In the summer of 1933, Sidney Shapiro was running through a freight yard in New Mexico was a friend, chasing a westward-bound Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train.
He tripped on a switch, fell down, cut his hands, missed the train and wound up living 32 years in china and becoming a chinese citizen.
It is not quite that simple, but Shapiro makes clears that chance played a sizable role in his life. Without chance and itchy feet, Shapiro might be a prosperous Californian like his friend who caught the freight, or he might be a lawyer in New York, which he was before he set out for China.
Instead, he is one of the small group of foreigners who have lived in the People's Republic of China through its entire existence.
What first took Shapiro to China was not only a series of chance events, but a frustration with America and with his life in New York. He worked for a Wall Street law firm and then an ambulance-chasing firm of negiligence lawyers.
"It seemed to me that neither diligence not ability was any guarantee of success," Sharpio says, "What mantered wasn't so much what you knew, but who you knew," he writes in his autobiography, "An American in China," published recently in Peking.
Shapiro saw what he calls flaws in American democracy, but he wasn't attracted by the American Communist Party, with its slavish adherence to Moscow's party line. It was only after reaching China that Shapiro became a Marxist, he says.
What kept Shapiro in china once he arrived is clearer. He soon met, came to love and married a Chinese actress turned editor and writer whom he call Phoenix.
Their romance started when they agreed to exchange language lessons, English for Chinese. Phoenix seems always to have been more political than Shapiro and to have influenced his political development.
When they met, Phoenix was editing a Shanghai magazine directed by the communist underground. She was not a part member, Shapiro says, but "she was a rebel in an age of rebellion."
When he looks back on his life in China, Shapiro said in an interview, his personal highlights are entwined with the history of the nation.
Shapiro was in Tienanmen Square in Peking Oct 1, 1949 when Chairman Mao Tse-tung made his famous speech declaring China had stood up and proclaiming the communist state.
During the Korean War, Shapiro anguished over "Chinese and American boys shooting at one another." But his sympathies were wholly with China.
"What America was doing in Korea was disgraceful, indefensible," he writes in his autobiography.
The "Cultural Revolution" was agonizing for Shapiro and his wife. She was placed under "office arrest" -- not allowed to leave her office to go home -- later was sent to one of the reeducation camps called May Seventh Schools.
"I didn't see her for about five years," Shapiro said in an interview.He is not bitter, he said, but he feels bad about the cost to China of a decade of turmoil.
"The very ones who were of most use to China were the ones put out of work or injured or killed," Shapiro said of the Cultural Revolution drive against intellectuals.
Shapiro's caution and his lack of involvement with politics kept him out of trouble. He is a survivor.
Shapiro is a small, neat man who comes to an interview in jacket and tie like all the Americans around him. The only clue that he is an American-Chinese are the black cloth Chinese shoes he wears. He is 63 and looks, younger. He speaks softly in voice that hasn't lost its New York accent. He weighs his words carefully.
For all the years of Chinese-American hostility, Shapiro remained in China without a chance of coming home. In 1963, finding himself in agreement with the aims and policies of China, Shapiro applied for Chinese citizenship.
The process was amazingly simple. There were no interviews and the only form asked only for his name, birthdate, native country, occupation and three photographs. He was issued a certificate of citizenship. There was no ceremony, no-oath of allegiance.
With the improvement in Chinese-American relations, Shapiro has made several trips here in the 1970s.
He is on home leave now, a six-week visit to the United States to visit his 87-year-old mother who lives in Brooklyn, where he grew up, and other family and friends.
Shapiro is talking to paperback publishers and film producers who are interested in his life story.
Producers have told him they would like to shoot the movie in China, Shapiro says. Chinese oficials have indicated they might agree to what could become the first American movie made in Communist China, but Shapiro, though interested, is wary.
"I wouldn't go for a soap opera," Shapiro says. "Any movie would have to enhance Chinese-American relations."
One thing is clear, however, Sidney Shapiro will not play Sidney Shapiro. Although he played Americans in a few Chinese movies, the highest praise Shapiro reports he got from friends was that he looked very authentic -- just like an American. Phoenix pronounced his acting "vapid," Shapiro reports in his autobiography.
