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Archive for the ‘“From East to East”’ Category

Mount Qiloane, symbol of the Basotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – At the U.S. destination of “Four Corners” – where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah converge – tourists bend over to be photographed with a limb in all four.

Today, I manage a global Four Corners of my own: as an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three striving for a simultaneous presence in southern Africa, Far East Asia, Central Europe and the U.S.

This website, which I’d dubbed From East to Eastas I oscillated between my home in post-Communist Eastern Europe and work in China — has swerved south into sub-Saharan Africa, to document a journalistic journey that includes writing from our new home in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, teaching in Hong Kong and training in Prague.

Spliced in are my articles and photos for Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, The Mantle and many others listed to the right. Thank you for reading! … mjj

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(The following text, trailer and photos will soon appear on the crowdfunding platform, Indiegogo, as my partner and I launch an online campaign to raise US$10,000 for our feature documentary, The Clubhouse. In post-Apartheid South Africa’s most racist town, our film explores how one Golf Club finally admitted a black man – and opened the door to racial healing.)

Our Project

We've been inspired by Samuel Phutigae's heroic journey -- and hope you will, too. (Photo: Justin Keane)

We’ve been inspired by Samuel’s heroic journey — and hope you will be, too. (Photo: Justin Keane)

April 27, 1994. A day that produced one of the seismic events of the 20th Century.

Nelson Mandela and the euphoric first democratic elections in South Africa – which snuffed out one of the world’s most racist and despised regimes: Apartheid. Overnight, voters handed power to the long-suffering black majority – and in a flash, reduced their white overlords to a vulnerable minority.

Today, exactly twenty years later, how can we gauge, and even illuminate, the depth of racial healing in The Rainbow Nation? This documentary provides compelling evidence. To tell the story, I went to South Africa’s most racist town, where I found one ordinary black man. Who’s done something extraordinary.

I’m an American foreign correspondent who has reported from 30 countries over the past 20 years, mostly across post-Communist East Europe and the former Soviet Union. I now live high in the mountains of Southern Africa, where I’ve teamed up with a South African filmmaker-activist, Danny Lurie, on a unique film project.

Thank you for taking the time to visit our Indiegogo campaign, to learn about the feature documentary that we’re making down here: The Clubhouse: One Black Golfer’s Fight for Equality in South Africa’s Most Racist Town.

Please watch our trailer, as we chronicle the heroic journey of one black man, from one notorious farming town, as he chases a seemingly simple dream: to play golf. The only course in town, though, belongs to the stubbornly, whites-only Golf Club. And the Club’s decision to finally relent and allow him to play their course speaks volumes about how far the white minority has come along, too.

“It was the right thing to do,” explains Club President Jacques Viviers. “And many of us knew it.”

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Members of our July 2013 TOL Foreign Correspondent Training Course (Photo: mjj)

Members of our July 2013 TOL Foreign Correspondent Training Course in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST, Hungary – I’ll never forget my sister’s reaction, when I told her ten years ago of my plan to teach journalism, too. To paraphrase, she wondered: What’s to teach? All reporters need is a pen, pad – and write down what’s happening. Right?

She herself is a family doctor, who’d absorbed a mind-boggling amount of specific material to become one. She wasn’t trying to offend me, or denigrate my craft. Yet her words gave me a greater appreciation for all there is to teach about journalism.

I began to mull more deeply not only how I do what I do, but why exactly I do it this way: from philosophy and psychology to strategies and techniques, in my research, reporting, interviewing and writing. Or, when handling sources, editors and others.

On the flip side – now that I’ve taught students and trained journalists on four continents – I’ve also identified what I cannot teach about journalism. Just three things, really. But they’re biggies, of course: curiosity, empathy and life experience.

Fresh from leading my latest foreign-correspondence training in Prague, I’m reminded why each of the three is also essential to producing the most meaningful, most effective story-telling from faraway lands.

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MASERU, Lesotho – A recent article appeared in the Lesotho media with little fanfare, like thousands of health-related articles before it. Yet it fueled my strategy to cultivate journalism education and professional training in Africa’s tiny “Mountain Kingdom.”

As the Lesotho Times article reported, the Ministry of Health unveiled shiny new dormitories for 120 local nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians. The Basotho reporter, presumably with head down, scribbling furiously, noted that speakers thanked the contractor, engineer and U.S. donors. Solar panels made the dorms energy-efficient, while the national water supplier “played a pivotal role … by building a sewer line.”

Nowhere, though, did the reporter illuminate the essential Why: “Why were these dorms built? Why are they so important? Why should readers even care?”

This example illuminates an ongoing pattern in one of Africa’s sickliest countries: the unserious state of media in a society that desperately needs serious and responsible health journalism.

