For at least a decade, I was a 24/7 news addict.
Then I went to China and went cold turkey. Surprisingly, there were no withdrawal pains. Indeed, I actually enjoyed life more and had a lot more time for useful pursuits without the pain of my addiction to CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Twitter.
So what happens when I return from Tsinghua University for winter break?
A short relapse.
One day of CNN was enough to cure me permanently. Here are a few thoughts on the disastrous state of U.S. cable news and the rays of hope for the rest of the U.S. media:
Back to vacation. With the TV turned off.
- Check your cultural assumptions with your luggage. Life is different here. Don’t view life in China through the prism of your American or European experiences.
- Beijing is crowded and massive. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of traffic, the human gridlock or the seeming chaos on the streets and in the subways. You’ll get used to it.
- Don’t be afraid to jostle people. There is no sense of personal space here. Don’t take it personally if somebody elbows you or pushes you.
- There is no “walk right, pass left” etiquette here. People walk, bike or drive every which way. Cars DO NOT stop for pedestrians. Bikes DO NOT yield to pedestrians. In fact, nobody yields to anybody.
- Be decisive. Indecisive people get run over by bikes or cars or other pedestrians.
- Don’t get upset when people spit on the street at any time in any place. Spit happens in China.
- Do not expect Western-style toilets. Get used to holes in the ground. Don’t complain about it. Get used to it.
- If there is not a price listed on an item in a market, you are expected to bargain. At tourist-oriented markets (such as the Silk Market), the original prices might be ten times what is reasonable. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Even if you are interested in buying something. Negotiate aggressively. If you don’t want to negotiate, go to a regular store.
Food and drink
- Don’t drink the water. Use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth.
- Be smart when it comes to street food. Some of it is delicious, but some of it is cooked in oil that is, simply put, poisonous. Unless a Beijinger vouches for a vendor, think twice before trying it. I’m afraid I speak from experience (some bad “stinky tofu”).
- Don’t be afraid to sample the rich variety of tasty regional cooking. Experiment beyond your comfort zone. Try things.
- Don’t expect Chinese food to be the same as American Chinese food. It’s better. Most of all, it’s different.
- Your drinks may be warm or hot when served at restaurants. This includes water, milk and juices. Chinese meals maintain a balance. Cold drinks can throw a hot meal off-balance. If you want cold water (or beer) make sure to order it “bing.”
- Fewer people speak English than you might expect. It’s not like traveling in Europe. Younger people are more likely to understand English than older people. Some younger people may want to practice their English on you. Enjoy that – unless they’re trying to sell you something.
- Stay calm. If things go wrong, it won’t do any good to raise your voice. If people don’t understand you, it won’t help you to get agitated.
- Go to the most popular tourist attractions during the week. Earlier is better for places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the National Museum. They can get very crowded by midday, particularly on weekends or holidays.
- Use the subway. Because of surface traffic gridlock, the subway usually is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Beijing. It is clean, efficient and cheap, in addition to being crowded. Relax and enjoy it.
- If you are taking a taxi, make sure somebody writes down your destination in advance IN CHINESE. Do not assume that you will be able to communicate with a cab driver by trying to pronounce a location in Mandarin. You’re probably mispronouncing it, or worse, saying something embarrassing that you don’t mean to say.
- Try to find a good street map in English (or at least in Pinyin).
- Use Google Maps online to get an idea of where you’re going and a sense of how far it is from the nearest subway stop.
- Make sure you have your passport with you when checking in to hotels or on plane or train journeys. Carry a photocopy of your passport ID page and your visa with you at all times.
- Get ready for slow, unreliable Internet and spotty WiFi. Do not expect that you will have working Internet 24/7. Internet and WiFi can stop working at any time.
- If you want to use Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or other blocked sites, you will need to have working VPN service before you arrive in China. (Email me if you need information on VPNs.) You also will need a VPN to access the New York Times, Bloomberg and some other news site.
- Bring an electrical converter or a couple of converters designed for use in China. (Not Hong Kong.)
