A longtime NPR reporter who has lived and worked in China for more than a decade offers an engaging account of how ordinary Chinese are navigating the complex changes and challenges in their evolving nation.
In an ingenious experiment to interview people in a relaxed, private manner, Langfitt, a former taxi driver in Philadelphia who is now the London correspondent for NPR, offered free cab rides in Shanghai in exchange for conversation. Since roof lights were not permitted, the author festooned his car with magnetic signs (“Make Shanghai friends, Chat about Shanghai life”). Most people seemed delighted at the free ride and opened up to the Mandarin-speaking foreigner. His passengers included Rocky, “a farm boy turned Shanghai lawyer,” and Charles, a salesman who went on to work for a European newspaper. During road trips, the talk often turned political, and his passengers revealed their thoughts about the state of the roads, Chairman Mao, and the corruption built into the communist system. The tales of Rocky and Charles resurface throughout the work, and in each chapter, Langfitt offers examples of those searching for what Xi Jinping calls the “Chinese Dream.” There’s Joanna, a human rights lawyer who was once imprisoned in a public park; Crystal, a Chinese immigrant in America whose sister had disappeared in the mountains of Southwest China and who urged Langfitt to help in the search; and Ashley, a young professional who grew up in a family of party officials but moved to America “in search of political freedom months before the election of Donald Trump.” All are in search of individual wealth and freedom, now championed by China in a new era in which the country is asserting itself in the world yet still leaving people behind. Lively, humorous, and touching, the book exposes the struggles of regular people in conflict with an authoritarian state.
Without judgment, the author/driver allows his subjects to narrate their own adventures, leading to honest, raw, human stories.