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[When it comes to freelancing foreign correspondence, no one is more current or savvy than the Indian journalist Mridu Khullar Relph, the 2010 "Development Journalist of the Year." Mridu is also tireless in educating others about the field through her fine website, produced from her New Delhi home. So, it was my pleasure to answer her questions about how I do what I do. The following interview was first published on her site on Nov. 20, 2012. For more on freelancing, please read my August 2012 piece on how I'd break in today.]

Mridu Khullar Relph (Courtesy MKR)

Q&A With Michael J. Jordan, International Journalist

No, not THAT Michael Jordan. Although when it comes to his craft, he’s just as good.

I first “met” Michael online through a friend and was immediately struck by how open he was with his contacts, how helpful and encouraging. Michael and I became part of a small freelancers group that shared tips, editor names, and advice with each other, and when I interviewed Michael for my mailing list, I got such an amazing response, that I knew I had to share it with more readers.

His official bio: Michael J. Jordan is an American freelance foreign correspondent and journalism teacher-trainer now based in Lesotho. Beyond southern Africa, he also maintains a toehold in Asia and Europe, as a Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University and as Senior Journalism Trainer for Transitions Online in Prague. He has previously been stationed in Hungary, Slovakia and at the United Nations, as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and many others.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?

I’m an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three young children. Since November, I’ve lived in tiny Lesotho, in southern Africa, for my wife’s job in international development. (more…)

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Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve fallen for Lesotho, that part is obvious. But you know what a miserable day looks like around here?

It’s the last Friday of the month: payday in a country of 2 million where an estimated 40 percent live beneath the international poverty line. It’s also raining meerkats and jackals upon a drought-struck land where a survivalist mountain tribe – the Sesotho-speaking Basotho – claim as a national mantra, “Khotso, Pula, Nala.” A simple request for Peace, Rain, Prosperity.

Today, at least they’re getting the rain. But it’s so torrential, I’m sure some misfortunate families are eyewitness to their precious maize crops – the thrice-a-day staple of their diet – slowly washing away. (The World Food Program is already here, helping to feed tens of thousands of families.)

I just rolled into the Pioneer Mall – just about the only place in Maseru where you can seek refuge from the rain with hot coffee or tea. And a modicum of atmosphere. Yet there’s an enormous line of working stiffs, stretched out to the middle atrium, nice and orderly. They’re wet. And unlike their jolly selves.

These are the Basotho proletariat, waiting their turn to withdraw from the ATM. But this line seems much longer than normal. As I motor past, on my way to the loo, I ask the security guard what’s up. He produces one of those irresistible Basotho smiles, and without a trace of sympathy, declares, “The machine just ran out of money!”

So these poor shlubs sense no other alternative than to just stand there – for who knows how long. Now that is a lousy day.

(As I sit here, relaxed, sipping my hot espresso…)

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[The following post was published March 30, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – The email arrived on the eve of a journalism workshop I’d lead at Kick4Life, an NGO that promotes sport and HIV awareness in a country with the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection.

Lesotho blends beauty with bleakness. (Photo: mjj)

The three-session workshop would be for the newly formed Writing Club, where young Basotho explore their first-hand HIV experiences with pen and paper.

No one here, it seems, is unaffected by HIV. My task would be to teach them a bit about third-person feature writing – to give voice to the voiceless. (For my dispatch on the workshop itself, watch this space in the near future.)

The email, then, was a collection of their vignettes, names withheld, for me to get a sense of what I’d be working with. The first few pieces start slowly, but they begin to bite harder and harder. Themes emerge: beer, sexual aggression, low self-esteem, risky behavior, HIV.

One teen apparently admit to rape. Another tells of a friend impregnated by her father. A third describes an HIV-induced suicide.

Taken together, they paint a striking portrait of life today for young Basotho. That’s why I’ve posted them below, unedited …

“PROBLEMATIC PREGNANCY”

Though I always visited my girlfriend time and again, that her mother was pregnant I was not aware.

After giving birth, she openly told me she was HIV positive. Hospital officials told her after giving birth. She was so disappointed, lonely and felt alone.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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[The following post was published Feb. 16, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – My Hungarian in-laws didn’t take the news well.

Hello, Basotho herders! Are you in need of journalism training? Perhaps help with your blogs? (Photo: mjj)

It was late summer when my wife informed her parents that we’d be moving far away, to the southern tip of Africa – and hauling three beloved grandchildren with us. I thought I was safe from blame: three years in Lesotho wouldn’t be due to my career, but for my wife’s job in international development.

How naive I was. They pointed an accusatory finger, regardless.

You should have been the one to dissuade her,” bemoaned my mother-in-law.

Another counter-argument emerged: But what will Michael do? I excitedly explained all the journalism teaching and training needs that would surely exist in a country afflicted with so many calamities, like the world’s third-highest HIV infection rate, or that 40 percent of the population live below the international poverty line – yet no full-fledged program to teach watchdog journalism.

In Lesotho, I envisioned an opportunity to make a difference.

“You sound like a missionary!” my father-in-law sneered.

What’s so wrong about that, I wondered.

