Cover image for I chose China : the metamorphosis of a country and a man
I chose China : the metamorphosis of a country and a man
Shapiro, Sidney.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Hippocrene Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
v, 355 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
"Originally published in 1997 as My China by New World Press, Beijing, China"--T.p. verso.

Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS779.29.S44 A3 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Locked inside a flotation tank, a woman "s thoughts float from hamsters to the hauntings of desperate family secrets.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

"I have tried in these pages to tell something of what it is like to be a particle in the centrifuge that created one of the most momentous changes in Chinese history," writes Shapiro, a Jewish lawyer from New York, and a contemporary of the Westerners such as Edgar Snow (author the classic Red Star Over China) who fell under the Communist country's spell in the 1940s. In 1947, at age 32, Shapiro traveled to China to perfect his Yale University-learned Chinese, and fell in love with Mao's revolution and with Phoenix, a Chinese actress, writer and revolutionary, whom he married in 1948; in 1963, he became a Chinese citizen. While Phoenix traveled with her political work, Shapiro raised their daughter (who now attends college in the U.S.), wrote about Jews in China and witnessed many major events, such as the Cultural Revolution, the purge of the Gang of Four and the Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy. In sharp contrast to Chinese expatriates who have come to the U.S. bearing stories of oppression, this expatriate American (who has visited the U.S. six times since his initial departure) retains the idealistic fervor that gripped many Western radicals in the 1960s: "Certainly the influence of the Chinese revolution on China and the world is beyond question. It has brought a better life for the Chinese people, a better chance of peace and prosperity for people of other lands." Even though Phoenix died in 1996, Shapiro plans, at age 84, to remain there. This rare firsthand account by an American of China's transformation in the last 50 years will fascinate anyone interested in this great unfolding story. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Shapiro, a Brooklyn-born lawyer with a modicum of wartime Chinese language training, arrived in China in 1947 at the beginning of the Cold War. Enchanted with the Communist revolution, he married a Chinese woman and settled in Beijing, where he led a privileged life while working for the Foreign Language Press. His loosely structured memoir weaves his own interesting story with a party-line history of the People's Republic that glosses over such horrors as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Although a prolific and talented literary translator, Shapiro here employs the ugly vocabulary of Maoist propaganda when inveighing against China's real or imagined enemies. It is hard to tell whether he remains a true believer in "the magnificent experiment" of the Communist revolution or is merely a skillful trimmer. Either way, if you are going to read only one book about China this year, don't make it this one. Recommended only for larger libraries with collections on Asia.--Steven I. Levine, Univ. of Montana, Missoula (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt Growing Up in Brooklyn, the Scholar 1915-1938 We lived on the third floor of a five-story walk-up in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn in 1919, from which I date my first fairly clear childhood recollections. The building, on the corner of 47th Street and 8th Avenue, had hot water and steam heat, but no elevator--no problem for an energetic four year old. Across the street stood a modest synagogue enclosed in an iron picket fence. I was thin and supple enough to be able to slip through the bars, accompanied by a couple of daring pals, and explore the yard and peek into the exotic interior of the temple until we were shooed out by the shames (caretaker).     That was just about the extent of my Jewish activities then, except for my admiration of a wonderful man, our neighbor on the second floor, Dr. George Bacarat. He came from Lyons, and had been the Jewish chaplain of the French scientific investigation of the ruins of Pompeii. He said that when they opened a vacuum-sealed room they found a family gathered around a table as if they had just sat down to dinner. The figures quickly crumbled to dust when exposed to the fresh air.     After coming to America, Dr. Bacarat was invited to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Memphis, Tennessee. There he married Minni, a sweet Jewish girl from Paterson, New Jersey, who acquired a molasses-thick southern drawl, still strong when they moved to Borough Park. They and my parents became good friends, and I felt free to wander into their apartment unannounced. On Sunday mornings I would stand beside Dr. Bacarat, holding on to the fringes of his prayer shawl as he intoned his devotions in a rich baritone. Our two families remained close for many years.     Dr. Bacarat was a learned man who could speak half a dozen languages and understand and read half a dozen more. He told us that "Shapiro" was of Aramaic origin. My father explained that our family name was actually Kaliarski, but that when his parents first came to New York, they lived on the top floor of a cold-water tenement. Unfortunately, nearly all the other occupants were Russian and Polish immigrants, and their names also ended in "ski." When the mailman delivered letters he would stand at the bottom of the stairwell, blow his whistle and shout out the names. By the time the sounds floated up to the top floor only the "ski" could be heard clearly.     