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

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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Roasting pigeons in the Fo Tan dai pai dong. Just as tasty as they look. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – When gift-wrapped an opportunity to live in an exotic land, even for a limited period of time, I figure why not embrace the local culture as fully as possible. Well, perhaps I try too hard.

On my first Friday night back in Hong Kong, I just had to return to one of my favorite activities from last year: joining a small group of long-term expats in their Friday-night ritual of dining and drinking.

The best part of the ritual, aside from the company (of course) is the setting: a dai pai dong, the traditional outdoor street restaurant that are gradually fading from the Hong Kong scene. Even better, this one, located in the working-class district of Fo Tan, north of downtown, sets up shop at the end of the day in a bus station parking lot – and specializes in grilled pigeon.

The place is so authentic, so local, that even as he saw me stride across the lot to his tent-covered restaurant, the t-shirt-wearing host energetically motioned me toward where my party was sitting. He knew. We were the only Westerners in there, so how could he guess otherwise.

The gang was already into the Tsingtao and Yuengling beer, with a bowl of shelled, salty peanuts among them. I’ve already waxed poetic about my yen for chopsticks. In this case, I didn’t think twice to wield them to pluck peanuts, one by one. I hadn’t seen the group ringleader, Aussie John Patkin, since last year. My peanut-with-‘stick routine was too much for him to resist.

“Michael, you’re so gwailo,” he said with a laugh.

Spot on. Gwailo is a Cantonese term traced to the 16th century, which local Chinese used to describe the Westerners in their midst. It translates to “ghost man.” Or the more colorful foreign devil. Which is rather derogatory, I’m told. Kinda like when American blacks called whites “Honky.” From John, though, it was an incisive and witty observation: as if I’m acting “more Catholic than the Pope.” Going overboard. We laughed, and the merriment continued.

Later, as I made sure to pick clean every flavorsome plate – again, my opportunities for local cuisine are precious few – I saw the tastiest morsel remaining on our boiled fish. At least, that’s what the Chinese tell me is tastiest: the cheek. I dug in with my chopsticks, prying loose a coin-sized piece of pure white. Watching it all was John, smiling, shaking his head side to side.

So gwailo,” he sighed.

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Chopstick technique worth mimicking. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Sept. 17 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – One unheralded pleasure of Hong Kong is eating with chopsticks, every day. This is by choice: many restaurants have fork and knife at the ready, just in case klutzy Westerners drop in. Some even serve me fork and knife automatically, like they did earlier this week in the HKBU faculty restaurant. “Chopsticks, please,” I asked the waitress. For good measure, I included my international symbol for chopsticks – a finger-scissoring motion that also works well in Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You see, I love the chopsticks. Slows down consumption. Makes eating fun. And a test of dexterity. I recall a day-trip to Lamma Island last year, eating fried clams smothered in black-bean sauce. With chopsticks, sitting alone, I kept dropping the clam shells back into the dish, spattering beans like shrapnel around the table. Free entertainment for the young women at the neighboring table. Nevertheless, the Chinese seem tickled to see me handle chopsticks. Just as they’re pleased to hear me utter a Cantonese word here and there. That’s all the encouragement I need.

Tonight, though, I wasn’t up for for the whole sit-down dinner production, so I walked 15 minutes from campus to the gleaming mega-mall known as Festival Walk. Its crowded food court hosts a KFC and McDonald’s, of course. (What self-respecting mega-mall anywhere in the world wouldn’t?) But for a food court, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai counters offer quality.

As I await my grilled Japanese pork, garlic and noodle soup, I soak in the scene. It’s an enormous space, roughly the size of two football fields. Smack in the middle, jarringly, is a large ice-skating rink. (more…)

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I'm not the only one who battles the Hong Kong heat. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – Mine are the hardest-working sweat glands in the sweat-gland business. I was reminded of this after enduring another humiliation this morning in steamy Hong Kong, having walked 15 minutes to meet a quintet of my Chinese students for the first time.

Before seating myself in the campus café, I ducked into the bathroom to survey the damage. The dampened patches of my oxford-blue shirt, as always clinging to the least-flattering bits of my torso, looked like a world map: North America and Europe on the pectorals, Africa around the sternum, and Antarctica, well, spreading southward. It was so bad, the barista cast me a piteous look and offered a towel: not a paper towel, but a towel towel.

The problem, I’ve just diagnosed, is hyperhidrosis. Can I sue someone for this? Or score prescription drugs? Or at least blame my parents?

Regardless, I clearly wasn’t made for tropical weather. The soupiness here assaults me the moment I step outside and lasts way-y-y beyond the time I’ve escaped into an air-conditioned refuge.

It’s the only drawback of Hong Kong, as I learned while teaching last year. My sweat affliction was so visible, a student from the mainland later remarked: “When you’re writing on the board, we can see your passion for journalism.”

My empathy for kindred fellow-sweaters knows no bounds. Sweat like a pig. How those poor pigs must suffer, I thought. Then looked it up. Turns out, it’s one of the great defamations of our time. Pigs don’t even have sweat glands! If anything, we “sweat like a horse.”

Yet as the sun sets and the air cools, eureka, I may have stumbled onto a cure. Dogs have long been savvy to the secrets of temperature regulation.

Tomorrow, I give panting a try.

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Seeing cute kids out here -- like this one eating cantaloupe-on-a-stick -- remind me of my own. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – It’s one thing for my parents to chide me about deserting three young children for a six-week stretch in Hong Kong.

But my Chinese students, too? I mentioned it to them today, to explain why I’m not teaching an entire semester here, like last fall. Now that was too long away from the kids. Didn’t matter to my students.

“Unimaginable,” said one, flashing impressive vocabulary. “They’ll grow so much, you won’t recognize them,” lamented a second. “Different values,” sighed a third.

Ouch. That one stung.

It already gnaws at me that my sons describe watching their 20-month-old sister wander our Bratislava apartment calling out for me. Maybe the reality has hit her: He’s not here.

As for my boys, how will they cope with Saturday morning football practices, when all the other fathers are watching, but not theirs? Will toys and treats from Hong Kong be enough to assuage them? Will this be one of their future grievances against me, while reclining on a therapist’s couch?

Pre-emptively, then, I create a paper-trail of apology: Forgive me, please.

Of course, I keep justifying that this time away isn’t a simple act of selfishness, that career doesn’t come ahead of family. Instead, that it’ll all prove worthwhile in the end. And that, as my supportive wife says, “The time will pass quickly.”

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The historic Central wet market after light rain this morning. (Photo: mjj)

Tomorrow, my workshop begins. The department has kindly been flexible to create a shorter but more intensive role for me, with a nifty title: “Super Tutor.”

What’s that? Beats me: you won’t find “Super Tutor” among faculty job descriptions. Even Google yields a paltry 7,370 hits. And I didn’t see any with journalism in mind.

So, my visionary boss at HKBU, Huang Yu, is allowing me to carve my own path. What a challenge it will be: 77 graduate students. My assignment is to provide journalistic guidance to each student. Three times. Over a six-week period. Not individually, mind you. That schedule would drive a man batty.

Instead, they’re broken into 16 groups of five, with a few quartets. For the mathematically oriented, that works out to meeting eight different teams one week, for 90 minutes a pop, then the second eight the next week. Rotate weeks until Oct. 25. With a couple of lectures for the entire community mixed in. (Then, back to my family in Slovakia.)

I could do what I did last year, when I was one of many tutors. I met with two slightly larger groups – with 6-7 students each – three times apiece. Total: 6 tutorials. This time, 48 tutorials.

Last year, the tutorial criteria: discuss whatever they want to, as long as it’s journalism-related. Lots of latitude, but limited to conversation. After all, each of the students already had me every week for my foreign-reporting course, for the whole semester. Tutorials were just something “extra.”