I’m not talking about the real Christian missionaries I count among my new friends in sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here), or the “media missionaries” who purvey God’s word via various media tools.

I plan to evangelize, alright, but preaching the sort of serious, responsible journalism detailed by American journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume in her 2004 monograph, The Media Missionaries: American Support for Journalism Excellence and Press Freedom Around the Globe.

Three months into our stint in Lesotho, here I am: The Media Missionary of Maseru. And the media landscape here is even bleaker than I imagined.

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Frisky gemsbok, in the mood for love. (Photo: mjj)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — At the Bloemfontein Zoo, in the provincial capital of the Free State, we were disappointed to no longer have a chance to see Charlie, the nicotine-addicted chimp. But with a little patience, my 10-year-old and I waited and waited in the hot sun until we saw something even better: gemsbok, unique to southern Africa, in the heat of mating season.

A gibbon: just hangin' around. (Photo: mjj)

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[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE – With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

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She has a head for business: peddling peaches among traffic. (Photo: mjj)

LADYBRAND, South Africa – An unexpected surprise about living here in Lesotho is that we’re also sampling small-town South Africa – within the agricultural “breadbasket” of Free State province. In particular, the farming town of Ladybrand is a scenic 10-minute drive from Maseru.

Historically, Ladybrand was a base first established in the 1860s by the Dutch-pioneer “Voortrekkers” while warring with the Basotho people – who now comprise Lesotho – and later used by the British against those same Dutch farmers during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Today, it’s perhaps best known to foreigners in Maseru as a pleasant place for weekend brunch. On this occasion, road work enabled us to stop and soak in the view.

If it weren't for road construction, no pause to enjoy Ladybrand below. (Photo: mjj)

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[The following post appeared Dec. 5, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve bemoaned my struggle to learn the language of countries where I’ve lived, be it my horrid Hungarian, survival Slovak or café Cantonese.

The Sesotho greeting of "Hello, brothers!" facilitated this photo of young Basotho cattle-herders at rest, minutes from our home in Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

But there’s no denying an irrefutable fact: mastering a few words in any country will garner you grins and goodwill. This is particularly crucial for a foreign correspondent like me.

For starters, Hello, Thank you, Goodbye. Or gimmicky responses like Delicious! (Even if the food is nothing to blog about.) Or Really? (To appear more engaged than you could possibly be.) Or No problem! (When things go awry, but eliciting a smile is the best response.) Or Cheers! (Which requires no explanation.)

So it is I’ve begun to study Sesotho: the language of 2 million Basotho, known individually as Mosotho, who live mostly in Lesotho, and just across the border in … South Africa. (The rhyming ends there.)

English is actually one of two national languages in this ex-British protectorate. But relying on my mother tongue wouldn’t be much fun, especially since we’ll be here three years. It’s a wise decision, says my Sesotho tutor, for learning some of the language is more than a question of being polite and respectful.

“It’s also important to know how to get yourself out of certain situations,” she tells me. Like, if I have to repel the advances of mooching cops, scheming prostitutes or superstitious witchdoctors.

Witchdoctors?! Missed that bit in my guidebook. The tutor now has my undivided attention.

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Young Basotho raising awareness of HIV prevention on Dec. 1, on the streets of Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – For most of us, AIDS in an abstract affliction. In southern Africa, it’s an inescapable reality. In fact, the world’s top four infection rates are found down here: topping the list is Swaziland, followed by Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa. Lesotho, at 23 percent, is my home for the next three years.

So today when I happened upon a demonstration in downtown Maseru today to mark World AIDS Day, it resonated that much more. The young people out in force weren’t only chanting in support of their parents, siblings and friends struck down by the infection – they demanded vigilance by their peers. With good reason: their generation is disproportionately affected.

A young Mosotho spreads the word to a passer-by. (Photo: mjj)

[More photos posted inside.]

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[The following post appeared Nov. 29, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago; it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories. (There’ll be plenty of time for both.) I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

On the Lesotho side of the South African border, a poster warns of human trafficking. (Photo: mjj)

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.

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One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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[The following appeared Nov. 18 on The Mantle. To glimpse some of the future faces of Chinese media – my students – please click here.]

HONG KONG – Last Friday, I would’ve been within my right to sleep in and relish a break from Hong Kong Baptist University. For six weeks, I’ve slavishly tutored another 79 of Asia’s brightest journalism students – mostly mainland Chinese women. (They’re worth it, but my right eye has gone blurry.)

Most of HKBU's 2011-12 class, with the author lurking in back. (Photo: Robin Ewing)

Instead, I woke early to hydrofoil across the rocky, sun-soaked Pearl River Delta, back to the English-language United International College in Zhuhai. In a sauna of a classroom, before 20 (mostly) wide-eyed journalism undergrads, I sweat through three hours of my Parachute in! The Adventurer’s Guide to Foreign Reporting lecture: how I broke into freelancing 17 years ago, and how I’ve done it ever since.

