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.