This time, I want more. This is the only chance I have to get to know them. So, I’ll fashion myself into a “Journalism Coach.” What better way to connect with them than through their work, nudging them in the right direction with their reporting and writing?

Tomorrow, I hold my first two tutorials. My game plan is … (more…)

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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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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL’s Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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PRAGUE – When teaching, I often brandish the phrase “serious, responsible journalism.”

This to me means many things. But when it comes to foreign correspondence specifically, it’s the demand for context. For an audience back home, it would be un-serious to portray any situation – whether economic, political, social or otherwise – as if it happened overnight, in a vacuum. It didn’t, of course. And it may not have happened only here.

That’s why we have an obligation to broaden and deepen.

By broaden, I mean: Is this situation in Central European Country X unique, or actually part of a trend across post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe? Or even part of a wider trend among all 27 members of the European Union? In what way is it similar or different? And why exactly?

Clearly explaining this, somewhere up high, also provides the reader even greater incentive for why they should keep reading: either the situation describes is unique, or it’s a microcosm of a broader pattern.

This rule applies to virtually every story. We just had 15 participants for Transition Online’s latest foreign-correspondence training course, and they all chased topics that needed such context.

A Bosnian-born Australian and her Canadian reporting partner probed relations among the post-war Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian communities in Prague. Yet is this relationship unique to Prague, or similar elsewhere in the world, like Australia or Canada? Find an expert on the ex-Yugoslav diaspora, I recommended to them. (more…)

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MALINOVO, Slovakia – It was so sad, the way it ended. On the football pitch, exhausted. Dreams crushed. They would not be champions, after all.

I’m not talking about Slovakia’s heroic football team, which succumbed to Holland on Monday, 2-1, four days after pulling the greatest upset of the 2010 World Cup.

I’m talking about the traumatic finish to my 8-year-old son’s football tournament on Sunday. Devastating.

A postcard-perfect afternoon, in this village outside Bratislava, we cheered from the sidelines of a sun-drenched field as our team of 7- and 8-year-olds squared off against three other teams.

When my kid started playing, he was as fluid with the ball as a newborn giraffe. I thought his true calling in football was as scorekeeper.

A year later, remarkably, he bounds after it gracefully. Like an antelope. Oh, and he’s the only one in eyeglasses, which miraculously survived the season intact. In the process, he was named most improved player.

During the tournament’s first 30-minute game, with our boys ahead and feeling giddy, their English coach understatedly advised: “Win this one … and the next two … and you’ll win the championship!”

They won the first, 3-0. “We are the champions!” they sang. Prematurely, I thought.

They then won the second, by an identical 3-0. We fathers were feeling pretty good, too. Since our kids attend an international school, we hail from all directions. One shouted encouragement to his son in Finnish; another, in German; a third, Japanese; a fourth, Danish; and a fifth, um, in Australian.

The opponents were mostly Slovak, with some ethnic Hungarians mixed in. One coach caught my attention, as he seemlessly barked commands to his squad in both languages. (more…)

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[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]

 

BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.

Goodbye, Italy!

How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.

“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”

Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.

All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.

Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)

Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.

I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia. (more…)

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RAJKA, Hungary — One great annual activity out here is fill-your-own-bucket fruit-picking. In early summer, cross the Hungarian border to Eperföld, or “Strawberry Land,” outside the small town of Rajka. In late summer, it’s into Austria for apricot season. Sure, half the fruit may rot in your kitchen. Your back will ache for days. But what fun rediscovering your peasant roots! As you’ll see from my Rajka photos.

In Hungarian, prices are listed: 385 forints (or $1.70/1.4 euro) per kilo. Pick more than 20 kilos, save 35 forints!

With sweet jam at stake, wise choices require team consultation.

Heavy rains, though, have kept the strawberries small.

For more photos … (more…)

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Actually, it’s the view from my balcony. It’s a cool, cloudy Sunday morning, here on Grösslingova ulica in Bratislava. The kids are watching cartoons; I feel like shooting photos — but only from our sandstone balcony, overlooking the street from our first-floor apartment. Truth is, I never realized my street was so interesting … until it went all black-and-white on me. (Shot with a Nikon D40x; except for the two wide-angle pics, all shot with my 300 mm lense.)

My street, facing westward.

The balcony: a room outdoors.

Picasso-esque apartment staring at us.

 For more photos … (more…)

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Banner imagery that needs no translation. (Photo courtesy of Liza Slay.)

BRATISLAVA – Reverberations continued this week after Slovakia’s first-ever rally for gay pride, which was disrupted by neo-Nazis and cut short for fear Slovak police wouldn’t do enough to prevent violence.

Two ways to read the May 22 “Rainbow Rally”: 1) one more barometer of Slovak democracy, a step forward in that the event was allowed, as hundreds of Slovaks and Westerners gathered in support; 2) dismay at how it unfolded.

Catholic, conservative Slovakia is said to be the last of the ex-Communist-turned-European-Union members to host such an event. Yet no sooner did speakers take the stage in a central square than witnesses say they saw bomber-jacketed skinheads drop tear-gas canisters among the crowd.

Other demonstrators interrupted with cries of “perverts” and “deviants.”

“We haven’t come here to condemn homosexuals, but to say that homosexuality is a clear sin, and if these people continue committing it they’ll face eternal damnation,” said Jozef Dupkala, president of the Association for Protection of the Family, according to the English-language Slovak Spectator.

Even Western diplomats, who earlier expressed support for the rally, told the Spectator they felt uneasy about the “thugs” milling about, amid passive police. Rally organizers, citing reports that scores of skinheads might be lining the streets beyond, cancelled the parade that was to follow.

Slovak riot police said they detained 28 extremists, but activists smoldered this week after a pair of un-sympathetic comments from top government officials: one said organizers should have hired themselves private security, while a second reportedly called for mutual respect from “both sides.”

“As if it were not outrageous enough that a top state representative in the area of human rights and minorities failed to move at his own initiative to defend the event, he is now calling for tolerance toward violent neo-Nazi groups,” said rally spokeswoman Romana Schlesinger. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – When a titan of American story-telling criticizes, you listen.

Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Which is why I read, and re-read, Garrison Keillor’s May 25 column, “When everyone’s a writer, no one is.” Gulp. Just yesterday, I Skyped an esteemed colleague – a journalist and author – seeking a voice of sanity: Am I going a little overboard with this whole blog thing?

You see, I’ve gazed at my blog … and fallen in love. I dub this “The Narcissism of Blog-Love.”

I’ve succumbed to the personality disorder infecting millions around the world, through blogs, Facebook and other social-network sites: like Narcissus, we delude ourselves to believe that others will marvel at the beauty of our thoughts or actions. Or at least, find them interesting enough to read about.

Hey, I have something to say about Central Europe! Read me! Look, I took nice snapshots! Click on me! Yet what if no one answers our Facebook post with a “So-and-so likes this” thumbs-up? Devastation. (That’s one of the symptoms!)

Not only do I contribute to the blog-blather, I prod my journalism students to do so as well. [See post below.]

Even if we assume that lots and lots of us do have something interesting to say, there’s too much of it. As my colleague Skyped back, “I am overwhelmed with stuff that I am actually interested in.”

This extends to the growing phenomenon of self-publishing.

“The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside,” writes Keillor. “You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.”

Perhaps Keillor isn’t referring to me. Only the others. After all, I’m writing about really interesting stuff. Would a real Narcissist of Blog-Love be deterred? Heck, no. On to my next post!

[For posterity’s sake, I’m flowing Garrison Keillor’s entire column …]

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA – My blog-servations notwithstanding [see post above], I see several compelling reasons for why young or aspiring journalists should join the blogosphere.

It’s not only “practice makes perfect”: the more you write, the more it improves.