- Bring a multiple-USB recharger for your electronic devices such as cameras and smartphones. You will need an electrical converter for this, along with one for your laptop.
- It may be very expensive to use your U.S. smartphone for calls and data. Check in advance before you leave the U.S. You can always disable the data and use it via WiFi. That’s what I do, which allows me to use email, social media and the Internet for free. I also use my U.S. cell phone for text messages with friends and family in the U.S. (at a cost of 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received).
What to pack
- Dress in layers. Be ready for wind gusts.
- Bring disposable 3M anti-pollution masks. They aren’t very expensive and they can make your life more enjoyable on dangerously polluted days. Don’t be self-conscious about using masks. It’s for your own health.
- Bring toilet paper, napkins, tissues and hand sanitizer. You often will not find these products in public places.
- Make sure you have plenty of prescription medicine and vitamins. It will be hard to find, if you need it, and it may be expensive and questionable in quality.
- Make sure you bring extra medication to combat stomach ailments and flu-liked symptoms such as Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, DayQuil and NyQuil.
- Check in with your credit card companies and banks before you leave to let them know you will be making purchases in China.
Feel free to offer suggestions to make this guide more useful. I will update it with your ideas.
Just a few things have changed in my life this year.
New job. New city. New country. New life.
Teaching journalism in China. It’s almost as much of a challenge as practicing journalism in America.
Here are some of the things that are “in” in my new life at Tsinghua University — and some of the old, familiar things I’ve left behind.
OUT: Texas on the Potomac
IN: Yankee on Tiananmen Square
OUT: Hikes on the National Mall
IN: Hikes on the Great Wall
OUT: Bike helmets
IN: Anti-pollution masks
OUT: Turn signals
IN: Chaos on the road
OUT: The second most congested commute in America
IN: The second most congested commute in the world
OUT: Considering something three days old as new
IN: Considering something three centuries old as new
OUT: Finnish saunas
IN: Chinese massages
OUT: American Chinese food
IN: Real Chinese food
OUT: DC Metro
IN: A subway system with trains every two minutes, polite employees and escalators that actually work
OUT: Dysfunctional democracy
OUT: Taking your shoes off at airports
IN: VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress
OUT: Rush Limbaugh’s rants against Barack Obama
IN: Chinese media rants against Japanese Prime Minister Abe
OUT: The New York Times
IN: People’s Daily
OUT: The Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial
IN: The terracotta warriors of Xi’an
OUT: Delicious Chesapeake crab cakes
IN: Delicious Chinese dumplings
OUT: Lobster rolls from food trucks
IN: Stinky tofu from street vendors
IN: Chicken feet, fish lips and duck brains
OUT: The Washington Redskins
IN: Mao’s little red book
OUT: Obscenely expensive Internet service
IN: Unreliable Internet, spotty WiFi and the Great Firewall of China
IN: Truly socialized medicine
OUT: Soccer moms
IN: Ping pong dads
OUT: 24/7 deadlines
IN: Monthlong breaks between semesters (We call them “district work periods”)
OUT: Suits and ties
IN: Casual Friday every day
The Texas political landscape has been transformed in 2013.
No, the state hasn’t gone from red to blue. But it’s gone from old to new.
Here are some of the politicians who have benefited — or suffered — from the transition:
Began the year as a U.S. Senate newcomer. Ended the year as the leader of the national Tea Party movement.
Began the year as an establishment Republican nervous about a 2014 Tea Party primary challenge. Ended the year with most leading conservative groups either on his side or on the sidelines.
Began the year as a junior member of a minority party in the Texas Senate. Ended the year as a national figure and a ballyhooed Democratic candidate for governor.
Began the year waiting for Rick Perry to decide what to do. Ended the year as a virtually unopposed Republican candidate for governor.
Began the year as a House newcomer in the minority party. Ended the year as one of his party’s rising stars on Capitol Hill and a guest on Meet the Press. Oh, he got married, too.
Began the year as a presidential longshot. Ended the year as a president longshot — and a lame duck governor.