My grandparents grew fired of running down six flights of stairs in vain, and then having to climb up again. They therefore changed Kaliarski to Shapiro, which they considered a "good American name." My father was always joking, so I'm inclined to take that tale with a grain of salt.     To me, my mother and father were Mom and Pop, the usual titles for parents in our neighborhood. Softly pretty Mom had a spine of iron. She was the tough integument which held us together. Mom had to be strong. While I managed to escape the influenza epidemic which killed half a million Americans at the end of World War I, I caught most of the prevalent childhood diseases and endured two mastoid operations before I was six. Mom nursed me at home and took me to doctors on subways and buses.     In addition she had to watch over my father's health. He had only recently finished convalescing from a bout of pulmonary tuberculosis, the "poor man's disease" so common among immigrant families raised on New York's Lower East Side. A struggling young lawyer, he traveled by subway to his office in lower Manhattan every day, and was in no condition to be of much help around the house by the time he returned.     I was born on December 23, 1915. Many years later, in 1960, when I was already a long-term resident of China, Mom sent me a touching letter on the occasion of my birthday. I treasure it because it graphically reflects her courage and love. It reads: Forty-five years ago this afternoon you first saw the light of a blizzard, for that is what happened that day. Should you have forgotten, the night before you were born the hospital on East Broadway, New York, telephoned me at midnight to come to the hospital at once. The Culver Line was running very infrequently from Boro Park in Brooklyn, where we lived. When Pop and I finally got to the Manhattan side of the old Brooklyn Bridge, we were told that the horse cars which ran along East Broadway had stopped at midnight. We had to walk in that snowstorm all the way to Montgomery Street and stop in doorways where I could catch my breath, and then continue on. (Cabs were not in use then.) We finally reached the hospital at 5 a.m., half dead, and found no beds available. I had to sit in the supply room with other women on stacks of linen until the following noon. You decided not to appear until 5 o'clock that afternoon. As I am telling you this, it all seems as though it happened just yesterday. You were a red lobster infant with long dark hair which eventually became very fair. You certainly were some baby!     Mom was not amused when her brother Jerry Samuelson came to visit her in the hospital. Jerry was then a student at Cornell, in the Ag School. He jestingly said I had the fine rosy skin of a pig, the bright eyes of a Rhesus monkey, and went on to note my resemblances to various other animals incarcerated in Cornell's experimental laboratory. Mom was so indignant she wouldn't speak to Jerry for the next ten years.     He became the most successful financially of her five brothers and sisters. Jerry later ran a feed and grain mill in Toms River, New Jersey, and employed younger brother Max. Jim was studying law. Vivacious Ida went through a series of romances before marrying and settling down. Anna, the eldest, a dark-haired beauty, acquired her second husband, Uncle Julius, a wealthy realtor who killed himself when he went bankrupt. The Samuelsons were a handsome, colorful bunch.     Pop had two brothers but no sister. Jack was a post office clerk, Sam was an optician. They were quiet, pleasant enough, but we didn't see them very much.     Knowledge of my antecedents went back only as far as my grandparents. Both paternal and maternal grandparents arrived in America in the 1890s with the tide of refugees from the pogroms of czarist Russia. My father's people were Ukrainians from Kiev, former serfs. Grandma Shapiro was a milkmaid as a girl. Grandpa Shapiro was a tailor. They lived above his shop on Brighton Beach Avenue, less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean shore. Though rather short, Grandpa skillfully operated the big pressing machine. I liked watching the steam hissing out.     Grandma ran a "candy store" next door. When we visited, once or twice a month, she would make me the most delicious chocolate malteds, thick, with ice cream mixed in. She also baked superb potato knishes, not the light sissy stuff you get today, but bedded in chicken fat, and blended with grits and fried onions. They rested in your stomach with a cannon-ball solidity which provided nourishment for hours.     She never lost her peasant practicality, even after years in America. Their bathtub was used mainly as a pool for big black carp, waiting to fulfill their role as gefulte fish for Friday night dinners, or to be served cold to Sunday visitors like us. The meals would be topped off by home-brewed "vishnik" brandy. Grandma Shapiro's formula was to put cherries, water, and a little sugar in bottles which she corked tightly and buried in their small backyard. Two or three years later, she filled our glasses with--ambrosia.     The only impediment to our complete enjoyment was the elevated railway outside the windows of the second floor flat in which they lived. Each time the Brighton Express went roaring past it shook the walls and rattled the dishes. All conversation stopped for at least a minute. Perhaps nostalgia has smoothed out the rough inconvenience, but I sometimes think how useful it would be to have hurtling iron cars come clattering by to provide even a temporary respite to some of the turgid silly chatter to which we are often exposed!     Mom's parents were "Litvaks" from Vilna, Lithuania, typically fair, blond, northern Europeans. Grandpa was Samuel Samuelson, and this had been the name of his father, and his father before him--and of every first-born son back into family history--Samuel, son of Samuel. I was told that in Lithuania the Samuelsons had been "scholars," which meant, I suppose, that they had been literate and didn't have to work with their hands.     