First, I consider my blog as a diary of sorts. But not the kind you stuff under your pillow. It’s a public diary. In a for-your-eyes-only diary, you can write as sloppily as you want. No worries about spelling, grammar, structure, transitions, etc. If you prefer stream of consciousness to actual story-telling, fine.

This public diary, though, requires greater discipline and higher standards. If your name is attached to any piece of writing, for anyone to read, you want it in the best possible condition. That forces you to take the writing more seriously, choose more selectively which topics may be of interest to readers, smoothe the edges, clean it up, post only what you can be proud of.

In other words, treat the Internet as editor.

Second, blogging offers you an opportunity to hone specific writing and reportorial skills. Sitting in a café? Capture color, describe the scene. Want to dabble in opinion-writing, feature-writing, travel-writing, humor? Your nine-to-five existence may not afford you such opportunities. But your blog can. I myself use mine to venture into writing styles new to me, as a career newspaper guy.

Which leads to a third benefit to blogging: a showcase for your work. Plenty of people are trying to impress editors with ideas for what they’d like to do. You, though, can show them you’re doing it. Direct them to the relevant links on your site. Journalistically, we call this “show, don’t tell.” There’s not a more persuasive way to make your case.

Lastly, if you’re out there, toiling in obscurity like me, blogs enable you to “build your brand”: This is who I am, this is what I do.

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL’s “Roma Blog”]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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My photos from Hungary’s Szentendre, formerly an ethnic-Serb settlement, then an artists’ colony, now a quick tourist jaunt from the capital, Budapest. 

Entry from the Danube.

Lounging by the river.

To view more photos …  (more…)

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PRAGUE – When I told family eight years ago that I’d also start teaching journalism, my sister innocently asked, “Really? What’s there to teach?”

The perception, I suppose, is understandable. Grab pen and pad, ask questions, gather information. That’s worth a semester of university?

Last week in Prague, a shoulder-to-shoulder training reminded me how much there is to share about journalism techniques and strategies. In this case, the lessons learned were specific to how to “parachute” into a foreign country and – with time limited – capture enough of the necessary reportage and multimedia elements to produce a meaningful exploration of Czech education.

The key, as always, lies in the advanced preparation: from back home, before your journey even begins. I’ve written about this before, most recently for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. So I won’t rehash here the imperative to “hit the ground running.”

Instead, in Prague I found myself repeating a mantra I’ve adopted over the years: push, push, push – politely but persistently – to get what you need.

My training partner, Andy, and I were working with eight participants, whom we divided into three teams. For more on the substance of what they reported, read my piece in The Mantle.

After lectures on Monday, reporting was to fill the next three days. That’s it. Three days. But one thing soon became apparent: the teams, all of them new to this kind of international reporting, hadn’t lined up enough meetings – especially with the right kind of sources.

On Tuesday morning, I joined the team exploring the IT gender gap, on their visit to a Czech company manufacturing anti-virus software. The plan was to speak with a woman or two working in IT there. Except, as the spokesman then told us, the company has no women in IT, just sales and marketing. Sure, we got some material. But it was no bull’s eye. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I just listened to a podcast in which a popular American sports commentator, Bill Simmons, interviewed the co-creator of “Lost,” a TV show whose fan base is so rabid, some have created websites in which they dissect and critique every plot twist.

The host and guest both seek audience feedback, and they agreed on one point: happy fans tend not to take the time to comment. Instead, it’s typically the “loud minority” that does. (As opposed to Nixon’s “silent majority.”)

Of course, there’s no way to prove how representative any comments section is. Which raises the question: do their often angry voices add any value at all?

This strikes a chord, as my Hungarian wife translated for me a batch of reader comments to my May 7 commentary in the major Budapest daily, Népszabadság. (See post below.)

I knew it would raise hackles: it was about the escalating incitement of hatred against the Hungarian Roma and Jewish minorities, and why I doubt the new government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will reverse this trend.

The very first of the 203 “komments” caught my eye: a super-sleuth pasted a link to my bio that appeared in a Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles. The message: “Ah-ha, a closeted Jew! Only a Jew would criticize us.”

OK, maybe I read too much into this, but I know the machinations of some Hungarians. (For more of the flavor, I also accepted onto my blog a May 5 comment from Hungary, which creatively called me the “idiot son of an asshole.” He nailed us both, Pops!)

Many of the remaining comments were negative as well, yet I pestered my wife to translate them. Sure, I can be as thin-skinned as any journalist, but I was curious to know if anyone had addressed the substance of my critique, on Hungarian hatred. Many, in fact, did not. (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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Tradition meets modernity at a Naxi wedding in Lijiang. (Photo: mjj)

In mid-December 2009, for one last memorable week in China, I travelled solo to one of the most fascinating corners of this vast country. My friend and colleague, Robin, sold me on Yunnan province with three compelling details: curious ethnic tribes (and their embroideries!), the preserved ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali, and a short but intense trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sure it was just one week, but I made the most of it — as you’ll see in the photo essay that I’ll soon post here. Please check back soon!

A Bai woman cultivates lakeside crops in a village outside Dali. (Photo: mjj)

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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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PPWWLogoAs journalists, we’re taught to refuse “freebies,” the gifts that may influence our work. But I’m thrilled that seven Pulitzer-winning journalists accepted a free trip to Hong Kong last week. If nothing else, they made our job a bit easier.

My journalism teaching is a mix of what I learned in school, what I’ve gleaned from my own journalism of the past 20 years, and my journalistic instincts today. Still, as a freelance teacher, I don’t often get the feedback that “Yes, you’re doing it the right way.”

Which is one reason why the Pulitzer Prize-Winners Workshop, hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University, left such an impression. It wasn’t just drawing inspiration from seven of the best that American journalism has to offer. But how their words reinforced our own.

On hand for the week were Jim Amoss, editor of The Time-Picayune in New Orleans, the 1997 and 2006 winner in the Public Serve category; Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times, a 2009 winner for Explanatory Reporting; Hank Klibanoff, a 2007 winner for History; Michael Parks, the 1987 winner for International Reporting; Jane Perlez of the New York Times, a 2009 winner for International Reporting; Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the 2005 winner for Commentary; and Damon Winter of the New York Times, the 2009 winner for Feature Photography.

During a mid-week break in the discussions, I sat in the news lab with two colleagues. “It’s so good to hear them saying exactly what I’m teaching,” said Robin Ewing, an American. Before I could second that, our Japanese colleague, Masato Kajimoto, exclaimed: “I was thinking the same thing!”

My view is that students can’t hear the principles of serious, responsible journalism often enough. Especially at HKBU, where we’re training the future generation of Chinese democrats. (That’s democrat with a lower-case “d.”)

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Pulitzer week was clearly meaningful to the students, as it opened their eyes to so many layers of the work we do. What surprised me, though, was how the prize-winners themselves came away inspired from meeting our students.

In other words, it went both ways – a genuine cultural exchange.

To document it, I’ve asked both sides for their impressions. A sampling so far:

Chen Chen, 22, from Qufu, Shandong:

There are two thoughts so beautiful that may spur and inspire me for quite a long while. One is from Julie and Connie. They both said, being humble, and being grateful. Before that, I was very depressed, felt so debased that I didn’t want to pick up the phone and make another call. I wondered whether a REAL journalist would experience the same. But then I knew even Pulitzer winner went through the same. That’s just part of being a journalist. Not everyone is nice. You just have to be humble, and feel grateful to those who are nice to you. Another one is from Michael Parks. He said and I remembered clearly, “there would be no great story in a place of comfort. I can hardly remember when the best story happened in London, or Paris.” His words gave me strength. I went to the Central with my partner that afternoon and didn’t feel tired at all. It wasn’t a place of comfort to interview a lisping old man in front of a working crane, but I always thought of what Michael (and you) said.

