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During Christmas of 2009 Andrew and Christine (edit) had a good feeling we would be headed for China and gifted us a book called Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. We didn’t have a chance to read the book before coming to China, but brought it because it was highly recommended by everyone and The New York Times. I started the book during our first week in Jinan, but got too caught up in teacher training and jet lag to read more than a chapter.

I mostly forgot about the book until another teacher mentioned that he had just finished Hessler’s first book, River Town, and that I should definitely read it. As soon as I opened this novel I fell in love. In 1996 Hessler had joined the Peace Corps to teach English at a University in Fuling, China, and despite the geographic distance, so many of his stories were identical to David and my experiences in Tangshan. We were treated like celebrities, taught students with hilarious English names and were interested in completely immersing ourselves in Chinese culture. It felt good to know that for many years lao-wais had been experiencing the same trials and triumphs in China, and it was comforting to hear an intelligent foreign perspective on the whole experience.

After reading River Town I picked up Oracle Bones again, but again stopped halfway through to move to Beijing. And again, Hessler was right along side us in his own migration to the “big city.” He also finished teaching and moved to Beijing to pursue a new career; although at that point his Chinese was vastly superior to ours and he published a lot higher quality written work. (But hey, we still have another year to catch up, right?) It didn’t seem like Hessler’s difficulties with obtaining a visa quite matched mine, but they were certainly there, and I even coincidentally found myself eating in the same restaurant he frequented in the Russian district of Beijing. (Hollywood in Yabaolu, if you were wondering.) I read about his visits back to Chinatown in Washington DC, a few short blocks from where I worked prior to coming to Beijing, and I have even taken an “oracle bones” class at The Hutong, the history of which is much-discussed in his novel.

So, when I saw that Peter Hessler would be visiting the Bookworm Literary Festival in March, I instantly reserved two spaces at his talk. Although I hadn’t read his newest book, Country Driving, I knew I would just love the chance to meet the guy whose footsteps we somewhat followed. The presentation about his book was interesting and I thought he spoke a lot like he writes, often dense and information-packed with moments of * but hilarious humor. Overall, an excellent story-teller. The most funny anecdote of his talk had to be how the Chinese government adapted the image on the Chinese version of his novel (the first of the three to be openly available in both languages) to look “more like China,” by enhancing his photo of a grey and dusty roadside to an image with bright blue skies and trees in full bloom. Through this presentation I also learned that Hessler would soon be traveling to the Middle East with his family to begin a new adventure and to study Arabic, which, as you may remember, is the other language I have always mentioned in conjunction with Chinese as vitally important in understanding today’s world.

After the event I was nearly devastated to hear that Hessler wasn’t signing books or staying to chat, but had to leave immediately. So, I dropped off my book to pick up later and headed home. Fortunately for me, some young Chinese attendees didn’t take no for an answer, and I found Hessler standing outside being coerced into a far too detailed conversation than the situation warranted. After some coercing on David’s part I got over my fear of ignoring his polite requests and asked for a quick photo. We quickly told him our story about moving from Tangshan to Beijing, and the story was complete. Now I just have to read his next book. China road trip anyone?!

I narrowly made it off the waiting list to attend the “Committing Journalism” talk at the Bookworm today. The panel consisted of China-focused foreign journalists Gady Epstein, Lucy Hornby, Louisa Lim and Keith Richardson. I was interested in this talk because I have often read these journalists’ articles in foreign news, and have also wondered about the reality of censorship issues as I write my blog.

The panel touched on a range of journalistic issues including their opinions on Chinese recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and fact checking in a tightly regulated country. (For the record, Epstein was in favor of the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, noting that “the world has decided to accept China as it is,” despite any real progress in political reform.) I was generally surprised to find consensus among these writers regarding their ability to report candidly and without fear of censorship. Epstein noted that despite the fact there have been vast changes in what is considered sensitive subject material in China over the years, he has not felt limited in his ability to report on a wide range of issues. Hornby added that it is neither international relations nor foreign politics the dictate her journalistic path, but rather the demands and expectations of her foreign audience. She further elaborated that she often feels China’s pain in the way the nation is portrayed by the media in terms of makes the news and what doesn’t. Hornby insightfully flipped the issue of western reporting on its head and posed the question of how America may look through the lens of Chinese reporting, asking “What perspective would they take and what would they get wrong?”

I found journalist Louisa Lim to be a particularly engaging member of the panel. She humored the audience with an anecdote about her recent visa delay, which came as a direct result of questioning the relationship between Haibao (the mascot of the Shanghai Expo) and Gumby. Lims apparently held up photos of the two characters as she asked about their similarities, which garnered a lot of media buzz and resulted in a 6-month delay of her visa. The journalist explained, however, that this was her first experience with visa troubles in China. She also commented about the impact of social media in journalism, noting the positive benefits of programs like Twitter and Weibo to serve as a “live tip line” of sorts. She added that she recently received the opportunity to visit North Korea for a day through tweeted tip detailing an opportunity for foreign journalists to visit the country.