I was only mildly curious about my European background. What little I heard of it sounded fusty and dreary. My grandparents had left Russia voluntarily, gladly, and had come to America with a dream of a new and better life. To a certain extent they found it. From the lower East Side of New York City, where they and many of their fellow refugees had settled, they worked their way up into the ranks of the lower middle-class. It was the vibrant present that counted, not the past.     My own parents were not only disinterested in their European origins, they hated them, disowned them. They took pride in being Americans, they were fiercely patriotic, they laughed at neighbors who still hadn't shed their foreign ways, foreign accents.      It was this kind of environment in which I was raised. My pretty mother by the time I was born was able to give up her job as a typist and devote herself entirely to household chores, and to my father and to me. Pop had satisfied the ideal of his immigrant parents, who at great financial sacrifice had put him through college, and had become a "professional man," a lawyer. His dream was for a constantly rising income, a happy home, success in his career as an attorney, and to be a respected member of the community.     I was then only a child, and as yet had no lofty dreams. But as I grew older I could see that Pop's dream wasn't mine. While I agreed with his aims, and even embraced them, I sensed that for me they were not enough. There was a vague desire gnawing within me which I couldn't identify. I knew only that I wanted more, that I should do more. But what, and how, and where? I had to travel thousands of miles, all the way to China, to find the answer.     Our next step up the ladder was when I was six, and we moved to the upper floor of a two-family house on the corner of 12th Avenue and 54th Street, also in Borough Park. I started primary school, about four long blocks away, where I would walk every morning. I liked school, and developed confidence bordering on aggression.     In third grade I had a fight with another boy. We arranged to meet in a nearby lot after class, and flailed away with more enthusiasm than technique, cheered and jeered by an audience of surrounding schoolmates. I went proudly home that day sporting a black eye. Uncle Julius, who happened to be visiting, was delighted. He rushed to a neighborhood sporting goods store, bought an expensive punching bag set, and attached it to a beam in the basement. Though I never became, as he hoped, the National Flyweight Champion, I enjoyed pummeling the bag. My mother was less pleased, since the exercise sent shivers through our jerry-built house.     I learned to roller-skate, and played hockey on the smoothly paved street in games between pick-up teams. The skates, swung in the hand, were used as weapons in battles between the Jewish kids and raiding Italian boys from a neighborhood nearby. I stayed far away from those clashes. By a miracle no one was killed, but some of the wounds were severe.     In winter, when snow covered the sloping road, we went "belly-whopping" on our Flexible Flyers. Translation: we ran with our sleds, threw them down with ourselves flat on top, and steered the swift slide to the bottom of the hill. If we could persuade a friendly driver of a car, we tied our sleds in trains to the rear bumper of his car, and he pulled us around the block in what to us was breathless speed.     Mom gave up her struggle to maintain a kosher kitchen and keep the "milk" dishes separate from the "meat" dishes, but she did occasionally prepare delicious traditional North European Jewish treats. Taiglach --little dough balls baked together with honey, almonds and ginger; potato pancakes; and two kinds of borscht--the cabbage variety, with its meat and potatoes, which my Russian paternal ancestors preferred; or the beet type, served with sour cream and boiled potato, the favorite of my Litvak maternal grandparents.... We kept bottles of the beet soup in the ice box, along with bottles of pasturized milk, and I would drink glasses of one or the other to quench my thirst when hot and sweaty.     In line with further catering to my voracious boyhood appetite, I would walk a block to a store where for a nickel, five cents, you could buy half a chunk of Nestlé chocolate. A dime, ten cents, would give you half an Eskimo pie, chocolate covered ice cream. A slightly less honest method was applied on Saturday afternoons, when we had no school. With a few classmates I would repair to the local Loew's movie theater and watch the "double feature," to which a newsreel and a serial were usually added. We enjoyed feats of dangerous derring-do, and groaned loudly and hissed the scenes of tender kisses.     Attached to the back of each seat was a gadget which dispensed a roll of chocolate lozenges if you deposited a five-cent coin. The delicacy was called Eatmores, and it bore the slogan "the more you eat the more you want." We did full honor to this assertion, having found a way to induce the machine to disgorge the product without being fed the nickel.     My childhood literary tastes were not of the highest. I liked the series called "The Rover Boys." Though fond of Tom, "the fun-loving Rover," I found Dick, the priggish, virtuous hero, hard to take. An early favorite was the Dick Merriwell paperbacks, breathless adventure tales staged in a mainly city environment. Mom forbade me to read them because they were badly printed on terrible paper. I would read them anyhow in bed at night, using a flashlight under the blanket. This hastened my rapidly developing myopia. I had to keep getting thicker glasses. Mom burned the Merriwells whenever she got her hands on them.     From these I moved progressively to Tarzan and stories about Martian monsters, and other science fiction, and then graduated to Pinnocchio and the Three Musketeers.     