with pale skin and a carrot top in the bike seat behind me. When I investigated living there…there is so much to their culture. When you have to weigh living in a country with a Communist government, it really makes you look at the freedoms you value. Great review.
    Bev xx


  9. Had my son not moved to China, I think it would have never occurred to me to pick up this book. The experiences he relays to us are often hard to wrap the head around. I’m definitely putting this on my list and so appreciate your reviews…always so interesting and enticing!


  10. Hi Michele–I’ve finally sat down to properly digest this good review. Thank-you! I enjoy journalistic accounts of other places. They are so eye-opening. This book reminds me of one I read by Rohinton Mistry last month (Tales from Firozsha Baag) in order to ‘try out’ a new author. His is a novel but very probably built from real-life details. Each chapter is the story of one family/person in an apartment complex whose lives inevitably intertwine. He adds in the element of the passage of time and what comes of their hopes and dreams. Quite nicely done and a good slice of life on yet another continent–India.
    Hmm… but of the people on my own block I know almost nothing. Ours is such an independent culture…Thanks for reading and sharing. This title is on my radar now!


    1. Glad you had some time to sit down and digest — and that you let me know about it. One of my favorite things about sharing books is hearing what other people are thinking about them. Your recent read sounds like a good one. And I’m such a blinders-on liver of life that books like this open my mind to the possibility of taking the risk to be more vulnerable. I blame it on my “northern-ness” — the Canadian heritage, etc., but I think it’s more rightly known as selfishness.


  11. The Chinese have really risen to power if you think about where they came from or how they were before. I think it’s just right because they’re an aggressive people.


    1. And it’s fascinating (I think) to see the juxtaposition of the old beside the new. May the truth of the gospel find its way into the hearts of the people for permanent and life-affirming change!


  12. This looks good is intriguing. I taught a philosophy class and covered Taoism (have you ever read “The Tao of Pooh”?…it teaches Taoism through Winne the Pooh!). Also, “ABC”(American Born Chinese) is another good one, a graphic novel.


  13. This sounds like an amazing and challenging book. I have no concept of what China is like and I imagine my little knowledge would perceive it as stereotypical. I imagine you had to read through this book slowly to absorb all that the author was trying to convey. Your last words about the neighbors on your rural street were impactful. It is a challenge to go deeper than just what we see on the outside of a person. Thank you for another great review.


    1. Yes, this was a delightfully slow read, and I was thankful for that. And I’ve been thinking about how insulated I am here on this beautiful country road — this author puts me to shame, really. So it was a case of the right book at the right time for me.


  14. Fantastic job on representing the book, as well as representing the culture. I learned a lot just reading this review!


  15. Oh this looks fabulous for the summer. I love reading about different cultures, this is definitely going on my reading list. Thank you so much for sharing #TwinklyTuesday x


    1. I enjoyed ever word, Lisa. It had the same draw for me and the same “page turner” effect as a good novel usually has for me. I’m sure you’ll enjoy toting it around in your summer bag!


  16. This would be a step out of my go-to genres, but it looks good. Well, your reviews make any book look amazing! 🙂 Thanks for sharing at #LMMLinkup.


    1. I completely agree, April, that this is a great summer read. While the individual stories carry throughout the book, it’s easy to stop and then come back to because the author switches view points. Great for the beach bag!


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