Andrea Deng, 23, Shenzhen:

It was so inspiring and triggers so much aspiration of becoming a professional international correspondent that I have to let myself calm down a little bit, just to be sure that I’m not overwhelmed by faraway dreams and actually act on what I’ve learned. I’m most impressed by the experience of Julie Cart writing the Pulitzer-winning news, that she found the most interesting story only at the end of her last day staying in Australia. Before that, she had already done scores of interviews. It shows tremendous patience and conscientiousness. She said she never felt interview was done enough. I marked down what she said and tried to practice in my recent task, doing my best to contact strangers and interviewing people half a day before deadline. It’s my inexperience to not achieve better, but I feel that I have done everything I can to achieve the best of myself. Time will perfect my skills. I’m also impressed by Damon Winter’s photos, effortlessly. All that devastated close-up faces of ordinary people and appalling long-shots where tragedy took place in front of the camera thrill me. Journalists are front-line witnesses of human sufferings and human history. I’m not saying that everything in the world makes people sad, but picking up pieces of stories gradually forms one’s understanding of people and the world, and hopefully forms a clear mind of how to live one’s own life. I just wish that I could be more sensitive about people’s thoughts and feelings, and be more knowledgeable to assist my understanding of different people.

TOTAL RESPONSES (7)

(more…)

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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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HONG KONG — Plagiarism warnings to students are all theoretical until that vexing assignment comes along. Oh, the temptation! Just a simple Control-C-Control-V maneuver with your fingers, pasting just the right words into your document … Presto! All your homework worries evaporate.

The contagion entered my classroom clinging to modest 300-word features, on Filipinas in Hong Kong struggling to support families in the typhoon-struck Philippines. (See post below.) While focusing on one woman, students were also required to note the big picture of what befell the country itself.

Searching the wires, the temptation proved too great. Some seemingly wondered: “How could I ever describe the destruction as eloquently?” Others succumbed to: “I wanna get this story done, quick!” I found at least a dozen cases of flat-out theft. Which is a real pity, because I was truly pleased with the students’ overall effort to find compelling stories and describe them in detail.

I’ve heard of pervasive plagiarism in Chinese universities (and elsewhere, of course), with several of my colleagues here now grumbling about the same thing. I’m new to Chinese culture, but I wonder if there isn’t a link between plagiarism and the same mentality and lawlessness that enables widespread piracy of CDs, DVDs and computer software: “If it’s ripe for the taking, take it.”

In this case, my sleuthing was made easier by non-native-English-speaking students who suddenly produced a perfectly worded, native-English-sounding sentence or paragraph. Not the cleverest of criminals!

In the West, intellectual-property theft is taken so seriously, I told students about the time a magazine client accused me of plagiarizing … from myself. I’d written a short article for one client, then expanded it for another, doubling its length with much more research and interviewing. Yet I also lifted a few graphs from my original. Not good enough, said the second client. Lesson learned.

In a hotly worded email to my students, I imposed another “zero tolerance” policy. (See Sept. 15 post below.) Either paraphrase the words or quote directly, in both cases attribute the source. There are no other options. One student was so ashamed at being busted, she emailed me that she “could not fall asleep or even stop my tears.” Lesson learned.

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In teaching, as in reporting, you have to roll with the punches. You never know what may happen next week. So, with twin typhoons in the Philippines, coupled with the huge number of Filipina maids in Hong Kong, I had to detour from my planned course curriculum.

I challenged my students to localize a major international story, profiling one Filipina and her reaction to what had happened to her family: 300 words. (When you’re editing 70 articles, you must be reasonable with length, right?)

I told all 70 students to descend on the parks and public spaces where these Filipinas gather every Sunday (see the Sept. 13 post below), split up, and respectfully ask: “Have any of you been directly affected by the storms?”

I explained that “directly affected” is a more sensitive approach to “Has anyone here lost a home or relative?” For emphasis, I recalled the black humor of the ill-mannered Western reporter in a Rwandan Tutsi refugee camp, asking loudly: “Has anyone here been raped … and speak English?”

It may be urban legend, but students got the point.

I provided a simple, diamond-shaped story structure: a “curtain-raising” intro of our Filipina subject; deep, meaningful quote; transition to the big picture of what happened to the Philippines; then transition back to our subject.

A few more tips, just to get the hang of it: open the story by describing exactly what she was doing when she learned of the destruction, how she reacted, then quote her explaining why she reacted the way she did. I also reiterated the magical – sometimes cliché – transition word: “Meanwhile, …”

And if you’re at a loss for what to ask, imagine yourself in her shoes. You live far from home, far from your children, parents and siblings, and they’re struck by natural disaster. How would you react? Now you know what to ask them.

Among all the skills a reporter should possess, empathy ranks way up there.

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We’d kept it a surprise, asking all the students to bring to class: a) a print-out of their transcribed interviews (see Sept. 23 post below); and b) their laptops.

Surprise! Today we want you to write; turn your interviews into articles. Some students gasped.

My partner and I strategized ahead of time, creating a basic story structure that we insist they follow. First, one sentence to summarize what your range of street sources told you about the Oct. 1 anniversary, with some indication why they’re saying what they’re saying. For example, if sources are excited, indifferent or of mixed opinions about the anniversary, include a few words about why.

Then, a deep, meaningful quote that SHOWS, say, the excitement or indifference. As I always tell students, you’re free to write whatever you want, but you must back it up with facts, statistics, anecdotes, quotes … anything to make your point credible.

Then a paragraph to explain the big picture: what the anniversary is, what Beijing is doing, why the authorities are doing what they’re doing. Then, a “reader-friendly” transition that brings us back to Hong Kong. This is story-telling, after all, and we can’t jerk the reader from idea to idea, without some connective tissue to smooth the ride. Here I introduce students to the wonders of the word “meanwhile” – as in, “Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong …”

Finally, we want more real-people perspectives. On paragraph to introduce a new character, explaining a bit of their story, where they’re coming from, what their views are. Then a supporting quote that explains why exactly they feel the way they feel about the anniversary.

That’s it: story structure in four parts. Three hundred words. In 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, my partner and I circle the room, coaching them individually when they hit a wall.

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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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Time to pound the pavement.

My teaching partner and I have devised the first reporting assignment for our 70 students, pegged to the Oct. 1 commemoration of 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China – or in Western short-hand, six decades of the Communist regime.

The story out of Beijing is two-fold. First, a security clampdown borne of anxiety about anti-government protests: public celebrations will only be tolerated in the capital. Second, a show on par with the Beijing Olympics that will showcase China’s gleaming new military hardware, signaling both the country’s economic and diplomatic emergence on the world stage.

Reaction in Hong Kong, though, is mixed. The British handover in 1997 only hardened the pro-Chinese versus pro-democracy factions. Since most of our students are from the mainland – and hearing open criticism for the first time – we figured it’d be interesting for them to go gauge public opinion.

The benefit is manifold: build confidence in approaching strangers; understand what it means to collect a “cross-section” of public opinion – across socio-economic class, gender, age, etc; and hone a skill I’ve found to be the great weakness of a young journalist: the ability to dig deeply, beyond WHAT people feel or believe, to explore WHY EXACTLY they feel what they feel, or believe what they believe.

Moreover, we required them to find and email me English-language news links describing various anniversary activities planned for here and Beijing. This emphasizes the need for advanced preparation, to impress interviewees with their seriousness and enable them to ask smarter questions.

How will we measure how deeply they’ve dug? We’ve asked them to transcribe their interviews.

This should be interesting.

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Easy For You To Say

I started Cantonese class today, expecting to learn vital phrases like, “Please help! I’ve suffered a splinter from your disposable wooden chopsticks.”