All this, for free. For a friend. For the students … Ah, who am I kidding? I did it for me. As I returned home Friday night, thoroughly wiped, I thought to myself: “You may have an addiction to China.” Or, more specifically, an addiction to teaching Chinese journalism students.

The weekend didn’t cure me. On Monday morning, I volunteered to rise at another ungodly hour and represent our Master’s program in International Journalism at the graduation of last year’s students. I’d trained them twice: for six weeks in Hong Kong, then one week in Prague.

On stage, I enjoyed a bird’s-eye view as dozens of beaming young Chinese heard their names called and – before family and friends – marched across to receive the hearty handshake of a pair of HKBU dons.

I can’t deny it: China and her young Chinese have cast a spell on me. This country matters. Economically, diplomatically, militarily. The world’s emerging superpower is so endlessly fascinating, I’m dizzy with all that I want to write about it. Then there’s the teaching. I now hear myself utter over and over again, to anyone who’ll listen: “China matters – which means my Chinese journalism students matter, too.” The apple of my eye today is HKBU’s current crop of students.

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[For Part I of this post, click here; for Part III, click here.]

HONG KONG – I’m not a professional photojournalist. Yet as a freelancer in the field, I recognize the value to being able to offer clients what I humbly refer to as “decent, usable” photos to package with my articles.

This semester, among the hours I spent with 14 separate groups of mostly Chinese students – cramming in myriad advice on how to professionalize their journalism blogs – I included a quickie tutorial on how to snap a no-frills portrait of their subjects. With their IPhone.

After all, if you’re off in an interesting place, interviewing interesting people, odds are your client will not muster the resources to send a photographer to retrace your steps. A headshot, at least, will a) make the story more visually appealing and b) help readers connect with your subject. Oh, and it may put a few more dollars in your pocket.

Two essential tips, then, I was taught long ago. First, turn your subject 45 degrees – get some angularity in their pose, rather than a straight-shouldered mug-shot. And second, like a hunter, don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes – the proverbial “window onto their soul.”

Naturally, I experimented with a guinea pig in each tutorial, to show the others. The result, it turns out, is a cherished memento for me – and a photo essay of the next generation of Chinese journalists:

Thirteen more below …

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[Part III of a three-part post; view Part I here, Part II there.]

HONG KONG – An Australian friend and colleague began teaching journalism this semester at Hong Kong Baptist University, and we recently commiserated over deep-fried pigeon how aggravating it is when students dare ignore our wisdom.

Since my colleague is new to university teaching in general, I preached to him the virtues of an occasional tongue-lashing of wayward students. Bouquets of praise and encouragement only go so far. Whether face-to-face or via email, I find nothing wrong with letting loose the occasional abuse – a tough love, borne of concern.

In the sanctuary of university brick and mortar, they can get away with missteps or outright mistakes. Next year, in the real world, they may pay a price. Why not scare them straight?

Since I always advocate the benefits of “show, don’t tell” through concrete example, here’s an email I sent to students during their recent reporting project — written for the class of my HKBU colleague, Robin Ewing, but which I then critiqued — on how to sensitively and professionally approach the reporting of minority communities.

Not surprisingly, it drew stony silence — though, the final articles produced were impressive overall:

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Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard's Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

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[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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[The following post appeared May 20, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.

I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.

Team Captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t the only Finn to raise a cup in Bratislava. (IIHF)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.

Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passion for this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.

The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.

All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.

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[The following post appeared May 10, 2011, on The Mantle. The post was republished May 11 on Roma Transitions.]

BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)

Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?

JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.

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[The following post appeared  May 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

I woke up yesterday to the news that Osama Bin Laden had finally been tracked and assassinated. My initial reaction: “Wow. Took ten years, but they got ‘im.” Then I read about the spontaneous celebrations that broke out on some of America’s streets – it didn’t sit well.

Celebrating outside the White House, May 2, 2011. (Photo: Robb Hill, http://www.robbhill.com)

From the hinterlands of Bratislava’s cafés, I needed to “chat.” So, I conducted a social-media experiment with my Facebook “friends.” The result is a fascinating mini-oral history of a milestone day: support, skepticism, ambivalence. Flowed below is my request and their comments, in the order of their arrival. Yet the comments are not closed! Want to add your two cents’ worth? Please do! …

Greetings, my fellow Americans! And anyone else living in the motherland!

I have a made-for-social-media kinda request. I, like you, have been captivated by the momentous kill of Osama bin Laden, ten years in the making. Seeing as I’m not among you, stateside, could you please report to me: a) where you are currently stationed in life; b) roughly how many people “celebrated with jubilation” on the streets of your town – according to your very own eyes, local media, and citizen journalists; and finally, c) any reaction or analysis of your own you might want to add.

To me, I find it curious to learn of crowds (disproportionately small – or large?) out “celebrating” a state execution. Even one as utterly justifiable as Osama’s. I wonder if it might have been more meaningful for society to seize upon this rare opportunity to remind ourselves – and the world watching us – of the three thousand people who Osama murdered on 9/11. What was lost. Instead, whooping it up like your town just won the college-basketball championship?

