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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese journalism students’

[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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[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 Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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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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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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[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 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.”

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[This piece appeared Sept. 30 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I at are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. (more…)

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HONG KONG – My tutorial-chat today in the crowded campus cafe began innocently enough, with me asking one Chinese student from the mainland why she wanted to come study journalism in Hong Kong, and not stay back home.

After listing several reasons, she punctuated her response with: “My father says China is no good. He says the Communist Party will collapse.”

That set the other group members atwitter, in Mandarin. I asked what the buzz was about. “Oh, you can’t say that publicly in China,” one explained. Never know who may be listening.

These students have only been in Hong Kong three weeks, but quickly discover the essence of what makes this place, as I call it, “China with an asterisk.” This unique policy of “One Country, Two Systems” makes Hong Kong the one sanctuary for freedom of expression in all of China.

My student’s comment about the Party seemed to embolden her colleagues. The floodgates swung open.

A second young woman lamented that the central government “concentrates efforts on big projects, but nothing for the people at the bottom of society, who lag behind. They say all of China is in harmony, but there are so many voiceless people. I want to give them an opportunity to be heard.”

A young man who worked a short stint at China state television chimed in. “The problem is that they try to hide the reality,” he said. “One viewer criticized our station: ‘You tell us everything but the truth.’”

Then why return, asked the one Hong Konger in our group.

Hope. That’s why, explained the fourth mainlander.

“You have to believe it will get better and better,” he said, earnestly. “Even if you don’t believe it sometimes.”

From my front-row seat, I listened … in awe.

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HONG KONG – Teaching journalism in a free media environment like Hong Kong, to students who mostly hail from the un-free media environment of mainland China, it’s easy for an American carpetbagger like me to prattle on about high-minded issues like democracy, press freedom and state control.

Many Chinese students I come across, though, have more mundane – but universal – desires. Like access to Facebook and cyber-connection to the rest of the modern world, as I’ve written before. Last night, a new one came to light.

I was eating out with a former grad student of mine, who’s now 24. Rather than return to the mainland, she’s trying her luck in Hong Kong. While we munch on barbeque pork and crispy duck, I ask her what she likes best about living here.

“The films,” she replies.

What a banal response, I think: That’s the first thing that springs to mind? She continues, explaining the mainland’s quota policy that restricts how many foreign films are allowed in.

“I love film, and if I want to see a French movie, or Malaysian, or Indonesian, or New Zealand film, I can see them here,” she says. “I don’t recall any French film coming to my city in China.”

It dawns on me that this mirrors the banal yet symbolic aspect of daily life that I love about New York City, but miss in the Slovak capital of Bratislava: the huge spectrum of ethnic restaurants.

My student, too, wants freedom of choice, diversity of tastes. Which multi-ethnic Hong Kong delivers.

“Here they’re more tolerant of different cultures and do more to expose people to those cultures,” she says. “It’s not just that I’m interested in different cultures, but that I can choose from among them.”

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (more…)

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Old Town Bratislava is filled with peaceful spots. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – It’s been nine months since I left Hong Kong and returned to Slovakia. I continue the blog I began in HK – “From East to East” – when I documented my shift from 16 years spent in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, to a close-up view of still-Communist China.

This is part journalism, part travelogue: it tracks my journey as a foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Aside from the Slovakia posts (begins Feb. 2, “Hello, Old Friend”), visit my posts about teaching journalism in Hong Kong, plus my dispatches and photos about the region’s unique Roma minority.

Spliced in are my recent articles, from various publications.

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(The following piece appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Harvard’s Nieman Reports.)

A student from Shenzhen, an industrial Chinese city just across the border, explained why she’ll try to stay in Hong Kong: “Once I’ve discovered all the resources out there, I don’t want them taken away from me.”

Dozens of my Chinese students. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

HONG KONG — Just about the first thing my graduate students did when they arrived in Hong Kong was to create a Facebook account. They had come from mainland China, so what might seem like an ordinary act of modern living laid bare the disparities in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between these two parts of China.

This newfound freedom to use Facebook also underscored the absence of free speech they experience back home, which limits their ability to surf the Internet. YouTube and Twitter are blocked from use, along with Facebook and passage to Web sites with information deemed critical of Chinese policy.

For the students I taught last fall in the international journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the prospect of returning to a pre-Facebook era, as one young woman from China’s north told me, would be “like being a human, then going back to being a primate.”

If democracy is in China’s future, then a driving force will surely be younger Chinese who have tasted such freedoms. Indeed, early on in my journalism classes I sensed that by cajoling my 22- to 26-year-old students toward what Western journalists naturally do—challenge authority, probe deeply to find out why a situation is the way it is, and enable readers to make better-informed decisions—I was in my own modest way training China’s future democrats.