A real estate boom was spreading in the mid-1920s. Pop's law practice flourished. Every small business man bought property, storefronts, second, and even third, mortgages. Pop was kept busy searching titles, drawing contracts, closing deals. At last we had some money to spend. We went on short vacations; I went to summer camps; Pop bought a Buick.     Having wheels broadened our horizons. Every few months we drove to Lakewood, New Jersey, and spent the weekend with Mom's parents. They lived in a small frame house on the outskirts of town. It had been farmland not many years before. There were trees all around, and the fragrance of honeysuckle was everywhere. Grandma Samuelson raised chickens in the backyard. About ten yards beyond the rear gate was a large pine forest which grew well in the sandy soil.     They spoke proudly of their neighbor John D. Rockefeller. He had a summer home in the former Gould estate, in a pine forest a mile or so down the road. J.D. carried a bag full of dimes which he handed out to little boys he met in the course of his walks in public. In the Depression years he cut these down to a nickel.     We would start for home early on Sunday afternoon. It was a five-hour drive back to Brooklyn. We had to go through the Amboys to reach the ferry that would take us across Staten Island Bay. Sometimes we would see fiery crosses burning in the dark on nearby hillsides. The Ku Klux Klan were active in violence in the North, South and Midwestern United States, on the heels of a general rise of vicious repression against Blacks.     I must have been a precocious little devil. Pop thought it necessary to speak to me seriously a month or so after we got home. We had called on a client of his in Lakewood who ran a hotel and had a nine-year-old daughter. I was six or seven. She was a cute blond child. The client phoned Pop to say I had written her a romantic letter which had considerably upset her, and would Pop please ask me to quit. Though I generously consented, I have never lost my appreciation of beauty.     By the time I was 12, in 1927, we reached new heights in our imagined affluence. The market continued in its upward trend. You could buy stock on very small margins. Optimism reigned supreme. We reached the Nirvana of middle class Brooklyn Jews--a home of our own in Flatbush.     Covered by a Spanish-style tile roof and a substantial mortgage, it was a wooden frame one-family house, two stories high, resting on a large terraced plot. We had gardens front and back, and a two-car garage in the rear. All the houses on the block were of the same general structure, but were painted in different colors. A few were of brick, rather than wood. Newly planted saplings lined the unpaved road.     We were on East 28th Street between Avenues P and Q. The street ended at Q also called Quentin Road. Beyond that was open farmland. In the middle of a huge field was a complex of houses occupied by a large Italian family, reputed to be prosperous bootleggers. I was taken there by a classmate, one of the many progeny. They were warm, effusive people, and plied me with rich food of delightful aroma.     The fathers of some of my best friends were bootleggers, or high-jackers, or members of the other dangerous professions engendered by the Volstead amendment, better known as Prohibition. Genuine liquors were very costly. A boy on our block took me to his family's finished basement and showed me a closet full of expensive choice imports. His Italian father, a successful bootlegger, could scarcely speak English. His younger, smartly dressed, mother drove an open red roadster.     Arty Coogan and I were classmates in James Madison High School. His family were strictly moral Irish Catholics. The sons were forbidden to say a single improper word in their mother's presence. They had to go to early mass every Sunday morning, no matter until what hour they were up drinking and carousing the night before. Arty's dad and his associates earned their living persuading gentlemen driving trucks laden with bottles of booze smuggled in from ships off the shores of Long Island Sound to transfer their cargoes to them. Weight was added to their arguments by the presence of heavy wrenches and long crowbars in their hands. Usually a few taps were all that was necessary. Not too many persons were killed. Slaughter was more widespread in the shoot-outs between rival gangs fighting for control of the illegal liquor business.     Also lethal was bathtub gin, as the home-made brew concocted by unskillful and unscrupulous amateurs was generally called. It was popular, cheap, and readily available. It caused the untimely end of thousands. Many of those who survived went blind.     I don't mean to give the impression that the Italians and the Irish had a monopoly on rum-running. Jewish gangs, originating in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and spreading city-wide, were among the most powerful of the racketeers in liquor, prostitution, gambling, and extortion. On the flip side, Jews produced significant figures in science, business, entertainment, and the arts. That both of these aspects should exist side by side was not surprising in a city hosting the world's largest Jewish population.     Sometimes the two overlapped. My father was offered a hefty annual retainer to act as lawyer for the Shirtmakers Association of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was tempted until he learned they were controlled by Mr. Joe Adonis and his friends. When the Mob moved in, Pop moved out. His honesty and decency always prevented my father from becoming a financial success.     He had vision and courage. Pop organized a theatrical company to stage a revival of an old musical comedy, No, No, Nannette . He promoted a soccer match between leading European players in Madison Square Garden using a slightly deflated ball. Somehow none of his ventures panned out. Yet while his failures temporarily depressed him, like that slightly deflated ball he kept bouncing back.     