By Yan Zhang
The journalism school in this Midwestern city is the first in the world to offer degrees in journalism, and Chinese students have enrolled since the beginning, 110 years ago.
A professor in my college years, Lo Ven-hwei, graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism. Professor Lo is the first Chinese to get a doctoral degree of journalism in the United States. After his graduation, he went back to Taiwan and then Hong Kong to teach college students and a bring modern journalism education to Asia.
I learned under Professor Lo’s mentorship from 2009 to 2010, and he introduced me the concept of Precision Journalism, which is originally from the Missouri School of Journalism. He mentioned Columbia several times in his classes and said it’s a beautiful town.
“I must have a look at where my professor studied,” I told myself. That’s one of the reasons why I applied for the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, an international journalism program in which participants go through three weeks training at the Missouri School of Journalism and then a five-month internship in an American newsroom.
There are two stone lions at the front entrance of the journalism school. They are from China, carved about 500 years ago during the Ming dynasty, a gift from the Republic of China nearly 100 years ago.
In a room above the entrance, I found an ornamental wooden tablet with an inscription written in traditional Chinese. The plaque came from a Chinese graduate who was a reporter in the 1920s for Shen Pao, the most influential newspaper in Shanghai.
“Thank you for the inspiration,” it reads.
I’d never lived or studied in U.S. before. I speak broken English and I’m a total stranger here.
However, these connections make me feel less strange here — a lot of people from my home country have done the same job.
In addition, one of my favorite writers, Peter Hessler, is from Columbia. Hessler, born in 1969, joined the Peace Corps in 1990s and was sent to a small town in southwest China to teach English for two years. After that, he was the China correspondent for The New Yorker for many years and married a Chinese woman. He published four books on China. The first one, “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” (2001) was finished in Columbia.
In the preface of River Town, Hessler mentioned that he returned from China to Columbia after his Peace Corps assignment when he was 29. He lived with his parents, who are retired professors of the University of Missouri, and started to write his first book. He spent the entire days writing and went out jogging at noon. Almost every night, he woke up from dreams with tears. Those dreams were about China.
His parents’ house is on Westmount Avenue, one block away from the house where I lived with other Alfred Friendly Fellows. During my training in Columbia, I went jogging very often and tried to figure out which house was the one where he lived when going along that street.
I met Hessler in Washington, D.C., in early May at a bookstore after he published his latest book, this one about Egypt. He signed the book with his Chinese name 何伟 and told me he’s coming back to China with his family in August. He must be missing China so much.
Hessler is so good at telling stories about ordinary people who live in underground society in China. Those people are hardly found in China’s official media outlets, but found by Hessler. In China, he learned to offer cigarettes to people, how to drink in company and how to make friends with local people. His sees his job as recording is the real, vivid life. “It’s not my job to say what’s good or bad about China,” Hessler said.
When I entered the newsroom of USA Today, which in a suburb of Washington, I was assigned a mentor: Paul Davidson, a seasoned journalist focused on financial and economic news. “We do a lot of reports on mortgage rates, home sales, the job market…,” Paul said. He deals with cold numbers and data every day.
“But we also care about people’s individual lives,” he added. “How technology changes your experience, how to plan for your retirement life and how to buy your first house.”
So, every story could be a “lifestyle story.”
When the tariff battle between China and the U.S. was happening, I called and emailed small business operators and farmers for their stories. Some of them told me they would need to raise the price of their goods if the tariffs increased from 10 percent to 25 percent. Some told me they couldn’t survive the next three years because they are losing consumers. Some have cooperated with Chinese firms and factories more than a decade but had to say goodbye to that partner. A local wine producer in Virginia complained that he hasn’t sold one single bottle of wine to China since trade war began, and his business is faced with ruin. The CEO of a company that makes suitcases shared with me that she is the third generation of her family’s business and she’s very stressed now. Some of them said we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
These people are not highly placed political figures. They are ordinary people who have kids to feed, but are being hurt by the trade fight between the governments of the two countries. No one knows where it will end end.
Their stories touched my heart. My colleagues in USA Today asked me how I feel about the trade war as a Chinese working in a American newsroom. “It’s not my job to say what’s good or bad about U.S.,” I answered, in Hessler’s way. The reason I’m here is to feel it, experience it and share about it.