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BRATISLAVA – Here in one of Europe’s least-known capitals, I don’t come across many groups of young foreigners who actually live in Bratislava. Not like in magnetic Prague. If my ear serves me right, I’ve identified packs of university students here from places like Spain, Greece, Israel and the Middle East.

Since I don’t speak their language, I can sit in a cafe and enjoy people-watching from a distance without actually understanding what silliness they’re roaring about. I can also concentrate and get work done. A pleasant combination.

Tonight, though, I’m in a smoky cafe, and the only available table is cozily next to a trio of Westerners. Speaking English. Loudly. The two guys seem to be Brits, the woman a Scandinavian of some stripe.

They seem well-meaning, curious enough to want to explore Europe. They also sound too seasoned and familiar with each other to be back-packers … Wait, there’s talk of summer break. University students. Studying theater.

Their coarse language, though, is becoming noise pollution. I can barely block it out. The only reason I’m out working late is to push forward an article I’m writing about the Kosovo Roma refugees withering away in Macedonia.

One of the fellows is on my nerves with graphic detail about his jiu-jitsu trainings. How graphic? Well, I’m hearing way more than I need to hear about what exactly it feels like to be kicked in the head, or taken down hard.

If I were out for a beer or two, maybe I’d ask a few questions. Like, why the hell anyone would want to do that to their brain. But tonight I’m into a pot of jasmine tea – and this close to relocating my laptop.

(If there were an empty seat, of course.) (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — Today I headed to one of the city’s most dynamic arteries, Obchodna Ulica (or “Shop Street”). My target was a pretty good café, but more importantly, the juice to power my laptop for a while.

Navigating my way, I decided to cut through the Chinese market and its gauntlet of hanging clothes. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the dominant Slavic, Hungarian and Germanic features here. Plus, saves time!

Seeing the Chinese faces of the peddlers, it struck me: “Hey, now I can say ‘Hi’ to them in their own language.”

I don’t know why I often feel a need to chat with strangers. In whatever language I can muster a few words. I suppose a major reason is the solitude of freelancing. Also, I’ve asked around: I think I’m a foreign press corps of one. So, I need the occasional human interaction.

In the market, a young Chinese woman stood in front of her stall of blue jeans.

“Ni hao,” I said, clumsily. Hello.

It’s one of the few phrases in Mandarin I learned during my week in Yunnan Province. I tried, but I guess Cantonese really is limited to parts of southern China. My students and colleagues were right indeed.

The young woman seemed tongue-tied and said nothing. But I didn’t stop or look back. (Wasn’t feeling that vibe.) Three stalls down, a second chance: a young Chinese man, leaning against a railing.

“Ni hao,” I said, more confidently.

Even more surprising for Bratislava, he answered with a slow smile: “Hi.”

I thought immediately of my students in Hong Kong, now nearing the end of their one-year program. They were such a charming crowd, I couldn’t help but be affected by them. So here I was, taking that Chinese goodwill and paying it forward – to the Chinese diaspora!

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Kalderash life is light years from Manhattan. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – A scoop just for you: the King of the Gypsies is no fan of “Sex and the City.”

We’re here largely to interview Florin Cioaba’s daughter, Ana-Maria, who was at the heart of an early-teen controversy seven years ago. He told us he married her off at “13-and-a-half or 14,” though media reports then suggested she might be as young as 12. Her groom was 15.

Cioaba described the parental challenges for deeply traditional “Kalderash” Roma who are raising daughters in an era soaked with raunchy images from MTV, Hollywood and everywhere else. One source of blame pricked my ear: Sex and the City.

This was actually the second time in recent months that I’ve heard someone blame the racy HBO series for loosening societal mores. The first was in stylish Hong Kong, from a Chinese student of mine from the less-stylish mainland.

My student, a wholesome-looking 25-year-old, explained how some classmates, influenced by watching Carrie Bradshaw and her posse prowl for romance, urged her to dress more sexily, less bookish, join them at the trendy nightclubs, and … you know. But she was resisting. A couple months later, though, I couldn’t help but notice her sleek new haircut.

Here in Sibiu, the Kalderash Roma are under pressure to end their practice of early-teen marriage, especially the sacred ritual of proving the bride’s virginity by parading the bloodied sheet. Legal intercourse in Romania begins at 18.

Holding off, though, has serious costs, says the king. Thanks in part to Sex and the City, some Kalderash girls want to delay marriage – and chase a bit of fun beforehand. “Here’s what our girls learn from the show: in the morning, she’s with one guy, in the afternoon, another, and at night, a third,” Cioaba lamented. “This is the education we want for our daughters?”