Our street was new and raw, equipped with only temporary sewers. Heavy rains would flood our finished basement and create a small lake stretching from the top of the terraces on our side of the road to terraces on the other. We slim young lads were able to heighten the Venetian atmosphere by poling around on two-by-six boards, singing like happy gondoliers.     That part of Flatbush, though it would be considered virtually contemporary from the Chinese historical viewpoint, was very old by American standards. Running through the center was the old Kings Highway, built in the days of George III. A number of Dutch buildings predated British rule. One carefully preserved farmhouse, only five blocks from where we lived, retained its large yard, a stable, and big trees. A Hessian mercenary soldier had carved his initials on one of the farmhouse windowsills.     The primary school I attended, P.S. 197, fronted on Kings Highway, and was brand new. It had just been built the year before, replacing the old dilapidated structure known as the "chicken coop." We boys would try to get there early each morning to have time for a quick game of handball against the high building wall before the daily music appreciation session began.     This meant lining up in the big paved yard according to class, and listening to "good" classical music played on a large phonograph. The purpose was to teach us to recognize and name the selection and the composer. We were aided in attaining that purpose by memorizing suitable catchy jingles. Gems like "This is the symphony which Schubert wrote and never finished," and "Listen to the Song of Spring by Mendelssohn" certainly did the trick. To this day I never fail to identify such pieces every time I hear them. Unfortunately, those cursed jingles immediately squawk in my ears and utterly ruin my appreciation. Nevertheless, despite the advanced pedagogical methods of P.S. 197, I did develop a real love of music over the years.     Our classes in "civics" seemed to tell me little about national and world affairs, either because I was apathetic or because they were poorly taught. One of the few events I remember was the solo flight across the Atlantic in the "Spirit of St. Louis" by Charles Lindbergh in 1927. The whole school turned out and stood on the side of Kings Highway to watch "Lucky Lindy" and his cavalcade roll by. He was the picture of a true hero, young and handsome. He married a fine girl, the daughter of an American ambassador. They suffered a shocking tragedy five years later when their infant son was kidnaped and murdered.     I graduated from P.S. 197 in the summer of 1928, and started in James Madison High School that autumn. It was much bigger than my primary school, and seemed to me to be filled with brilliant and beautiful students. Perhaps this was because I was just entering my teens, but Madison did indeed produce many attractive graduates.     I would be 13 in December, which meant I had to begin preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Jewish boys, on becoming adolescents, go through a confirmation ceremony in a synagogue. They thank their parents for having raised them, and vow to fulfill the duties of adulthood. First, they must read some verses from the Torah, in Hebrew.     In order to learn enough of the ancient script to be able to read without stumbling, I joined a special training class with a few other boys the same age, and struggled to recognize and recite some of the words. It was difficult, but rather fascinating, trying to make sense of a language people had been conversing in thousands of years before. Our tutor was our old friend and learned scholar, Dr. George Bacarat.     He was excellent in inculcating us with a smattering of Hebrew. But it was much harder for him to explain the passages of Genesis, which he used as a text. I thought the story of creation unscientific and unconvincing. And God was, in turn, quick to anger, petulant, remorseless, and very prejudiced. It was nice for us Jews to be His favorite people, but what about the other races and religions? Didn't they count at all? God seemed to be sadly lacking in godlike qualities.     Obviously the Babylonian scribes who edited the first edition of the Old Testament imbued the Almighty with their very limited personal understanding and semi-civilized emotions. Although according to the Bible "God created man in His own image," it might be more accurate to say "the Babylonian scribes created God in their own image." They were absolutely the worst PR men God could have had. If He exists, I am sure he is infinitely superior to the faulted figure they depicted.     I was told I gave a creditable performance my day on the synagogue platform, closing with the traditional words, "Today I am a man." Hair on my upper lip, a breaking voice, and interesting developments in the pubic region had already led me to that suspicion. This confirmed it, but it also marked my last encounter with the religion of my ancestors. For my parents' sake I would go to synagogue services on high holidays, and I retained my love for Jewish jokes, culture, and culinary fare. But I became and remained a strictly secular Jew.     Mom and Pop gave a catered meal in a restaurant in my honor. Guests bestowed not only the usual cufflinks and fountain pens but also, no doubt stirred by the prevailing bullish optimism on Wall Street, stocks and bonds. In those days every small shopkeeper and pushcart peddler was speculating in the market.     In 1929, the bubble burst, stocks plummeted. According to a joke then going the rounds, whenever a well-dressed, harried-looking man requested a room on an upper floor of a hotel, he was asked: "For sleeping or for jumping?" Although I had the doubtful distinction of being wiped out in the market at the age of 14, I never was driven to such desperate measures. While I had not heard of Marx or Lenin at that time, I wouldn't be surprised if that blow had not planted the first seed of doubt in my faith in the capitalist system.     