In response to the question of the impact of social media on the job of reporters, Richardson remarked that social media is just a platform for news. He believes that correspondents are still essential to being on the ground to receive and interpret real-time information.

The panel also offered some practical advice to those seeking a career in foreign journalism. Lims recommended learning fluent Chinese in order to work in China, where bureaus typically find it easier to train a Chinese-speaker to be a journalist than to train a journalist to speak fluent Chinese. Richardson added that there are more specialists than generalists available in the world of reporting, and that working first in a newsroom and proving one’s ability to produce great stories in any environment is one of the most valuable skills in the field. Epstein also emphasized the importance of simple being in the country where one wants to report and writing about it.

To wrap up, the panel offered their advice about particularly good Chinese news sources. Hornby remarked that Taixing/Taijing, Economic Observer, Beijing Times and Global Times are all high-quality Chinese publications, and that China Smack and Danwei are good for English speakers. Epstein added that David Bandurski’s book, Investigative Journalism in China has been a go-to reference for many foreign journalists.

Listening to this panel answered many of my questions regarding the limits to freedom of the foreign press in China, and eased my fears that foreign journalists feel somewhat limited in their ability to report candidly about China. Nonetheless, I was still reminded of an anecdote from Peter Hessler’s, Oracle Bones when Hessler opens an envelope and is rather shocked to find edited and blacked out copies of his prior writing, presumably censored by the Chinese government. Despite feeling under the radar as a foreign correspondent in Beijing, Hessler was clearly not as inconspicuous as he perceived. Seeing as the Chinese government awards and carefully tracks the visas issued to foreign journalists, I can only assume that despite feeling quite free to report in China, those on the panel also have quite a file.

*I arrived at the public school this morning to find that my classes had been cancelled because the students had to take their final English exam. As it turned out, last week had been my last session with the kids. I was bummed because this is the only teaching gig that I really like because the kids are really energetic, receptive, and good at English. Many of them also don’t have English names, so I thought I could name them during our last class…which reminds me of some of the classic names I have heard recently. “Nationality” attended my English Corner, “Seashell” was interviewed for placement, and the real winner, “Pea Shooter” found his name on the internet.

*Thanks so much to Annie and other contributors to my amazing care package that I received last week. The protein bars have been a life-saver as I’m starting to get a little sick of street food!

*Matt Busa and Billy Bergold are officially visiting us during the second and third weeks of August and we can’t wait!

*Stumbled upon this awesome blog this week that has been inspiring some friends to whip out their sewing machines and start making fashion magic, check out 365 dresses for $365:

*My friend from studying in Spain, Charlie Seltzer, has spent two years in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps and is now spear-heading an initiative to help them better market and sell their local coffee. If you would be interested in sampling the coffee and spreading the word, please email your name and address to me!

*Avon Walker and Silly Bus Kid’s Music employee, Jen Dalton, needs your help! Silly Bus produces awesome kids music aimed at getting kids active and healthy. They are in the running for a Pepsi Refresh Grant, so please vote here to help out this great initiative:

*If you are interested in reading a good book about China, that details many similar experiences that David and I are having, check out Peter Hessler’s River Town. One of the passages that struck me most is about the comforting nature of running/physical exertion in any country (despite the fact that lots of people yell at me!)
“The peasants found it strange that I ran in the hills, and they always scared when I charged past, but they never shouted or laughed. As a rule they were the most polite people you could ever hope to met, and in any case they has more important things to do with their energy than scream at a waiguoren. And perhaps they had an innate respect for physical effort, even when they didn’t see the point. ..That old well-known feeling–the catch in my chest, the strain in my legs–connected all the places where I had lived, Missouri and Princeton and Oxford and Fuling. While I ran through the hills, my thoughts swung fluidly between these time and places…As the months slipped past I realized that even these Sichuan hills, with their strange tombs and terraces, were starting to feel like home.”

*Random potty humor success story: Upon arriving at the gym I realized that I had to “go” and didn’t have any toilet paper. I looked up “toilet paper” in the dictionary and headed to the staff room. I asked a cleaning lady for the paper and she miraciously understood me, and pulled a wad of TP out of her pocket! I couldn’t be picky, thanked her profusely, and went off to use the stall without doors!

*In a little over a week we leave for a 9-day trip to Guangzhou and Guilin in Southern China, where we hope to meet up with Robbie Friend, a friend from high school who now runs a Chinese immersion school in Guilin!

*Below are a variety of photos from exploring Tangshan. I have also decided to start writing an essay about my time in China, so I’ll post that next time!

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