What I didn’t expect was a singing lesson. But there we were, eight faculty in our free 10-week lesson, belting out the doh-ray-mees of the Canton dialect: six basic tones with names that conjure images of urban housing – high level, high rising, mid level, low level, low rising, mid low level.

Without even introducing ourselves, a collection of strangers was immediately forced to mimic the teacher’s peppy sing-song. Voices cracked, cheeks flushed. “There’s no judgment made,” she reassured us. “Make your mistakes here.”

The beauty of learning obscure languages, I’ve learned, is how much more the locals appreciate the effort. Understandably, they take it as a sign of respect, of cultural appreciation. I already have utterly impractical notches on my belt: conversational Hungarian and survival Slovak. I also know some niceties from a bunch of other East European countries — an essential for a foreign correspondent who asks for a lot of favors. So whatever I get out of this class, I know I’ll garner grins galore on the streets of Hong Kong.

On this day, my pitch was surprisingly good, catching the teacher’s attention. “How many years have you been here? Months? You must have a singing background?” Uh, not even in the shower.

Sure, I was flattered. But it also ratcheted up the pressure to replicate the feat on ensuing swings around the room.

Finally, she taught us a word, a phrase: How are you? “Dim-a?” (Don’t forget the high-rising tone on the “dim”!)

Again, I pulled it off. Which led to more individual praise from teacher: “Maybe you were Cantonese in a previous life?”

That threw me off. Rather than follow the last minutes of class, I day-dreamed of being a 19th-century opium smuggler, steering a waterlogged sampan

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While Eastern Europe celebrates 20 years since Communism’s collapse (see post below), the Communist Party is alive and well in China. This will be on display Oct. 1, as Beijing commemorates 60 years since founding the “People’s Republic of China” – in Western short-hand, the Communist regime.

The Party today uses more than heavy-handed suppression to prop up its regime: patronage is just as invidious and effective. One of my students from the mainland, May, matter-of-factly explains that her parents are small-town Party members, with a Mao statue in their home. Their faith is buffered by disgust with the materialism and corruption flourishing since the opening of China’s economy.

Her parents hope she will join the Party; May, 25, shares that sentiment.

Joining, however, is a highly competitive, drawn-out process. By May’s estimate, if a class has 30 to 40 students, only three or four will be selected. You need a high GPA, write an essay “about how much you love Communism, and what you’ll contribute to the Communists,” then a committee of senior Party cadres will interview the candidate to gauge their loyalty.

May, though, admits her motive for jumping through these hoops is not quite idealistic. “You sometimes feel hopeless,” she says. “Unless your family has connections, you can’t get a good job.”

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The Hungarians deserve credit for courage.

In 1956, a puny country of 10 million stood up to the mighty Soviet Empire, demanding reforms and an end to Stalinist repression. Moscow ordered in troops. More than 2,000 Hungarians were killed, another 200,000 fled into exile. (Including my father and his family.)

Then in 1989, as my Christian Science Monitor colleague Colin Woodard recently highlighted, the Hungarians literally snipped the first hole in the Iron Curtain.

I was delighted to be reminded of this tonight, way out here in the Far East. Walking through a campus lobby, I stumbled upon a Hungarian exhibit, connected to a symposium that’ll be held at HKBU later this week to commemorate the end of the Cold War twenty years ago.

I was struck, though, by the exhibit’s very first sentence: “The Red Army occupied Hungary in the Second World War.”

Well, that’s only partly true. In fact, it was the Nazis who occupied Hungary first, in Spring 1944, which suited some Hungarians just fine. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators cleansed the countryside of hundreds of thousands of Jews. A Hungarian Nazi-puppet regime then continued the blood-letting – until the Soviet Red Army liberated the capital, Budapest, in January 1945.

That the Soviets then stayed on is another story.

I can imagine why the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-sponsor of the symposium, wants to keep hush-hush what else happened during World War II. And, why it prefers to paint Hungary as only a victim. Thousands of miles away from Hungary, the ministry will likely get away with this distortion.

But at least one observer has taken notice.

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Now that I’ve begun blogging, I headed into the weekend consciously looking for a blog-able Hong Kong moment. Perhaps I was trying too hard.

Friday night, for example, I got together with a colleague, Tim Hamlett, and his friends to sample a dying breed of local dining: the open-air restaurant. In a working-class district, in the parking lot of a busy bus station – but amid festive neon – we tore into juicy roasted pigeons with our hands, batted our eye-lashes at the “beer girl” who encouraged us to refill our beer bucket, and enjoyed a nice chat. Good time, but not a full blog post.

On Saturday afternoon, I met with another colleague, Robin Ewing, for a tasty Pakistani lunch inside an HK landmark: Chungking Mansions, immortalized by the film Chungking Express. The “mansions” bit is tongue-in-cheek. It’s actually a notorious tenement in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui, at once hailed for its vast ethnic diversity and decried for drug-dealing, prostitution and fire hazards. Maybe next time, blog-worthy.

Around midnight, I headed home, walking through the Temple Street night market. Inspired by the scene, I sat for a beer at one of the sidewalk eateries. To my left, an old-timer gorged on three dozen snails, using a long toothpick to pry the suckers out. To my right, a younger fellow noisily slurped oysters from the shell. As the vendors packed up their Chinese knick-knacks (a painted Mao plate for just 20 bucks!), off-key karaoke escaped the nightclub behind me.

I pulled out my laptop, as I often do. This peculiar behavior drew the eye of my waitress, wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Smitten with my gear, but speaking only Cantonese, she jotted something on a piece of paper: $1,000. She wanted my computer for the HK equivalent of U.S. $125. “No, no,” I said. But she took this as my opening gambit in “the haggle.” She wrote another figure: $3,000. (U.S. $375.) Again, I refused. She thought I was playing hardball: $8,000!

I then realized that on the street, I’d somehow picked up wireless. Lo and behold, my wife popped up on Skype, asking if we could try the camera she’d just gotten. Within seconds, I was seeing my 8-month-old daughter for the first time in three weeks.

I wasn’t the only one delighted. The waitress grew so animated, a crowd gathered. With my daughter looking befuddled, half a dozen Chinese waved excitedly at her: “Hel-lo, bay-bee! Bay-bee!”

Now this, I thought, is a blog-able moment. Even a great ad for Skype video.

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Some things I’m learning about China aren’t just eye-opening for me, but even for students from the mainland.

Emily, who hails from the southern city of Guangzhou, says she believed official propaganda that portrayed a unified, harmonious China. Then, just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she came across an article in Foreign Affairs, describing the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

“I started to doubt if we were getting the truth,” she explained Wednesday.

This past weekend, she visited her hometown, not far from Hong Kong. Even there, her parents hadn’t heard about the issue that has dominated news in Hong Kong for more than a week: recent aggression by mainland police against HK journalists. (See posting below.)

I then asked our small discussion group if they thought mainland journalists admire the HK journalists for their spirited street protests, or are perhaps envious of HK colleagues who feel empowered enough to defend press freedoms they themselves are denied: one facet of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has reigned here since the end of British rule in 1997.

The question, it turns out, may be moot.

Sherry, a mainlander who last year interned at China Central Television (CCTV), says she recently emailed her former boss, asking what she thought of the HK protests.

The response: “What protests?”

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Outrage still smolders over police beatings of three Hong Kong television journalists covering inter-ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, China – providing me plenty of conversation fodder with my students.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association and Foreign Correspondents’ Club jointly protested Sunday, with the FCC calling for not only a formal investigation, but an apology from Xinjiang officials.