Our family fortunes began moving down again, and I supplemented our income slightly by taking a paper route for the Brooklyn Eagle, which I delivered daily, flinging copies from my bicycle to customers' doorsteps. I also sold fresh eggs shipped to me by Uncle Jerry from his farm in New Jersey. Not terribly profitable, but it did give a taste of the joys of free enterprise.     The Depression didn't depress us much. Our house was large and roomy. We had a full-time maid. There were many immigrant European gifts looking for work. I watered the lawn and cut the grass and polished the car, and walked the dog. We had a large affectionate German shepherd named Blitz who would put his front paws on the shoulders of my kid sister, Ruthy, who was then about eight, and knock her to the ground. It was no use explaining he only wanted to lick her face. We had to change him for a female Boston Bull, ugly as sin and soft as butter. Ruthy adored her. I called her Roxanne, after the heroine of surpassing beauty in Cyrano de Bergerac , a then very popular and excessively romantic play.     Our neighbors came from a variety of ethnic origins, typical of most Brooklyn communities. Next door, to our right, was an Italian mortician, whose business office was on Manhattan's East Side. He spoke New Yorkese with an Irish accent, no doubt due to the influence of his Irish wife, a large bosomy woman. She was devoutly Catholic. In times of heavy thunderstorms she would get under the bed with all three kids and intone urgent prayers to "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!" I had a fight with their boy Vinnie the day we arrived, by way of my initiation ceremony as the new kid on the block, and we were fast friends ever after.     Further down the block was an Irish husband-Jewish wife couple, who were always in debt, but who produced three daughters of surpassing beauty. Ruthy and one of them were classmates.     We also had the head of a well-known electrical appliance company, the owner of a laundry servicing babies' nappies, the busy bootlegger, and a leading fashion tailor of men's clothing. His two sons were my special buddies. With them, and a few others, I engaged in running and standing broad-jump contests, "stoop ball," and punch-ball and touch-football games. These were sports ingeniously created by city youngsters to be played on the streets in front of their homes. You had to stop once in a while to let automobiles go by. There were not so many of them in those days.     Besides displaying a certain skill on the school's gymnasium equipment, I joined the track team and ran in indoor meets in both the 440 m and 880 m events. My energy was endless. I would get up at five in the morning, put on my heavy socks and sneakers, and trot through the sleeping streets with two or three other pals. My parents thought I was crazy, but they didn't try to stop me.     Horseback riding was another of my passions. I had learned to ride in summer camp, where we knew nothing of breeches and boots. Our apparel was shorts and moccasins. In the city I usually cantered, more properly attired, through Prospect Park on Sunday mornings. My rented steed cost only a dollar an hour. That much I could afford. In later life I rode whenever I could, on a diversity of mounts in a variety of places.     Music obsessed me. I listened to the weekly broadcasts of symphony and opera with absolute concentration, refusing to be distracted by even a single question. I was a trial to my parents and to kid sister Ruthy, who always had a great number of questions to ask. I disdained Verdi's Aida with its live elephants and the booming cannon of Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture , embracing composers like Ravel and César Franck.     But it was Bach who held me in his thrall. One night at an open-air performance under the stars in Lewissohn Stadium in upper Manhattan I sat listening entranced to Bach's Art of the Fugue , played by two pianos. It is a scientific exposition on the fugue, starting with a simple theme for one hand, and working its way up with deliberate and almost mathematical clarity through more and more convolutions to a soaring reverse triple-mirror fugue. I ended emotionally exhausted and dripping wet.     Not all music had that effect on me, nor was I snobbishly limited in my tastes. I swooned with the rest of the audience watching Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne doing their love-struck waltz in Franz Lehar's Merry Widow , enjoyed the Mikado , Fats Waller, and Eddie Duchin. Films I liked ranged from All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Private life of Henry VIII , to It Happened One Night , and the Marx Brothers.     I loved Groucho, Chico and Harpo long before I ever heard of Karl. Groucho, explaining to Chico the provisions of commercial contract, says: "This is the sanity clause." To which Chico replies: "You can't fool me, boss. There ain't no Sanity Claus."     And Jimmy Duranty breathes deeply through his king-size proboscis like a kind of poor-man's Thoreau and murmurs: "I want to commute with nature."     And Dorothy Parker quips: "If all the girls at the Yale prom were laid end to end I wouldn't be a bit surprised."     And the Mrs. Malapropish Gracie Allen solemnly affirms: "Time wounds all heels...."     The humor of comedians like these convulsed me. On the surface zany, it held an underlying vein of satire. Jokes and puns and wisecracks are an integral part of the American psyche. When friends got together, or someone made a speech, or even gave a formal address, it was virtually compulsory to start off with a joke, hopefully a new one. Many of them were wry, and self-spoofing, particularly among ethnics, the Jews included, though it was considered bad form for members of one ethnic circle to make cracks about members of another. Every time I visit the States today I find jocularity still a prevailing social attribute.     