On paper, the city of Datong is a terrible place. It’s colder and drier than Beijing, and not to mention more polluted thanks in part to the province’s abundance of infamously dangerous coal mines.
Hence, our program decided to take us to Datong for the weekend. Despite the above billing, Datong did have it’s bright spots, albeit all located at least an hour from where we were staying in the city. I’m thoroughly sick of temples in China after having spent 3 years here, but the Hanging Temple managed to change it up a bit and keep me terrified enough to be interested. About the only other thing that will get me interested in a temple is increasingly large Buddha’s, which the Yungang Grottoes had plenty of. It’s too bad the giant Buddha arms race between temples ended like 100 years ago.
I wrote this piece a couple days before my Chinese language program started on September 2. I wasn’t really feeling this post so decided to let it sit for a day or two. That has quickly turned into two and a half weeks that are a blur of Chinese characters and not enough sleep.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote. A bit perfunctory, yes, but want to get the basics of what’s going on with me out there. Some edits [in brackets]:
I’m back in Beijing for real this time. Unlike last time, I can’t move away because I’ve paid up tuition for at least one semester of a Chinese program, and in theory will do it for a full year. I’m sketchy on the details but know the basics: I’ll be studying at the vaguely named IUP program at Tsinghua University. Some friends of mine have done it before and come out with badass Chinese. Good enough reason for me.
I always seem to quit my jobs right at awards season, generally when I myself am up for an award. That’s how it went in South Carolina with my piece 24 hours at Peaches Corner winning second place in the state press awards right before I quit. (I just checked and apparently that multimedia piece did not make the migration when TheSunNews.com switched to MyrtleBeachOnline.com…sad. Seems my time-lapse video survived at least.)
That’s also turned out to be the case at China Economic Review, where I’ve given notice that I will leave in August. More on that in a later post.
Last month, I received the amazing news that our two submissions had both been named as finalists in the category Excellence in Explanatory Reporting at the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards. My cover story “Fuel to the Fire” and former editor Ana Swanson’s “Awash in Cash” made up two of the three finalists in the category. Needless to say, I liked our chances.
Shwedagon Pagoda is a 322-foot tall solid structure plated in gold with a jewel encrusted topper and has to be one of the world's most underrated monuments. How had I never heard of this thing before?
I had managed to post pretty consistently after returning from my Christmas break in the US. OK, sure, it was only for 5 weeks, but that’s something when I used to go months without posting. And then I go two and a half weeks without posting. But with good reason.
I just returned from a week in Myanmar where I spent my Chinese New Year break. The place could not be more different from China. When people ask about it, I just keep repeating the mantra: The people were nice, the weather was hot, the food was good and cheap, it wasn’t polluted.
My latest batch of clips will probably seem like gibberish to anyone in the US. First up is a story I reported before going back to the US for Christmas that just came out on Thursday online. The glamorously named asset class that is wealth management products (WMPs) might be thought of as the Chinese equivalent of the US mortgage-backed security – in other words, most people have no idea how they work and they could potentially cover up a growing mass of toxic assets.
The government definitely knows more than they are releasing to the public about them, but whether they have it “under control” is an open question. A recent scandal involving one of these WMPs falling apart and provoking customer protests will force Beijing to arrive at an official stance on these products, and none of the avenues available to regulators will be easy. That story can be viewed here.
Children and small dogs share a strong resemblance when they vomit. As adorable two-year-old Yiyi dribbled curdled milk out of his mouth all over his mother, his dumbfounded I-have-no-idea-what-is-happening-to-me strongly resembled a white lap dog I had once seen in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, similarly letting out sludge with minimal force onto the sidewalk.
By that time, we had driven two-thirds of the way to Rudong County (如东县) and had already passed Nantong (南通), a small city north of Shanghai. Roger, the driver, had invited me to visit his childhood home in the countryside one November weekend. His son Yiyi, his wife PingPing (who was the program assistant during my Nanjing study abroad) and two of Roger’s hometown friends had crammed in the back seat for the three-hour journey. Perhaps abusing my laowai privileges, I had quickly taken them up on riding shotgun in the black four-door Audi.
For an early career journalist, a fair amount of my motivation comes from spite. First, it was spite for all those kids in J-school with their curated internships and professors who told them they were special gifts to the world of media, at least more special than a non-journalism kid like me. Those feelings mostly subsided as they by-and-large left journalism for lame PR jobs.
Second, and more current, I feel spite toward just about every journalist who is more successful than me. I know this second well of antipathy is completely illogical and baseless. Once I get to know virtually any other journalist, I end up liking them and don’t begrudge them success. Even the ones that are unabashed assholes, I usually can’t help but like for their larger-than-life personalities. Yet those I don’t know, I can’t help but feel spite toward.
That second form of spite often makes it difficult for me to read other China writers. Reading them — mostly China books, less so news — elicits all sorts of anxiety about where my own career is at. To a normal person, this naturally makes me seem like a neurotic misanthrope. For example, I had this conversation with my mom, while I was sitting on the L-shape couch in our suburban home reading a China book this Christmas break:
“I find it difficult to read books on China. They make me anxious.”
My latest cover story on the future of Chinese labor involved unprecedented field research on my part during my time at China Economic Review. I know I often say that a story was a lot of fun to report, but this was definitively the most fun. (You can view the story here and a related sidebar about workplace strikes here.)
I needed to find examples of factories or workers confronted with the main trend of the story: new migrant workers who can move to the city for work are in increasingly short supply and therefore wages are rising rapidly. The trend in of itself has long been recognized, so the angle was to put it in concrete, human terms. Essentially, how will this trend shape the experiences of the average Chinese worker? How must workers and businesses adapt?
I traveled to an outer district of Shanghai, where I first conducted interviews at a state-owned rubber manufacturer. I did not know that the manufacturer would be state-owned before I went, as one of our interns had helped to arrange the visit using her uncle’s relationship with the factory head.
The interviews were strictly controlled with a middle manager putting a positive spin on all of his answers, sitting in on all of my interviews with workers and jumping in whenever they said something that didn’t fit with what he wanted written. He followed us around the factory and controlled what photos I could take.
The skin on my hands has been peeling for weeks. At first, I thought it was a rash contracted while in the Chinese countryside in early November. Or maybe a flesh-eating bacterial infection, the next logical step my hypochondriac brain jumps to.
But my dad pointed out that his hands peeled when he was a younger and more nervous man. He would get nervous, his hands would sweat, his hands would peel.
So the solution seems simple enough. I just need to not get nervous or stressed. Right…
My latest cover story on a potential crash of commodity prices went up on ChinaEconomicReview.com last week. I loved and hated this story because few of my sources agreed on exactly what might happen to the commodities market. Although it’s interesting to play these views off of each other, it can also be a pain to try to reconcile them enough to write a coherent article.