Evidently, not. Meanwhile, has Sex and the City become a global phenomenon, reverberating through conservative cultures, fomenting female rebellion and sexual emancipation? It’s worth a closer look.

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The Hong Kong Skyline

The Hong Kong Skyline

 The blog below documents my Fall 2009 semester of teaching journalism in Hong Kong, as a Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. I thought of calling this blend of light and serious observations “One Hundred Days in Hong Kong.” (Though it was actually 108.) But because I’ve spent most of the past 16 years in ex-Communist Eastern Europe (that’s old Bratislava drawn above), my life and journalistic experiences there were the inevitable measuring stick for fresh encounters in China. So I dubbed this blog: “From East to East”! [First entry: Sept. 2 – "Land, Ho..."] 

(FYI, I’ve woven in, chronologically, the journalism I produced during that time.)

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One thought struck me early on in my stint here in Hong Kong: once my mainland Chinese students are exposed to the freedom of speech, freedom of expression – and the freedom to surf the Internet! – how difficult would it be to return to the restrictions back home? Once your mind has been pried open to all the possibilities, how can you tolerate having it shut closed?

For example, one of the first things they do upon arrival here is to open a Facebook account, an act forbidden on the mainland. As are YouTube, Twitter and a slew of other social-media and news sites.

Imagine not being able to buy a history book about your own people, in your own country, but just across the border. For me, in fact, it’s unimaginable. One Chinese colleague says the lecture he enjoys most is when he shares with wide-eyed students everything they can’t learn back home.

So, with my last few weeks in Hong Kong, I’ve been asking some of my mainlanders: What next?

Over a bubbling “hot pot” soup in a local dai-pai-dong – an open-air street restaurant – several of my students were unsurprisingly torn between a desire to return to family, friends and hometown, or trying to stay in Hong Kong to find an unfettered media job.

Going home, said one young woman from the north, would be “like being a human being, then going back to being a primate.” Said another, who hails from just across the border, in Shenzhen, added, “Once I’ve learned about all the resources out there, I don’t want to have them taken away from me.”

A third, though, indicated that despite everything she’s learned here, she would surely return to her beloved coastal city – resume keeping her head down. “If I were to blog about sensitive topics, I could be put in jail,” she said. “And I wouldn’t want to risk my life for that, or get my family into trouble.”

One day I myself will return to the Middle Kingdom, to see how – if at all – our students have applied our lessons in “democratic” journalism.

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Before arriving in Hong Kong, knowing I was to teach young Chinese in an “International Journalism” program, I pondered: “How can I teach them international reporting without the travel?”

With that, I returned to a course I hatched almost seven years ago, an International Reporting class for two New York City universities – again, no passport required. The essence: simulate the overseas experience by having each student explore an ethnic, immigrant or refugee community.

In New York, of course, that’s no problem. In Hong Kong, too, I saw the potential: with its historic British and South Asian communities, plus recent waves of Southeast Asian migrant workers.

One obstacle, though: the department chairman, Huang Yu, had a reasonable point. He noted that while many from the mainland had some journalism experience, or studied it as undergrads, others didn’t. “Our students must first learn solid fundamentals,” he explained. I pledged to. But I wanted to blend that with my master-plan: serious reporting of non-Chinese communities.

I wanted to force students out of their “comfort zone”: to meet, understand and write about people unlike them. From there, it’s actually a short leap to travel to another country and write about others.

The first day of class, I introduced this semester-long project, reassuring students that I’d walk them through, step by step, the entire research, reporting and writing process. Well, the results are now coming in – and I’m awed by what I’m reading. Exploitation of Indonesian and Filipina maids. Cantonese-language rules that limit university enrollment of Hong Kong-born Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalese. Discrimination against minority athletes. Survival prospects for the tiny Zoroastrian community. And on and on.

I’d put into words how proud I am, but I wouldn’t want them to hear. After all, I’m just now editing their first drafts, which are still flawed in significant ways. The final draft looms. So let’s keep my delight between us, OK?

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If you were to ask my students, they might describe me as one part Jekyll, one part Hyde. (So would my sons, but that’s another story.)

Sure, the students sometimes chuckle at my classroom shtick, whether it’s a self-deprecating jab, voice impersonation or the crook of an eyebrow.

But they also see a nastier side. Especially when I repeat myself for the umpteenth time: from their failure to proofread an article before submission, or consistently quoting fact, not paraphrasing, to larger issues like plagiarism (see Oct. 20 post) or ignoring my prescribed story structure. The venom really spews when I edit their work, inserting comments in red-hot caps … with lots of exclamation points.