How isolated was this phenomenon? How should the world interpret such reaction? Bloodlust, perhaps? Please, tell me your thoughts. I’m all ears!

Wait. Come to think of it, I’d also like to ask my non-American friends living beyond our shores: how do you interpret the American response you’ve seen, heard and read? Why do you see it that way? Lastly, I shouldn’t ignore my compatriots in the American diaspora: Feel free to weigh in!

Sincerely, Michael

Donald Allport Bird (American): ‎”Greetings My Fellow Americans”!!!! Are you running for President, too?

Scott Goldman (American): My initial reaction to seeing those crowds in NYC and DC was the age of the participants. They were mostly college age people and it struck me that these were 9, 10 and 11 year olds on 9/11. Their joy came from a deep place on what must have been an extremely frightening day from a child’s perspective. Now grown up, those fears are exorcised to some extent. Very, very powerful.

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[The following appeared March 18, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA The UN Security Council’s 11th-hour intervention to save Benghazi may have sparked a Libyan ceasefire – or brief respite – but one criticism caught my eye as Gaddafi loyalists tightened the noose around the rebel stronghold.

“There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises that said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate,” said the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had met with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution come flooding back. Not that I was there, mind you. But Hungarians have for years resented the West for “promised” assistance – via the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, the UN, and others – should Magyars take up arms against a Soviet-backed Communist regime several years into its reign of terror.

Spurred on by those words of support, the Hungarians rose up, heroically, on October 23, 1956. Except, the West never came. In Budapest, street-by-street gun battles against Soviet tanks lasted less than two weeks, before being snuffed out. The Hungarian toll: more than 2,500 killed and 200,000 refugees – including my father and grandparents.

My question is not if the international community should’ve intervened in Hungary then, or in Libya today. (As my Mantle colleague Corrie Hulse has suggested.) Rather, if you encourage others to lay their lives on the line, what moral responsibility do you bear if you ultimately fail to back words with action?

For Libya, this depends on your definition of promise. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary Libyan who over the past month has seen: the globe rejoice at revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; world leaders, even Arab allies, brand Gaddafi as “illegitimate” for his ruthlessness against civilians; Libya suspended from the UN Human Rights Council; French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands with rebel leaders and call for air-strikes; and the Arab League agree to a no-fly zone against one of their own.

If I’m Libyan, it sure sounds like the world is telling me: Keep fighting. We won’t let the Colonel get away with this. Help is on the way. Yet each day, while Gaddafi’s forces pounded and demoralized the rebels, the international community dragged its feet.

The aftermath of Hungary 1956 was marked by mass arrests, show trials, executions and long prison terms. In Libya, there seems no option but fight to the death. Imagine what revenge awaits Benghazi, after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no compassion.” If the ceasefire collapses and the world fiddles while Benghazi burns – as it did for Budapest 55 years ago – the blood won’t only be on the hands of its executioners.

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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on "Roma Transitions."]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[The following piece appeared Feb. 10 in The Global Journalist; it was republished Feb. 11 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the relative serenity of Central Europe, I’m following events in Egypt like many of you: scan headlines, surf for more and more voices. To watch history being made in real time is a thrilling, if voyeuristic, experience. Virtual ring-side seats to a title fight between David and Goliath.

But beyond the dominant story-line – that the Egyptian revolution may tip the dominoes across the Arab world – is a significant subplot: the triumphalism of Twitter and Facebook as mighty weapons of war. And democracy. No wonder China is watching so nervously.

First Tunisia, then Egypt. All hail “social media and its entry into the mainstream! (Even if it sometimes makes us sad.)

Now, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but let’s pause to examine the limits of social media. Because, I’ll wager my payment for this piece on one prediction: the dust won’t have settled in Tahrir Square before certain pundits, activists and academics point to Egypt and sing the praises of “citizen journalism.”

The phrase makes my skin crawl for how it blurs the lines of serious reportage.

There’s no doubt that for protesting Cairenes and embattled journalists, social media is a lifeline to the outside world. Behold Mubarak’s forces, bumbling in futile efforts to stifle the Internet and modern communication. Then, in full view of the world, a disgraceful crackdown on Egyptian and foreign journalists – including one killed. We justifiably toast journalists like Egyptian Sarah El Sirgany, a sudden folk hero for relying on Twitter to persist with her reporting.

It’s become faddish for true-believers to tout We are all journalists now. Anyone dexterous enough with an iPhone is a potential photojournalist. Any grassroot netizen blogging solitarily from a café, or from home in their pajamas, can produce actual “journalism.”  Effectively enough to supplant the icky, whorish “MSM.” (The mainstream media, of which I’m a card-carrying member.)

What nonsense.