Yet the story behind the story was debate among journalists over if they should ever join a protest, forsaking their “observer” status. HKJA chief Yin-ting Mak addressed this Tuesday in a letter to association members:

Some journalists are concerned the younger generation may adopt such protest actions when they get blamed, assaulted or come under investigation in order to win glory … In principle, journalists should not be involved in news event so as to maintain objectivity in reporting. However, press freedom can and is also a news issue. When press freedom is trampled upon … reporters naturally become the main focus. I see no reason for holding back on involvement just because journalists are involved. It is like telling yourself to stop eating for fear of choking.

I always emphasize the need for reporters to be a neutral “fly on the wall,” detached from what they’re observing. But when they themselves are targeted, is silence tantamount to consent?

This sparked lively discussion among the half-dozen students I met Wednesday. As Carol put it, “If they beat my colleague and I do nothing, I may become afraid for my own rights and lose passion for telling the truth.”

It’s not black-and-white, yet there are consequences for speaking out. At first I thought, “Well, I suppose if they limited their protests to ‘their rights,’ but not criticize the government explicitly, that might work.” As our chat proceeded, though, I realized how naïve that was: How could Beijing not view the journalists’ protests as implicitly critical of an entire system that emboldens police to pummel them?

The “neutral” tag is tarnished regardless.

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I was recently appointed to the Freelance Committee of the 7,800-member Society of Professional Journalists, and the committee just opened a blog discussion on how we can weather these troubled times.

Member Bruce Shutan encourages fellow freelancers to “specialize” in narrower fields, aim for more lucrative trade magazines, and enjoy “recession-proof” employability. To which freelancer Ruth E. Thaler-Carter responded that she has lots of different interests and, fortunately, a large stable of clients.

My two cents was to propose a third way, a middle road:

“I’m no financial adviser, but I’ll borrow their phrase ‘Diversify Your Portfolio.’ I think it’s still important to have your safer investments: your anchor clients, the ones who provide regular work, pay better, pay regularly – and hopefully you rather like the work as well. Those safer investments enable you to mix in some riskier investments: in this case, the kind of journalistic topics you feel passionately about, but are less frequent, more difficult to place or time-consuming to pursue, and perhaps pay less –yet offer greater ‘return on investment’ because, gosh darnit, you love writing about the stuff.”

This is the way it is for me today: fortunately, I enjoy the regular teaching and training that I do. But they also allow me to take my three-to-five foreign-reporting trips a year for my newspaper clients – trips that, in Bruce’s words, “doesn’t even begin to pay the bills.”

At least, not like they used to.

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The Chinese students here can be effusive with their praise.

Like the student who last week emailed the faculty: “Dear my teacher … Today is the Teachers’ Day. Happy Teachers’ Day! Please allow me to acknowledge my great thanks to you for your hard work. I hope I can be the first student to say ‘Happy Teachers’ Day’ to you.” (He was the first, in fact.)

The students can also be effusive with their apologies.

During my Week One lecture, I’d unveiled a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding spelling errors. I know English is the second or third language for my students. But just as I’ve told students in New York, Central Europe and elsewhere, in this day and age – with built-in spell-check – there’s no good excuse for an aspiring journalist to turn in typo-ridden work.

It’s a question of professionalism. What kind of impression would it make on an editor if you miss such easy-to-catch mistakes? Pick your poison: lazy, careless, unprofessional, lack of self-respect for your own byline. An editor’s job is to improve your copy, not clean up the mess.

Therefore, before you hit “send,” take FIVE more minutes to a) spell-check; and b) read the piece aloud, further improve the language and submit it in the best possible condition.

Today, one student emailed me to say, among other things: “Hi, Michael. My name is XXX XXX. I come form Shandong Province, east China. I’m your student … and I like you. Especailly you making faces … Have a nice day, sir.”

Twelve minutes later, a second email from her: “I just realized that I forgot to spell check my E-mail before I sent it out. I checked and find two mis-spellings: ‘from’, as in ‘I come from Shandong’; and ‘especially’ as in ‘especially you making faces’. I know, it is unforgivable, and you have every reason to think that I’m irresponsible, disrespectful, lazy, and incompetent. I just want to apologize and promise this would never happen again. I promise. And I’m so sorry.”

Unforgivable? Quite the contrary, I wrote back: I’m gratified to see my message hit home.

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Careful What You Wish For

I like extreme weather. It’s something that unites us, regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, etc: “How about that hail storm last night?!”

Similarly, I don’t want Siberia during summer, nor the Sahara during winter. I want “the Real McCoy.” So during a downpour few days ago, I mentioned to a Hong Kong native that, well, I wouldn’t mind tasting a real typhoon. Not that I want death and destruction; just a good story to tell.

It’s now Monday night, and I’m tasting my first typhoon: an 8 on a scale of 10.

I first got word in late afternoon that my evening class was cancelled. At an 8, I’m told, civil servants are sent home, and schools shut down. The Hong Kongers, though, played it cool. Sure, the supermarket lines were enormous, and the subway staff was managing traffic down below. But most residents strolled and chatted on their cell phones as if nothing were amiss.

Like others, I stocked a few supplies: water, sushi and almond cookies. I then headed up to my apartment to watch the show. Yet I was tad nervous: I’m now on the 22nd floor of an unusually scrawny building. Each of the 24 floors has a single apartment like mine, measuring a measly 290 square feet.

Not surprisingly, then, I’m swaying. The wind is whistling through the closed windows, in gust after gust. Rain is pelting the glass of the great big bay window that convinced me to rent the place. (“What a view of the skyline and mountaintops!”) I’ve placed a glass of water beside me, just to watch the ripples. I’ve seen TV footage of some downed trees and fallen neon signs.

My father just skyped to ask at what point I should head to the typhoon shelter. Shelter? For some reason, that’s a question I forgot to ask the property agent. At least Letterman’s on, which is strangely comforting.

Anyway, I’m confident that the HK architects, with all their years of experience, have built this place to bend. But not break. I hope.

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The Great Filipina Migration

Today, I headed to the southern shore of Hong Kong to explore Aberdeen, a former fishing village that was virtually the only sign of life when the British colonized the place some 160 years ago.

Approaching the central bus station, I was stunned by what I saw: a sea of Filipina women, swarming about (all of them two heads shorter than me). Thousands sat in circles, some on cardboard boxes, fanning themselves in the humidity, chatting, reading, writing.

They looked like groupies, camping out for concert tickets. I figured they were waiting for buses. Then I learned: these were the Filipina maids, the lifeblood of HK housekeeping.

The ratio is staggering: 7 million Hong Kongers employ some 140,000 live-in maids and nannies. It’s so commonplace, the government has legalized their conditions: minimally US$460 per month, a room to sleep, Sundays off, a plane ticket to visit the Philippines for one two-week trip every two years. Still, these women are vulnerable to employer violence or sexual exploitation, like their Filipina counterparts in the Middle East.

The risk is worth it, apparently: most of the women are university-educated, English-speaking, trained as teachers or social workers, yet the pay is poor and jobs scarce. So they leave husbands and children behind, sending money home. Entire villages are reportedly empty of women, as they’ve become a leading Philippine export.

So, on precious Sundays like today – and every Sunday for the past 30 years, in fact – they flock to the city center … to spend time with each other.

On my short subway ride home, I found myself standing next to two Filipinas. I couldn’t help but strike up a brief conversation.

“We’re lucky, because our employer is good to us,” said one.

Both had children back home. Said the other woman, “This is our sacrifice.”

They asked if I was visiting. I told them about teaching for the semester, having also left behind a wife and kids. “My sacrifice,” I said, smiling.

They laughed. I laughed. But we all knew it wasn’t quite the same.

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When we lived in New York, every time we swung through Chinatown I wondered what it’d be like to live there. A world apart, an ethno-linguistic island within the island, like Williamsburg and its Orthodox Jews, Brighton Beach and its Russian-speakers, Washington Heights and its Latin Americans.