Began the year as the most powerful person in the Texas Senate. Ended the year fighting for his political life in a re-election battle against stalwart conservatives.
Rick Perry’s UT Regents
Began the year trying to topple the university’s president and football coach. Ended the year an educational embarrassment and a political liability for the Texas Republican Party.
Began the year as an off-the-wall right-wing congressman who talked about terror babies and presidential birth certificates. Ended the year looking downright boring compared to Steve Stockman.
Began the year itching to end Fort Worth congressman Marc Veasey’s tenure after a single term. Ended the year on the sidelines as Veasey appears to be cruising to re-election.
My grandmother Naomi and I had a 4-decade-long debate over human nature. Having survived Stalin’s Russia, McCarthy’s America, the Depression and deprivation, she passionately insisted that people don’t change as they age, they only become more like they are (or were). I, on the other hand, a child of the Baby Boom who had evolved from the transistor radio to the smart phone, argued that people can grow or change, for better or for worse.
Our dialogue did not end until Grandmom Naomi’s death three years ago just a few years shy of 100.
I now want to claim victory — at least from personal experience — although I can still hear her arguing with me for being naive and idealistic.
My first semester at Tsinghua University in Beijing has given me plenty of time to contemplate life. After all, I am living alone for the first time in 30 years in a campus apartment, the only English speaker in my building. I chucked my job at the Houston Chronicle for a great leap into the unknown in a country I had never visited.
As I await my graduate students’ final multimedia journalism projects, I can reflect on how living in China has changed me. And it has. Mostly, I hope, for the better.
The biggest change in me is that I have become more accepting of the vagaries of life. In China, you are either patient or you go mad. Internet, WiFi, hot water, heat, electricity: none can be taken for granted at any moment. If you are brave enough to travel on surface roads, you have to expect unexpected delays. You have to let go of the things you can’t control. That’s a big change for me.
You also have to be decisive … or die. (As Joe Biden would say, “literally” die.) Bicyclists pedal every which way. Near misses with another bike … or a pedestrian … or a car … are everyday occurrences. If you don’t push your way out of the crowded subway car, you miss your stop. Don’t think. Act. All in all, I like that philosophy.
At the same time, I feel I have become a lot less materialistic. Americans like to collect things. I like to collect things. Everyone who knows me knows how many things I have collected. In China, I live in a spartan apartment with nothing on the walls, a pot, a pan and enough clothing for ten days. I feel oddly liberated. I realize that I don’t need “things” to make me happy. I need to do things that make me happy. And I have discovered that spending time with friends makes me a lot happier than spending time with “things.”
My professional makeover — new occupation in a new land — also has allowed me to evolve into a different kind of leader. As president of the National Press Club and Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, I led by example and governed by consensus. That wasn’t always the formula for success — or effective management — I learned. Too many times, people mistook collegiality for weakness.
Starting over in China, I realized the importance of being a strong, focused, disciplined leader. No more “player-coach.” I hope I have earned the right to be an authority figure both from my knowledge of my subject and my post at the university. Whatever I do in years to come, my time at Tsinghua will have shaped me as a leader.
I’ve also become much more of an environmentalist. Not in the sense of political activism. But in the sense of appreciating clean air, clean water and cooking oil that doesn’t make you sick. It’s a bit spooky to travel around your (new) hometown wearing an anti-particulate mask by 3M. It’s disconcerting to have a thin layer of toxic dust on your bicycle seat in the morning. This is what can happen to the world if we don’t do more to reduce carbon emissions and create green technology — now.
And that brings me to my final thought about the future. My journalism students have made me even more optimistic about the future. After all, they are preparing to enter a business with an uncertain future in a nation where the future of journalism is quite uncertain. But they are some of the smartest young people I’ve ever worked with, and they have a breadth of knowledge and a drive to do well (and do good) that makes me think that they can change the world.
I hope so.
They already have changed me.
It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.
It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.
A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.
I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.