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – The last time I saw the European Union this embarrassed by a new EU member, it was forced to freeze hundreds of millions in aid to sticky-fingered Bulgaria. (Which I covered extensively for the CSMonitor.)

So, what will Brussels now do about Hungary? On Jan. 1, it became the third ex-Communist country to assume the EU’s rotating presidency. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, won elections last spring in such overwhelming fashion, their two-thirds majority has set out to re-write the country’s constitution and commandeer every nominally independent institutions, from the largely ceremonial post of president, to the Supreme Court, state audit office and Central Bank.

Then, just before Christmas – and days away from stepping into the EU spotlight – Fidesz lawmakers passed a media law that shocked fellow EU members in its brazen bid to muzzle mainstream media. A new “Media Council” – coincidentally, with all five members appointed by Fidesz – may slap crippling fines on any newspaper, TV, radio or Internet outlet that produces a report deemed “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Oh, and the Council can also force any journalist to reveal their sources.

Reaction was immediate. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Jan. 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – For years, foreign observers of Slovakia – like me, guilty as charged – have put the puny, post-Communist country on the couch.

The diagnosis: suffers an inferiority complex. Never before independent. Bullied for centuries by the Hungarians. Little peasant brother of the Czechs.

What a difference a decade makes. The new Slovak government is flexing its muscles, as brawny Slovak men tend to do. Except in this case, the face of forcefulness is a woman. Iveta Radičová, the first female prime minister to wield power in Communist-turned-EU-member Central Europe.

The significance here is only partly that a woman has smashed the ceiling to the highest office. (Though, some women in the region are content with proving that sex still sells: during a Czech election campaign this year, six female candidates for Parliament posed skimpily for a calendar. And won.)

Instead, the story is that Radičová leads Slovakia’s one-man rebellion over the pricey EU bailout of Greece, revealing just how influential – or disruptive – the new eastern members can be.

No sooner was Radičová sworn in July 8 to lead a center-right, four-party coalition, than she swung a right-hook at Brussels. She denied the 27-state union a final “yea” unless her new government could renegotiate Slovakia’s staggering contribution: 4.4 billion of the 110 billion euros ($148 billion).

(It didn’t help matters when the public here caught wind of the inconvenient fact that Greek pensioners live much more comfortably than their Slovak peers.)

Radičová also continues to defend Slovakia’s pro-Serbia stance on Kosovo, bucking Brussels in its recognition of Kosovo statehood. (The bogeyman brandished by Slovak hard-liners is less Slavic solidarity than the threat that the heavily ethnic-Hungarian south of Slovakia one day breaks away.)

In December, the spotlight was again on the new premier. But this time, to be a calming voice for markets rattled by the Slovak parliamentary speaker’s call for a “Plan B”: withdraw Slovakia from the troubled, 16-member Eurozone; return Slovaks to their beloved koruny, or “crowns.”

Slovakia had achieved another milestone in January 2009, when it leapfrogged neighboring Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to become the first in Central Europe to jettison its national currency for the Euro. Today, though, Western media is awash with speculation about Slovakia: “Last in, first out?”

Slovakia “hasn’t for one second” considered defecting, Radičová told media. “Our task is to stabilize the euro. Any thoughts about alternatives are weakening the stabilization mechanism and I consider them extremely risky.”

Scrappy Slovakia, with Radičová leading the charge, is worth watching in 2011.

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[The following piece appeared Dec. 9 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.

In fact, that’s just the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.

Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”

Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It’s like sipping nature.

Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket…)

In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?

While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!

Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.

I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)

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[The following piece appeared Dec. 7 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a shimmering shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I’m implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.) The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC. (If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What’s the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times? Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets. Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please, take your breaks elsewhere, out of sight.)

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 30 on The Mantle.]

Scene of the Samaritan-sighting. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I didn’t want to blog today. I need to write more of the Double-Secret Probationary Project I started this month. Oops, I’ve already said too much.

But then I witness a great act of stranger-to-stranger kindness, the sort of thing that is so rare in post-Communist, every-man-for-himself Central Europe, I notice when it happens.

It’s always easier for foreign correspondents in remote, off-the-beaten-path locales to highlight the negatives about the host society. Lord knows, I’ve made a career out of it. Our breed tends to have an over-inflated sense of purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, imagine you read that trickle of distasteful stories: inter-ethnic conflict, government corruption, etc. Couple that with the occasional natural or man-made disaster. (See: Hungary, toxic red sludge.) What impression does the international community form about these pipsqueak tribes in the hinterlands?

Nothing too flattering. That’s why I feel the tug to occasionally recognize, and publicize, the brighter side of life out here. It’s also the first prong of my formula for good-bad-and-ugly reportage. Or is a better word “bloggage”? Maybe that’s too disparaging. Man, that Jordan sure has a lot of bloggage on his site.

Bloggage be damned, I must report what just happened in the cold, drizzly streets of Bratislava. First, let me set the scene …

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 16 on The Mantle.]

Homelessness and street-begging have become a daily sight in Bratislava. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.

Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather. Or perhaps the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I draw the line.

Suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of the city that has been my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.

As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.

First, I park near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If the public has learned one thing from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)

Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.

Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.

She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. (more…)

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English girls in Slovakia: Madeleine, 6; Charlotte, 4.

No, I’m not father to these two. But with such young subjects, this is a portrait that would please any hobbyist. The fact it was shot by my 8-year-old son, makes me even prouder. As does the poem he crafted earlier this week:

Trees were like matchsticks in the stormy night

Tumbling in the morning light

The moon cried sounding like the rain

Rain pitter pattering down the drain

Lightning cracking the sky

The wind is a whip swooping by

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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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A serene oasis amid Hong Kong's hustle.

Hong Kong Island has its mountains and beaches, while across Victoria Harbor, the Kowloon Peninsula counters with crowds and neon. I’ve now lived twice in Kowloon, short-term, and the only trees you see is the forest of high-rises. That is, until I discovered Kowloon Park – the “green lung” of the peninsula.

A friendly game of Chinese checkers.

For more photos … (more…)

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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[A Hungarian friend and journalist colleague, Gabor Miklos, responded to my Sept. 1 Mantle post "Mitteleuropa: Not Just a State of Mind," with this Oct. 22 piece, "A Virtualis Retesbirodalom," in the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.]

BUDAPEST — Mike amerikai, és Pozsonyban lakik, ott találkoztunk. Régi az ismeretség, hiszen vagy tizenöt éve még Pesten élt. Vannak ilyenek. Járják a világot, de a valódi otthonuk az óceán túlsó oldalán van. Azt fejtegeti, hogy most rájött, a régi Közép-Európa újra létezik. Azt tapasztalta, hogy a szlovákok szívesen vesznek házat Magyarországon, az osztrákok a magyar oldalon esznek, és mind a három nemzet együtt fürdőzik a határhoz közeli osztrák vagy magyar termálfürdőkben. És ehhez jön még a rétes.

Különösen a mákos. Mike ugyanis magáévá tette az elméletet, miszerint Közép-Európa ott van, ahol rétes van. És mák. Mert például mákos ételeket – bejgli, rétes, metélt, guba, nudli és társai – szerinte kizárólag az egykori Monarchia utódállamaiban fogyasztanak. És ő ezt most kiválóan tapasztalja, sőt megéli. Hiszen Pozsonyban lakik, s Szlovákia sokszorosan utódállam.

Pár évvel ezelőtt néhányan megpróbáltunk utánajárni ennek az ügynek. Létezik-e valóban a virtuális mákosrétes-birodalom? Szóval, hogy ahol kilencven-egynéhány éve még egyforma indóházak épültek, és Fellner és Helmer építette színházakban bécsi és pesti operetteket játszottak, ahol tükrös kávéházakban friss nyugat-európai újságok várták a feketére betérőket. A felfedezőút kiterjedt még némileg irodalomra, kultúrára, hangulatokra és nosztalgiára. Szép kalandozás volt, jó könyv született belőle.

(more…)

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[Part I of a four-part post. Part II, III and IV are below.]

HONG KONG – And now, some good news about China.

Why? Because, it’s too easy to blast a country with superpower aspirations that chases after its own citizens like naughty schoolchildren, to restrict them from learning about China’s first-ever Nobel.

Sure, it wasn’t the Nobel that China has wanted. But why should anyone in the international community lend prestige to a state that demands the world’s respect, yet cannot tolerate any serious internal criticism of its domestic or foreign policies?

That said, it’s time for a more nuanced assessment of China. By me, especially.

China is obviously a very, very complex society. From my limited vantage point in Hong Kong — albeit surrounded by mainland Chinese students — I wouldn’t want to caricaturize the country, painting too black and white a picture. Which is why I spent time last week trying to see more of the grey. Including a trip to the mainland.

For example, even as Beijing threw a tantrum over the Nobel peace prize for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the need for “political reform” to join the capitalist transformation that has catapulted China to the world’s second-largest economy.

There’s more. (more…)

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[Part II of a four-part post. Part I is above; III and IV, below.]

Mark O'Neill (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – In 1897, an Irish missionary named Frederick O’Neill set sail on a two-month journey to China to spread his Presbyterian gospel among Chinese countryfolk.

Reverend O’Neill remained in remote northeast China for 45 years. In fact, so devoted to his mission were he and his wife that they withstood the loss of two of their five children to childhood diseases – diseases they contracted from their living environment.

“Meaning, they wouldn’t have died if they’d been in Ireland,” says the reverend’s grandson, Mark O’Neill.

When Mark told me he was writing a book about his grandfather, I figured the man had inspired his grandson’s lifelong fascination with China. Wrong.

(See, dear students, this is why we journalists should never assume.)

In fact, Mark stumbled onto it in 1978, when an acquaintance in London suggested he try reporting from Hong Kong – a British colony where he’d have a leg-up getting hired. He eventually latched onto Reuters, then on to the South China Morning Post.