Back in the 1930s I was impressed by two young men in the house opposite us on East 28th Street. They went to Dartmouth, and used to complain about the size of the allowance their father gave them. But then they stopped, and the story they told explained why. One of their classmates was a son of John D. Rockefeller. Most of the other boys drove to school in their own roadsters. Young Rockefeller had to come by trolley. His father only gave him ten dollars a week. Parents on our block widely circulated this parable among their sons as an object lesson on how to become a millionaire, and stay that way.     Girls didn't appeal to me much, at first. I was at a party one evening contentedly munching a hot dog with mustard and relish. We were playing "spin the bottle." I was irritated when the bottle pointed at me and a shapely girl came over and enthusiastically kissed me with my mouth full of delicatessen.     But before long I developed a friendlier attitude toward the fair sex. Girls who went to Madison High and lived in the neighborhood took turns in inviting a dozen or so young couples to their homes on Saturday nights. They served snacks and soft drinks and rolled up the parlor rug. We danced to the broadcast music of the top bands--Benny Goodman, Ben Bernie, Guy Lombardo.... The lights were turned lower after our hostess's parents went to bed. There was a certain amount of necking and petting, but it rarely went beyond that.     Many of us had a regular girlfriend, or boyfriend, as the case might be. Not to have one was damaging to prestige. We went out on "dates" together, to dances, to parties, to the movies. My girl was a lovely child named Beatrice. We met when we were about 16. She was merry and very pretty, with long dark hair and a fair creamy complexion. We got on wonderfully, and laughed a lot, and talked for hours about serious philosophic questions neither of us really understood.     Beatrice was soft and gentle and kindly, everything I was not. After high school we drifted apart. I had no money and was just starting on a quest for a career. Inevitably she married young. We ran into each other once or twice, but our meetings were awkward and painful. I don't know what she saw in the teenage me, but I'm grateful for the few years we had together.     I was learning about personal problems and, perhaps for that reason, becoming more sensitively aware of the dangers growing all around us. In Spain, Franco and his fascist hordes were taking over, aided by Germany and Italy, honing their tanks and bombers for the coming World War II. Washington declared "neutrality," leaving the democrats to their fate. The Nazis were rounding up German Jews. robbing them of their possessions, and sending them to concentration camps.     Unemployment in America was high. Men peddled apples and pencils on the streets. Homeless people lived in shanties they built on empty lots in communities called "Hoovervilles." There were strikes and hunger marches. Fanatics boldly preached racial and religious hatred in radio broadcasts and on street corners. A gang of home-grown Nazis set up a platform in front of the East 17th Street library in Flatbush and harangued the crowd, trying to convince them that the butchers in Germany were being maligned. Several off-duty Jewish policemen in plainclothes who happened to be in the audience beat them to a pulp.     My father enjoyed a brief flurry representing clients going down in bankruptcy and mortgage foreclosures. Pop said there was a place for me in his office if I later decided to join him. After graduating from high school, I had put in two years in a pre-law course at New York's St. John's University, mainly because I didn't see prospects of any other jobs available.     I didn't want to be a lawyer particularly. The stories I heard Pop and his colleagues tell about the vagaries of their profession held little interest for me. The problem was I didn't know what I wanted. I was healthy, fairly good-looking, and reasonably intelligent. I played ball with the boys, romanced the girls, and had no difficulty in getting good marks in school. Mothers held me up as an example for their sons to emulate, causing private snickers among my cronies. Things came to me easily, too easily, fanning the normal jauntiness of youth. Surely I could do better than sit in an office drawing legal documents?     But do what? Jobs were scarce and I had no special skills. It was at this point that I did something I was to do again when confronted by an apparently insoluble dilemma--I pulled up stakes and struck out for parts unknown.     While in college I had become friends with a classmate named Jerry Mann. Jerry also lived in Flatbush, and we knew people in common. What brought us together, however, was long and frequent theoretical discussions. Jerry was more advanced than I and had a rudimentary concept of class struggle. I saw it simplistically as a division between the haves and the have-nots, with the first callously trampling upon the second. My aim was to get into a position where no one could ever trample on me. I had no higher aspirations than that.     Jerry, whose father was a cutter in the garment industry, was also restless. A tough boy, handy with his fists, he too was seeking a more exciting future than life as a lawyer. We decided to go out together and look, to hitchhike across the country to California during our summer vacation. A friend of my father had settled there and ran the Twin Palms Hotel in Palm Springs. On a visit to New York some years previous he had told us glowing tales of the wonders of the West. Jerry and I agreed if we could find better prospects there, we'd take them. If not, we'd return to law school in New York.     We set out one morning in late June, 1934, heading for Chicago. We arrived four days later, feeling ourselves already veterans in thumbing rides and cadging meals. Pop had bet me ten dollars we never would get there. I immediately sent him a telegram asking him to promptly remit. He did.     