Reviewed by Peter Van Deekle (Iran 1968-70)
How can any Westerner comprehend much less understand the complexities of modern China? With its vast landmass and diverse populations, its centuries-long dynasties, imposed isolation from the world, and its dynamic political and financial emergence, China represents the ultimate challenge for modern international relations.
So, what prospects can an American have for beginning to grasp the conflicting and converging elements of modern China? While these prospects may face any American, Peace Corps service (begun toward the end of the Twentieth Century in China — 1993) offers among the broadest and deepest opportunities for meaningful understanding of China’s ancient traditions and incredibly rapid growth and change today.
Rob Schmitz accepted his Peace Corps assignment to China in 1996, and served there for two years. Confronting a wholly alien written language, and deep and diverse oral tradition of multiple dialects, and becoming immersed in the local culture, Rob acquired a passionate interest in China and its people. While this immersion is, ultimately, an objective of any Peace Corps Volunteer, Rob extended its significance by returning to China with his wife and two sons, and establishing a home in Shanghai as NPR’s China correspondent for Marketplace.
Rob’s new book, Street of Eternal Happiness, succeeds in large part because of his prevailing passionate interest in the Chinese people, told through vivid accounts of his friendships with local residents on and round the Street of Eternal Happiness near his home. Far from seeking the company and containment of Shanghai’s expatriate community, Rob and his family become attached to the lives and stories of his local neighbors — each of whom has experienced cataclysmic and profound changes in their personal lives due to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and beyond.
Rob’s book exhibits a journalist’s detachment, but also a substantial personal connection to his subjects. And these subjects surround the lives of his neighbors, with whom he becomes a trusted and caring family friend. Take young CK’s quest for material success and ultimate pursuit of moral and spiritual understanding through Buddhism. Or Zhao’s courageous move from village life to the big city — leaving her husband and raising her sons (even through pursuit of marriage prospects for each). And then there are Auntie Fu and Uncle Feng bound together by circumstance more than affection living parallel lives in their tiny apartment. For Auntie Fu, the emergence of “get rich quick” investment opportunities coupled with Christian revivalism become all too compelling, while her husband distains it all. Her story engages Rob Schmitz in an investigation of the merits and impact of these “opportunities.”
What makes Street of Eternal Happiness so captivating for readers is the author’s ability to craft a tale of modern China reinforced by thorough research appropriate to each story. And Rob Schmitz becomes an active participant in the stories of each life his book details.
This is a wonderful book for anyone seeking greater knowledge and understanding of modern China — told through the lives (often desperate and demanding) of residents on the Street of Eternal Happiness and the neighboring Maggie Lane. Like the Peace Corps spirit itself, the book demonstrates the value of knowing a culture through an appreciation of the individual relationships among its people.
Reviewer Peter Van Deckle began his Peace Corps service informally in the summer of 1963, as a teenage volunteer at headquarters in Washington, D.C. He has been an academic administrator in a variety of public and private colleges and universities since his return to the United States, and currently, having retired to the Washington, D.C. area, he is the Community News Editor for the National Peace Corps Association.