Thirty-two years later, Mark is best described by that charmingly antiquated term for veteran reporters, diplomats, scholars and spies with geographical expertise: “old hand.” Sounds so Cold War. “Old Soviet hand” … “Old Vietnam hand.” (How long before I graduate to “old Central Europe hand”?) (more…)

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[Part III of a four-part post. Part I and II are above; IV is below.]

It was so hot that day in Zhuhai, few UIC students ventured outside. (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – It’s a hot and sunny Thursday, like so many others. I really should be tutoring my students in Hong Kong, in the same bloody café I’ve planted myself every day for the past five weeks.

Instead … Day-trip to China!

I’ve shelled out about $155 for a single-entry visa to the mainland. All for today.

By noon, Mark O’Neill and I are zipping across the southern Pearl River Delta, past dozens of rocky, uninhabited islands. It’s a brisk, 70-minute ferry ride to Zhuhai, a boomtown “Special Economic Zone” whose marketing department has exuberantly dubbed the coastal city “the Chinese Riviera.”

Maybe so, but I won’t see any of it. I’m here to give a talk to Mark’s 40 students, at a university where he’s lectured for three years – United International College. My topic: “Life as a Freelance Foreign Correspondent.” (Life is good. Any questions?)

By Chinese standards, UIC is a most unusual joint venture, between the prestigious Beijing Normal University and Hong Kong Baptist University, my employer. Apparently, all the Hong Kong universities have been trying to expand onto the mainland; only HKBU has succeeded. One reason, says Mark, is state control.

“If you want to set up a shoe factory on the mainland, you can do it tomorrow,” he says. “But universities are one of the most highly regulated sectors, because it deals with information, knowledge and ideology – and influences people’s minds.”

(more…)

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[Part IV of a four-part post. Part I, II and III are above.]

The American Slang Club in Zhuhai: Where do I sign up? (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – The poster induces a double-take: “American Slang Club.”

Outside the door of a Chinese university classroom, across a hand-sketched map of America, is the decline of the English language. As plain as the pink, orange and blue marker in which it’s drawn.

How’s it hanging? … Lookin’ foxy! … Can you get me the hook-up? … Boozing. … Like OMG! … What a creep.

Is this what hundreds of millions of Chinese youth are learning? I can just imagine a young Chinese diplomat in New York, new to the United Nations, dropping those humdingers at the bar. I picture the next gathering of the school Slang Club, to watch an installment of The Wire.

“Now let’s pause it right there,” the Chinese slangster-in-chief might say. “Everyone repeat after me: ‘Most def!’ … Most def! … ‘You feelin’ me?’ … You feelin’ me?

Then I spot it on the poster: Shmoozing. Defined by Merriam-Webster as chatting in a “friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections.” More striking: Yiddish, uttered here on the Chinese Riviera. I kvell.

(more…)

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Until the late 1970s, Shenzhen was little more than a Chinese fishing village, and nearby Shajing Town was known for its shuckers of “Shajing Oysters.” Then, China anointed Shenzhen – strategically situated just north of Hong Kong – as its first “Special Economic Zone.” The population exploded, swamping Shajing.

The mass of humanity in Shajing, now one of 18 districts in Shenzhen, a city whose population is officially listed at 9 million. Shajing is considered a surburb -- but a one-hour drive from downtown.

Perched over freshly shucked Shajing oysters.

Three decades later, Shenzhen is a manufacturing powerhouse fueled by millions of migrant workers from across China, with a glitzy financial district that’s one part Las Vegas, one part Wall Street. Factory workers now dominate Shajing, as I saw one weekend, though remnants of the oyster-shucking tradition remain.

For more photos … (more…)

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[The following appeared Oct. 14 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – while the man languishes in prison – has inflicted humiliation of epic proportion upon the thin-skinned Communist leadership in Beijing.

So epic, it will surely enter the Party’s pantheon of taboos, up on its Mount Rushmore to censorship: Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the Falun Gong. At least, that’s what my new sources in Chinese media lead me to believe, since it’s the state-controlled media that ruthlessly enforces Party diktat.

How could this event not join that fivesome?

Liu himself practically ensured it when he dedicated his Nobel to the most taboo of taboos: the “lost souls” of June 4, 1989. On that day, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, under the government’s nose, and mowed down hundreds of protesters. The exact number of dead remains unknown.

The Party has since forbade any public discussion of what it refers to as the “June Fourth Incident.” How could any casual future discussion of Liu’s Nobel not lead inevitably to Tiananmen? Leading this blackout will be foot-soldiers in the media.

A young Chinese woman now working as a cub reporter for a provincial city newspaper recently described for me her orientation, during which the chief editor addressed all new editorial staff. With a Party-appointed cadre in the newsroom, the editor referred obliquely to “five landmines” that cannot be touched.

Most revealing is that my young colleague wasn’t surprised. (more…)

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