In Chicago a world's fair was welcoming visitors from all over the globe. On a strict economy budget, we paid our calls after closing time, skirting around the fence where it met Lake Michigan, having persuaded the Georgia red-neck guard that we weren't out to steal anything, only to sleep on the long well-upholstered seats of the excursion buses parked inside. When the fair opened the next morning we breakfasted at the stand of the Beechnut Company, whose slogan was "Everything Beechnut but the coffee." We lined up a dozen times for each sample--tomato juice, toast, and bacon and eggs--until our appetites were sated.     We spent the next two days leisurely viewing the Fair, while dining on food samples and sleeping in the exhibition buses at night. What I remember most clearly was a pretty Swiss girl and the huge Saint Bernard dog she was looking after.     Reaching our next stop, Kansas City, proved more difficult. People seemed reluctant to give us rides. Was it our sprouting beards, and increasingly unkempt appearance? We found the reason one afternoon when, after waiting hours in vain for a lift on the outskirts of a city, we glanced at the telephone pole behind us. On it was a poster that said: WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE, JOHN DILLINGER ... and went on to give a detailed description of the killer for whom the police of seven states were searching. No wonder drivers wouldn't pick up rough-looking characters like us!     Because we had only about 50 dollars apiece we tried to stretch our money by sleeping out in the open, weather permitting, and working for our meals. The well-to-do home owners and restaurant keepers we approached usually made us sweat for our suppers. But in the run-down dwellings our host or hostess would say: "Eat first, then we'll see." And when we'd finished, they'd laugh and say: "Forget it. We don't have enough to do around here ourselves."     Early one day we were on US Route One, the Lincoln Highway, an asphalt swath over rolling plains which should have been covered with corn and wheat. Instead, only parched shoots stubbled the cracked soil, for there was a terrible drought. Homesteads were few and far between.     We walked to the nearest one and found the family at breakfast. The mother, the father, and three or four hulking sons or farm hands. We explained who we were, that we had come from the East and were heading for California.     "Have you written to your family lately?" the woman asked.     We admitted that we hadn't. She fetched paper and envelopes and pens and said: "Before you do anything else, sit right down and write letters to your mothers."     We meekly obeyed. She gave us stamps and made us seal the envelopes.     "Now," she said, "you look as if you could stand a bite to eat." She motioned to the table. "Sit here."     She plied us with eggs, milk, butter, homemade bread, and deep-dish cherry pie. The father told us they were having a disastrous year, even as they kept urging us to eat more. We were young and healthy and hungry, but we couldn't match their appetites.     "What's the matter with you boys. Are you sick?" the mother asked concernedly.     So strong is the tradition of American farm hospitality that it never occurred to them to let their hardships influence the treatment of guests at their table. We were very moved. Throughout our trip we found that generally the poorer the people we approached were, the more generously they behaved.     It was a refreshing change from what we big city dwellers were accustomed to. You could live next door to people for years in an apartment house and rarely exchange a word. It wasn't that they were misanthropic or cold. They were just so tied up with tensions and worries that they had to form a callus over their natural warmth and emotions, and wrap themselves in a protective isolation.     The rural areas were different. When you walked down the street in a village or small town, people would smile and say "Howdy." Or if you bought something in a store the girl at the counter would say, "Have a nice day." It was only common courtesy, but it made you feel good when you were a stranger, hundreds of miles from home.     As the population thinned out, and with Dillinger on the loose, rides grew scarcer. At last we reached Kansas City, then a poverty-stricken town half in     Kansas and half in Missouri. We decided to do what we had sworn to our families we never would--take to the freights.     We had thought originally that freight trains were used mainly by hoboes. We met some of them, as well as gamblers, pimps, hustlers and con men. But in the summer of 1934, a year of depression and drought, the bulk of the non-paying passengers on the railroads of America were migratory workers, men traveling from state to state harvesting crops, picking fruit.     Freight trains hauled few empty cars, and they rode on top, sitting on the long three-plank catwalk, as the cars jerked and rattled along. Sometimes they were so thick up there it was hard to find a place to sit down. These men were very different from the slovenly hoboes. Lean but dignified, most of them carried a small cheap suitcase. On arriving at their destination they would remove their smoke-grimed traveling clothes, wash thoroughly at a water pump, shave, change into clean overalls, put their dirty garments in the case, and set out for their prospective jobs. (Continues...)

Table of Contents

1 Growing Up in Brooklyn, the Scholar 1915-1938p. 1
2 Lawyer, Soldier, and the Trip to China 1939-1947p. 19
3 Phoenix, Marriage, and the Decision to Stay 1947-1949p. 40
4 New Beginnings Early 1950sp. 60
5 Settling In The Mid-1950sp. 83
6 Northwest Interlude 1957p. 106
7 The Big Leap Forward and the Communes 1957-1958p. 128
8 Integration Accomplished: An American-Chinese 1959-1963p. 143
9 The "Cultural Revolution" 1966-1976p. 169
10 Turning Point 1977-1980p. 207
11 Beijing Bagels and Chinese Jews 1981-1984p. 233
12 "You Don't Look Very Chinese" 1985-1988p. 254
13 Israel, Tiananmen, and Chinese Law 1989-1990p. 272
14 Media Encounters and Treks to the Interior 1991-1994p. 289
15 Summing Up Half a Century 1996p. 310
Indexp. 337