Rob Schmitz has witnessed enormous changes in China since he first lived in rural Sichuan twenty years ago. For the last six years, he has been based in Shanghai serving as a correspondent for Marketplace, a radio program produced by American Public Media that enjoys 12 million listeners each week, receiving multiple awards for his stellar reporting. His first book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, was just released yesterday. Set along the shady street where he and his family live in Shanghai’s former French Concession, his book is one of the best I’ve read about China’s sweeping social and economic transformations. I recently caught up with him via email to ask the following series of questions.
Susan Blumberg-Kason: You served in the Peace Corps in Sichuan in the 1990s and returned to Chengdu for a year in 2000. A decade later you moved to Shanghai as the China correspondent for Marketplace. After you left in 2000, did you ever think you would live in China again?
Rob Schmitz: The Peace Corps planted the seed, and China has prominently figured in my work as a journalist ever since. During the decade following my service, I made numerous trips back to the country for a number of reasons. I shot documentaries in Beijing and Tibetan parts of the country for The Learning Channel and the CBC. I returned to report stories for NPR affiliates KPCC and KQED. I followed California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his trade mission through the country. I led an educational tour of Yunnan province. When Marketplace posted their Shanghai Correspondent position in 2009, it seemed like a natural fit.
How well did you know Shanghai before you moved there with your family?
I’d visited Shanghai several times, but my stops were scattered over a 10-year period. Each time, the city looked and felt completely different. In retrospect, Shanghai was one of the world’s largest construction sites for the better part of that decade. When I moved there in 2010, I was accompanied by my wife and son, and the city was largely complete. Shanghai was hosting the World’s Fair, and I was starting a new life in China as a foreign correspondent.
In your reports for Marketplace, you have profiled the goings-on along the Street of Eternal Happiness. When did you decide you wanted to write a book and how did you choose to frame it as a profile of the people you’ve met on the street?
After you’ve reported on China for a while, you begin to show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Things change so quickly on the ground, and the economy is growing so rapidly, that a correspondent’s job can become overwhelming. I struggled with how to capture the impact of all this change on everyday Chinese, and that became the inspiration for the Marketplace series. I’d take a year to focus on everyday people who work and live along a single street – the street I live on – to tell stories about the profound economic and social changes taking place in 21st century China.
The stories began as local snapshots, but soon I realized my characters exemplified universal narratives that apply to all Chinese. These stories were fascinating, at turns heartbreaking, and full of drama. For example, CK’s quest to become a sandwich shop entrepreneur on the Street eventually broadened into a search for spirituality as he learned that China’s material culture left him empty and wanting. The character Zhao Shilin worked her way from factory worker to a successful florist on the street to provide a better life for her sons, but their status as migrants have heartrending consequences on how their lives unfold. I was writing not just about a single street in a single city, but about everyday Chinese and their worries, doubts, hopes, and dreams.
It wasn’t so long ago that Chinese residents were hesitant to speak with foreigners. Was it awkward at first when you asked to interview your neighbors for the book? Which topics were the most difficult to bring up with them?
I’m not only a foreigner, but a foreigner with a very large microphone. If that didn’t scare them off, then little else did. I told people upfront I was interviewing them for a series, and later for a book. Some politely declined, but most people I approached thought my work sounded interesting, and they were open to answering questions about their lives. I soon became intertwined in the lives of a few, traveling back to their hometowns, joining a Buddhist pilgrimage, attending underground church services, and tagging along on pyramid-scheme investment meetings. The experiences reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’s line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” I obviously didn’t keep my feet.
Throughout the pages of Street of Eternal Happiness, you discuss the government’s campaign to promote high suzhi, a word describing people’s “quality” or level of education. You also write about the great influx of migrants to Shanghai (and other large cities in China) over the past two decades. What prompted the government to encourage its citizens to achieve high suzhi?
Elevating the suzhi level — or quality — of its people remains an ongoing goal of the Chinese government. In Shanghai, the campaign peaked during the run-up to the 2010 World’s Fair, which attracted millions of tourists. To prepare its citizens for being on the world stage, the city government published an etiquette guide entitled “How to be a Lovely Shanghainese” and sent free copies to my neighbors along the street. I consult my office copy whenever I’m in need of a good laugh.
Shanghai’s behavioral engineers left no stone unturned. They devoted sections of the guidebook to minutiae such as “How to style your hair correctly” and “How to properly sit.” A section entitled “eating at a lunch buffet” was one of my favorites: “Don’t dash for food.” “Wait for the host to announce that the meal has started.” “Adopt the strategy of going to the buffet multiple times.”
Clear rules were needed. Over the past two decades, nearly 300 million people moved from China’s countryside to the city. In fact, roughly 40 percent of Shanghai’s population comes from other parts of China. This incredible mass movement from farm to city happened so quickly that local governments struggled to ensure everyone plays by the same etiquette rules.
You mention in the book that this time in Shanghai parallels America circa 1900.
That’s right. Millions of immigrants from impoverished parts of Europe were streaming into Ellis Island, and, as it happens, etiquette guides were the most popular literary genre in America around that time, meeting a demand to fit in and to master the behavioral rules of their adopted homeland. The same phenomenon is repeating itself today in 21st century Shanghai, as millions of Chinese arrive straight from the farm, mingling with one another and with their urban countrymen in a big melting pot at the mouth of the Yangtze.
Circling back to your Peace Corps experience, you are one of a handful of former Peace Corps Volunteers in China to write books that introduce Americans to contemporary China. Was there something in the water back then that produced so many insightful writers?
I think it was a case of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. Most foreigners in China in the 1990s lived either in Beijing or Shanghai, and had come to study Chinese, report on the country, or make money – sometimes all three. Those of us in the Peace Corps had come as volunteer teachers, we were sent to the countryside, and we spent the next two years in isolation, teaching – and learning from – our students and Chinese colleagues. This was before the Internet was available in that part of China, and calls back home were prohibitively expensive, so there were very few distractions in the way of soaking up the language and culture, and if you didn’t want to do that, you were going to have a pretty miserable two years, because the places we were sent to were remote and undeveloped. It was a sink or swim type of situation, and I think many of us dove in headfirst.