Even if his Chinese reviews were glowing it probably wouldn't help him get the part. You're not the Sidney Shapiro type," one producer has already told him. For one thing, he's too old.
This is the first time Shapiro has brought his wife to New York. Her first impression: "The people are very clean and the city is very dirty."
Shapiro thinks New York and America have gone downhill since he sailed for China in 1947. His first trip back was in 1971 and although he missed the '50s and '60s in the United States, his complaints are more like those of people who never left. Inflation heads his list. After all, when shapiro left home, a subway ride was a nickel and a hamburger cost a dime.
Some paragraphs of his autobiography concerning the decline of the United States read like boilerplate propaganda, but Shapiro is much gentler in conversation.
"Life in China can be very pleasant," Shapiro says. He lives simply in a Chinese house and his only child lives with her husband in a small house, close by.
"I miss the greenness of New York and New England," Shapiro replied when he was asked what things he misses. "Peking is very brown, but it's getting greener."
Creature comforts like air conditioning and oil or gas heat have not been available, he says. The Shapiros have heated their house with the traditional coal stoves used in China for hundreds of years. "There's no virtue in poverty," he remarks.
Shapiro's day usually begins at 6:30 a.m. He takes his 10-speed, Chinese-made "Forever" brand bicycle and heads for the offices of the Foreign Language Press, where he works as a translator of fiction. Phoenix takes the bus to her job as editor of a drama magazine.
On most days, Shapiro says, they return home for lunch and often they spend the afternoon working at home. A lot of their evenings are spent going to the theater in connection with Phoenix' work. On other nights, they watch television or have dinner with their friends, most of whom are Chinese. Shapiro says there are about half a dozen foreign long-term residents of China whom he sees frequently, including American-born Dr. George Hatem and the New Zealand-born writer Rewi Alley.
Shapiro has translated more than 29 novels and scores of short stories. During the Cultural Revolution no one was writing anything for fear of running afoul of the cultural authorities, so Shapiro turned to one of China's classics, the epic novel that Pearl Buck translated under the title "All Men Are Brothers."
Shapiro's title is "Outlaws of the Marsh," which is much more faithful to the title in Chinese.
Writers are pouring out stories again now, Shapiro says, including some that he considers very bold by the standards of communist Chinese literature. Between 10 and 20 percent are very good, Shapiro says, "about the same percentage you'd find in any country."
Shapiro was a 32-year-old lawyer when he set out for China with a few samples of army surplus clothing he hoped to be able to sell on commission and a stringer arrangement with Variety to cover Chinese plays and movies.
Without the U.S. Army he never would have made the trip. In 1941, Shapiro volunteered for Army language school hoping to be taught French and ended up learning Chinese. He pursued the language at Yale on the GI bill after the war ended and his itchy feet led him to try China rather than return to "the rat race, the money grubbing, the wheeling and dealing which was the milieu of the average lawyer," Shapiro says.
He practiced law briefly in Shanghai, but he and his wife whom he met shortly after his arrival in China, decided to join the "liberated zone" where the communists had won control away from Chiang Kai-shek. They were unsuccessful, but the revolution was so close to victory that they had only a short wait before the Communist Army marched into Peking.
"No one seemed to know what to do with me," Shapiro writes of the days after the communist victory. He found a new novel and began translating it, hoping it could be sold an American publisher. When it was published in New York as "Daughters and Sons," it became the first novel from communist China to appear in the United States.
He has been translating Chinese into English ever since.
Shapiro is content with where his decisions and chance have taken him.
He has traveled extensively in China and now is free to visit the United States when he chooses.
Much of what he says about political issues echoes what the Chinese government says. He worries about the Soviet Union as a threat to China and considers it foolish of the United States not to counter growing Soviet influence in Indochina.
There is no retirement age in China for people whose work doesn't involve physical labor. "I have no intention of retiring," Shapiro says. He thinks a moment when asked whether there is anything he particularly wants to do.
Then he replies he would like to write a book about some aspect of Chinese culture that would take him to live in a remote area for several months.
"That's me," he says, "I've been riding freights and taking ships to Shanghai all my life. I don't like being cooped up."