What I miss:
1. My wife and family
2. The National Press Club
3. Live NHL hockey
5. My good friends back home
6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York
7. Trader Joe’s
8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources
9. Good wine at good prices
What I Don’t Miss:
2. American cable news in general
3. The newspaper world I left behind
4. Cable TV
7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)
8. The Washington football team with the racist name
9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy
10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination
As the newest American political analyst on Chinese national television, I’ve been asked to explain the U.S. government shutdown and default showdown.
It’s not easy.
How do you explain the farce that Washington has become? Lawmakers shutting down the government because of an issue not directly related to spending. Hostage-taking is for terrorists, not for Republicans.
International observers are even more baffled by the brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. Why, I am asked over and over, would congressional Republicans threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, risk a relapse into recession and jeopardize a very tenuous economic recovery around the world? Why would they, through their illogical enterprise, encourage other nations to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency, which will do nothing but create inflation at home, make borrowing more expensive for the American government and American consumers, and stifle foreign investment in the United States? And why is President Barack Obama incapable of rescuing the nation from the tar pit of Capitol Hill.
It’s a lose-lose proposition.
Are there any winners in the Washington wackiness? Not really, though there are some short-term gainers. Here’s my long list of losers and short list of winners in the continuing congressional catastrophe.
The House Speaker looks like a hostage being forced to read a script by his radical captors. He looks weary. He looks very, very sad.
He looks weak.
They look extreme. Actually, they look beyond extreme. And incompetent.
The Tea Party
Did we mention extreme? The current situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
They look weak, too, as the Tea Party tail continues to wag the Republican dog.
The Republican Party
The Grand Old Party is lurching toward the political cliff in the 2014 midterm elections. Its best asset: gerrymandered House districts. Its best ally: discombobulated Democrats.
The United States.
Forget partisan politics. Congress has made the U.S. an international laughingstock. The double showdown has led to grave global doubts about the reliability of the United States and the leadership skill (and power) of its president. So this will hurt the country for a long, long time and its president — whoever that may be, Democrat or Republican.
The U.S. economy
In the short run, thousands of Americans are without paychecks, tourism revenue has plunged and consumer confidence has taken a hit. Businesses have another reason to hold off on hiring. In the long run, interest rates will be higher and loans will be even harder to obtain for individual Americans and corporations alike. And they call Republicans the pro-growth party?
The global economy
The self-induced crisis in Washington has shaken global confidence in the United States If American lawmakers blunder into a default (still unimaginable from my distant vantage point), it would almost certain trigger an international recession as China, Japan, Brazil, the EU and other leading U.S. creditors take a massive hit. The consequences would be so severe that it’s not even worth contemplating.
The U.S. Congress wouldn’t do something so wantonly self-destructive, would they?
Remember Smoot-Hawley? Call this modern-day version Cruz-Boehner.
Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell
There really are no winners in Washington, but the closest thing to it are the Senate leaders. Instead of acting like squabbling partisans, they are playing the role of sober cops coming to restore order after a frat party has descended into anarchy and drunken debauchery. Officers Reid and McConnell, your country needs you. Now.
In the short term, the freshman senator from Texas has become the hero of the ultraright, the face of Fox News, the Earl Grey of the Tea Party. In the long run, he will have to overcome the first impression of two-thirds of Americans (who know who he is) that he is a right-wing ideologue. Polls show that he’s poison among independent and swing voters outside of the Lone Star State.
They are only winners because House Republicans look so, so bad. The Dems haven’t won any awards for profiles in courage or bipartisan bridge building. Except another Bridge to Nowhere.
Ratings are way, way up at the nation’s favorite cable channel for nerds and policy wonks. Heck, it’s the most bizarre reality show on television. And, unlike the Kardashians, it has real-world consequences.
The government in Beijing has won in two ways (so far). First, President Obama canceled his Asia trip, allowing first-year Chinese President Xi to be the star of the show at APEC. And China-bashing Washington Republicans have succeeded in making Beijing the victim of irresponsible fiscal policies in free-enterprise America that could lead to default. A bizarre lesson in capitalism.