In Hong Kong, I have my chance. In the Yau Ma Tei district, I was struck by the authenticity: outdoor produce markets; dark, creepy alleys; loads of elderly Chinese, shuffling along; plus, herbal apothecaries, feng shui shops, Asian eateries and others crammed side-by-side, their neons signs screaming for attention. Not surprisingly, many a Hong Kong movie has been filmed here.

Sure, I’ve heard about local “Triads,” the criminal networks with a rich history in HK. I’d also noticed all the signs for “guesthouses,” brothels masquerading as massage parlors. (Individual prostitution is legal here, but any “business” connected to it is illegal.) Placards by the doorway point up narrow stairwells. A typical one reads like a menu, in Chinese and English, with the price in Hong Kong dollars (I’ll helpfully note the US$ equivalent):

“Hong Kong girl 250” (about US$32)

“Chinese girl 250”

“Malaysian girl 200” ($26)

“Philippine girl” 200

Then, the filet mignon option: “Russian girl 550” ($71)

No, I have no idea what they do for these prices. Really, I don’t.

That said, before I moved onto Shanghai Street two days ago, I suppose it would have made sense to visit my new locale at night, to see its other face. That first night, I strolled around for a few hours, exploring. On my way home, I noticed two women, in heels, standing on the corner diagonal from my apartment: “Hello!” they said, enthusiastically. Taken by surprise, I mumbled, “Um, Hi.”

Last night, there they were, again. This time, one of them waved at me.

This could get awkward. Or I may just go ahead … and interview them.

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I’ve seen this look before. Lecturing to journalism students, I get on my high horse about the watchdog role of a journalist: to hold the authorities accountable for their words and deeds.

“If they’re spending taxpayer money,” I preach, “you have a right to explore how exactly they’re spending it, and why exactly they’re spending it the way they’re spending it.”

Yet this sermon is not always greeted with “Amen!” I’ve spoken with young journalists from harsh dictatorships – say, Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan – where I spot an eye roll, or feel a rise in temperature. Because for them, this “democratic”-style journalism is an appealing but unattainable ideal. Asking such tough questions back home may land them in prison, or worse.

I’m now getting some of the same looks here, from mainland-Chinese students. Those who’ve had internships have already tasted censorship – editors explain which lines can’t be crossed, like criticizing the authorities, or third-rail subjects like Tibet or Xinjiang, with its restive Uighur minority.

I’m fortunate to also have a handful of Burmese, Cambodian and Vietnamese students in class, and one of the Burmese articulately noted the time isn’t right for such journalism under his country’s military regime – but he’ll wait patiently.

What these aspiring journalists believe can and can’t be done is a topic I look forward to exploring throughout the semester.

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Two beverages with an international reputation, each of them a centuries-old tradition entwined with national identity and lifestyle. (Though, consuming one of them may get you pulled over by traffic cops.)

In Hong Kong, I’ve realized the deeper, historic correlation between Czech beer and Chinese tea. Both, it turns out, flourished as a reliable alternative to drinking water, which was often polluted.

As Czech-beer connoisseur Evan Rail has explained, “Water was contaminated in the Middle Ages, but beer was almost always safe … Soldiers often drank beer for the same reason.”

Likewise, in China, the process of boiling water for tea was viewed as necessary for a health ier life. I see this in Hong Kong, as I’ve heard mixed opinions about whether tap water is safe to drink. My apartment manager says no, but I’ve already drunk plenty elsewhere – and feel fine.

But it’s in the restaurants where this belief stands out. In the States, a waiter will automatically bring you a glass of cold water. Here, it’s a cup of hot tea – or glass of hot water. On my first night, we were served hot water, and my companion then requested ice. It was served in a tall glass, with a spoon for scooping. (Of course I wondered: where’d the ice come from, tap water?)

I’ve now grown accustomed to the oddity of drinking hot water. I just close my eyes and imagine I’m drinking tea … a very, very weak tea.

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I’ve now heard plenty of students utter the phrase “I want to broaden my horizons,” like a mantra. I’ll be sure to ask them to clarify further. But for now, it has me wondering about China’s unfathomable size – and how difficult it would be for one individual to distinguish themselves.

My homeland, America, is no 98-pound weakling: 300 million is nothing to sneeze at. Not only is China quadruple the size, but it boasts at least 170 cities with a population of 1 million or more.

To boot, I can’t help but note that most Chinese have a rather singular look: medium height and build, straight black hair. Anxious I was stereotyping, I asked my Chinese-American teaching partner, Peter Eng; to my relief, he conceded that he, too, is so far having difficulty telling our students apart.

Now, I’ve long entertained the question: Would I rather be a small fish in a large pond, or a larger fish in a smaller pond? Yes, I prefer the latter. Most of us would, I think.

So for our students, most of whom hail from these sprawling metropolises, studying international journalism in Hong Kong represents more than a master’s degree: HK is a uniquely cosmopolitan Chinese city; this field may offer exciting, exotic travel opportunities, far from the rat-race back home; and lastly, they’re honing their English skills, at a time when English is a highly valued skill.

That’s certainly one way to distinguish yourself.

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A couple months before I came here, I asked a British colleague who’d been a Beijing correspondent why he thought so many mainland Chinese would come to affluent Hong Kong to study Western-style journalism, when the Chinese media itself is so tightly restricted. His reply: “The shopping.”

That, I now see, is not true. (Or at least only partly true.) Over the past 24 hours, I’ve gone around the room in each of my four sections, asking students about their motivation for studying journalism. The answers ranged from “My parents chose this for me” and “I don’t want to be tied to a desk,” to “I like interviewing different people” and “I want to broaden my horizons.”

Yet one response I heard again and again was particularly moving: “I want to know the truth. I don’t want to be lied to, or told what to think.”

Back home, one of their most illustrious institutions, Tsinghua University – some hail it as the “MIT of China” – now purveys what it calls “Marxist Journalism.” This, the Washington Post wrote in 2007, is “broadly interpreted to mean journalism that the government views as improving society and taking account of Chinese realities, including censorship under one-party rule.”

So, it dawns on me that Hong Kong, with its legacy of British law and tradition, may represent a haven for more critically thinking Chinese. Already, students are reading and watching local news reports – and finding taboo books in the library – they’d never get on the mainland.

As if to reinforce the point, last night I watched a TV report of how some 40 Hong Kong journalists demonstrated here Monday before Chinese government offices, protesting police detentions and beatings of Hong Kong journalists covering inter-ethnic tensions in Ürümqi, in northwest China.

Such an outcry by mainland journalists, on the mainland, is unimaginable. Truth is, I don’t know how many Chinese share my students’ views. But it sure inspires me to help make a difference.

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For 40 years, I’ve been conditioned to look left, then right, and cross when all’s clear. I’ve also developed a habit of, when sensing no traffic from the left, instinctively stepping into the street, ready to stride across.

In Hong Kong, this habit may get me killed. In this ex-British colony, they drive as the Brits do: wheel on the right side, driving in the left-hand lane. It’s as jarring as a visit to Bulgaria, where Bulgarians quirkily nod when they mean no, and wobble their head from left to right when they mean yes.

Silly as it sounds, I’ve been here a week and still mix it up, looking the wrong way. I’ve already had several buses whizz past my nose.

Apparently, I’m not the only one finding this habit hard to break; the mainland Chinese, likewise accustomed to right-lane driving back home, also get confused in Hong Kong.

Otherwise, how else to explain what looks like a “Street-Crossing for Dummies” guide: at most intersections here, painted into the crosswalk, in both English and Chinese characters, are the words “Look Right.” If that’s not enough guidance for some pedestrians, they’ve helpfully added another clue: an arrow.

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This semester, I’m assigned to co-teach the same reporting class to four separate sections, numbering nearly 80 students in all. My colleague, Peter Eng – a longtime AP man in Southeast Asia – teaches the first 90 minutes, I do the next 90.