This week, though, I apologized. To all 70 of them. I’m so used to hearing them speak English, my mother tongue, that I easily forget this is their second, third, even fourth language. I may dabble in Hungarian, Slovak and Cantonese, but can only dream of writing in a foreign language as well as they are right now.

So, I taught them the idiom “can’t see the forest for the trees,” to underscore how I’d lost perspective. Theirs is actually a double degree of difficulty: writing in English, but also in a completely new writing form, this American-style news feature I’m teaching them.

Recognizing the need to balance praise with poison, then, I wrote on the board another new expression: Tough Love. “It’s because I care too much,” I explained. More chuckles.

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In a Jordan Ink. exclusive, columnist Connie Schultz, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, reflects on her visit to Hong Kong:

It is 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning in our home in America, and being the cook of the family I am the only one up. Being the only journalist in the family, I am also the only one already on a computer checking the news and e-mail. Some habits will die only when I do, I’m afraid.

One of my e-mails included a wonderful note from Professor Robin Ewing, who asked me if I had checked Professor Michael Jordan’s blog, “Jordan, Ink.” to read what some of the students have written here.

What? My beloved Hong Kong friends are writing about their experiences with us? I rushed to click on the link. I was eager for my HKBU student-fix, as spending time with all of you created a new addiction in me. A good one: I yearn for more of our lively conversations.

I am so moved by what has been posted here, in large part because, from my perspective, the gratitude is all mine. When I arrived in Hong Kong bedraggled and blinking like a newborn, I had no idea what was in store of us, but it didn’t take long to find out. Immediately, I was greeted by the smiling faces of students who traveled at night just to meet me. Yang Zhuo stood front and center, recognizing me immediately and welcoming me like a long lost relative.

I had the hunch that I was about to have the adventure of a lifetime, and boy, did I. Woo-hoo, as my son always says.

I am still digesting all that I learned during my time in Hong Kong. Meeting such a brave group of students and faculty – and yes, it is brave what you are doing – shook me of any resigning thoughts I might have been having that the best days of American journalism must surely be behind us. The newspaper industry in our country is deeply troubled right now. But how can I possibly give up trying to find ways for us to continue to play a vital role in our country’s democracy when you are fighting so hard for the right to practice ethical, responsible journalism in your country? I feel newly charged, and it’s because of you. (more…)

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Aspiring journalists need to understand they’re not in this business to get rich; only a fraction of our ilk will ever earn big bucks. So, you recognize early on the other payoffs. Like the thrill of the byline!

Yes, some of us are driven by altruism and idealism, to defend the little guy, or take down a bad guy, or to inform and educate an audience about serious social, political, economic or environmental issues. But there’s also nothing quite like seeing your name in print, atop your reportage.

Almost 20 years later, I still derive satisfaction from seeing my work published, appreciating the fact that so many others would love to be in the same position. This was one reason I pushed for a public showcase of HKBU student reporting. The result: Hong Kong Dispatches. (Though it was my energetic colleague, Robin Ewing, who ultimately did most of the heavy lifting with the site.)

We colleagues then had an interesting discussion about whether ALL the student work should be uploaded, or just the cream of the crop. I’m of two minds. On the one hand, you want the best work to reflect well on the university, even on your own teaching. And there’s something a bit too touchy-feely about, as you would with children, giving everyone a ribbon just for participating. “We’re all winners, Timmy!”

The greater good, though, is that I want each of my students to taste this thrill of the byline, in hopes that this ego-boost will propel them forward, into a career of serious journalism. My vote, then, was to publish ‘em all.

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The results of their first reporting and writing assignments are in — and it’s time for me to get tough.

Again, it’s one thing if student-journalists struggle to ask not just “Why?” but “Why exactly?” Again, I know it took me years of experience before I fully grasped the need to really put my finger on “Why exactly does this person do what they do?” Or, “Why exactly is this situation the way it is?”

The truth is, your ability to explore and answer those two questions is the essential difference between more-serious and less-serious journalism.

So, while I hold that out as the ideal, I’m cutting them some slack in that it takes time to learn. However, I’ve hit upon a more troubling trend. Most of them veered from our reporting objective: “How do Hong Kongers feel about the Oct. 1 anniversary? Why exactly do they feel the way they feel?” Instead, most students pursued: “Will you participate in the anniversary celebrations?” At least some of them asked their sources why or why not. But this isn’t just a far-less-interesting angle, it’s off-topic.

My message to the students will be simple, but firm: if your editor or producer tells you to do something, you do it. Of course, it’s always important to make your boss happy. It’s also important that your boss not worry about your competence to follow instructions.

That’s no way to stay employed, in this or any other industry.

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