The challenge is not just to lead so many through the big reporting project I’ve planned for them; it’s the idea of teaching precisely the same material to four different groups: three on Monday, one on Tuesday. Delivering the same principles, the same anecdotes, the same witty (?) one-liners.

The first week was easy enough, as I mainly introduced the syllabus and myself. But today was tougher, trying to ensure each hears the same shpiel and moves forward at the same pace.

Unfortunately for Section I, they may serve as guinea pig, as I gauge what worked, what didn’t, then fine-tune for the remaining three. And I’ll be sure to fuel up on espresso before Sections III and IV, to avoid running on fumes.

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Chinese waistlines are doomed.

I’ve seen it happen in Central Europe: slick new Western-style marketing coupled with a bottomless array of junk food and fast food contribute to an epidemic that now sees the Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks climbing the ranks of Europe’s most-obese nations, according to the World Health Organization.

Here, the vast majority of Chinese are svelte. But in terms of goodies, it almost feels like I’m back in the States. In one metro station, the intoxicating scent of Mrs. Field’s cookies lures commuters up the escalator. The supermarkets have aisle upon aisle of snacks, from America, Japan and all points in between. Vending machines and 7-11 stores are everywhere, with customers guzzling their sugary drinks and fattening treats.

And as I’m sitting here in the mega-mall Festival Walk, I spy the food court, where McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken enjoy capacity seating, with many customers afterward heading over to Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s for a couple of scoops. (Hooray, cookie-dough ice-cream!)

Long-term, I don’t know how Chinese metabolism can withstand the assault.

I’d get more sanctimonious about this if I weren’t about to head in to the multiplex, armed with my bucket of popcorn …

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Check, Please

I miss the simple pleasures of Bratislava, the low-key capital of Slovakia, where I’ve lived with my family the past three years.

Not only the wider, less-populated sidewalks – at half-a-million souls, Bratislava is one of Europe’s tiniest capitals – which enable me to stretch my long legs and slalom around pedestrians. Compare that with Hong Kong, which is 14 times larger (and more populous than all of Slovakia combined). The narrow sidewalks are jam-packed, crawling like the cars: you’re condemned to stop-and-go traffic.

Instead, what I really miss is the café culture of Central Europe, romanticized by the literary salons of centuries past. As a freelancer whose laptop is a permanent appendage to my back, this is the lifestyle for me. Whether in Slovakia, Czech Republic or Hungary, I can always find a kaviareň or kávéház around the next corner, order a double espresso in the local tongue, then work for an hour or two or three.

While it’s still rare in Central Europe to see someone open a laptop, plug in and mooch free wireless, I do my part in Bratislava, visiting two or three cafés a day, greasing the wheels with tips well beyond the leave-the-coins norm.

Hong Kong, though, is dominated by eateries. The steady flow of customers deters a loiterer like me. Yesterday, in my favorite HK neighborhood so far, Yau Ma Tei, I was pleased to find a cozy, Parisian-themed spot with a long list of coffees, plus light meals. I settled in to read a few pages, but the customers kept a-comin’, even in mid-afternoon. I couldn’t stand the pressure, so got up and left.

Hoping for authentic, mom-and-pop places to sit and work, it seems I’m left with three options: yes, Starbucks (the McDonald’s of cafés); its HK imitation, “Pacific Coffee Company”; or the American-style mega-mall, “Festival Walk.”

Wait a minute … don’t they have teahouses around here?

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I taste a dynamism in Hong Kong I don’t get in Central Europe – which, while now in my blood, can at times be aloof and insecure. And I don’t mean HK’s big-city pulse of crowded sidewalks and streets, framed by neon. Until I understand it more deeply, I’ll guess that it’s a different level of self-confidence.

Today I dropped into a small antique shop in the historic Chinese neighborhood of Kowloon City. Inside I found a woman who was the only other Westerner I saw in the enclave. She was negotiating a business deal, with the occasional help of a young translator she’d brought.

Within seconds, the translator approached, asking what brought me so far from the traditional Western haunts around Hong Kong. When I mentioned the teaching-journalism bit in nearby Kowloon Tong, she grew excited, saying she’d tried to get a job with CNN-Hong Kong. She went further: could I get her into our one-year master’s program?

Bam, she asked for my card. Stunned by her assertiveness, I nevertheless pulled out a card.

Later in the day, while strolling around the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood, I spotted a tiny apartment-rental office, and popped in. Two women, one working behind the desk, the other her friend. The agent spoke no English, but her friend, Lihiuyim, spoke some. With a huge smile, she mustered her best effort: I’m 37, from the mainland, work for a bus company, living here with my young daughter.

Then, an epiphany: “You teach me English! I teach you Mandarin and Cantonese! You give me card!”

Forget for a moment that I’ll be happy to learn 100 words of Cantonese while here. What I marveled at was the day’s second example of someone who knows what they want – and go for it.

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Speaking of that dinner (see below), it was quite a feast: platter after platter of meats, noodles, vegetables and fish brought to each table of 12.

But before the first bite, I can’t help but think of the book I’m making my way through, “Tai-Pan,” about the British colonizing of Hong Kong in 1841. Throughout, the British refer to the Chinese as “heathens,” while the Chinese brand the Brits as “barbarians.” There are vivid descriptions of the Brits eating with only their hands, tearing apart chickens, the grease dripping into lice-ridden beards.

I’m new to China. And I’ve yet to broach this with my students. But I wonder if a sense of “barbaric” Western customs still resonates. (In my first trip to a restaurant here, they served me a fork and knife. I had to request chopsticks, like the other diners.)

So I wait and watch how the students serve themselves. Yet no one has. I ask why, and am told that tradition bestows first dibs to “elders” – that would be me and another veteran journalist seated at the table, Zoher Abdoolcarim, the Asia editor of TIME International.

The eyes are on me. Rex helpfully advises me not to use my own chopsticks, but the communal ones resting beside the dishes. Fortunately, I wield a mean pair of chopsticks. Modestly helping myself to a bit of beef and snowpeas, I succeed in not dropping a single piece.

Then the others dig in. When a platter of two large broiled fish is later placed in front of Zoher, I realize I had it easy. He grew up in Hong Kong, as his ancestors first came from India 130 years ago to trade in textiles. But now he’s protesting having to be the one to tackle the fish.

The students insist, so he deftly plucks a symbolic piece. Overall, the meal goes off without an embarrassing hitch. At least, not that I’m aware of.

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One of my great challenges here will be to remember the names of all 100 students. It was tough enough in Slovakia, where my spring class hit 30. If I’d forget one, my fallback option were the most popular names: “Hmmm. Martina? Lenka? Katarina?”

In Hong Kong, the task is even more difficult.

Chinese names are difficult to pronounce, even when transliterated from the original Chinese characters. I learned this the hard – and humiliating – way in January, in Prague, while handing out certificates to the Hong Kong Baptist University students who attended the TOL foreign-correspondence training course, which I helped lead.

Transliteration doesn’t quite capture the Chinese tones. So as I read out each name, the crowd roared at my mangled pronunciation. This I endured for a mere 35 names.

To simplify things, the Chinese who interact with foreigners typically choose a more international name, for those special occasions. So a “Jiangjie” becomes “Lulu.”

This allows from some creativity: women reinventing themselves as Coral, Icy or Evening. Occasionally, it leads to chicanery. One HKBU colleague tells me a female student last year asked to be called “Ice Cream.” Then she noticed another colleague refer to that same student as “Chocolate.” The ruse was exposed!

Since most students are from the mainland, with this their first time meeting Western faculty, several are trying out new names, to see how they fit.

At a teacher-student dinner earlier this week, on my right a young man introduced himself as “Rex.” He’d originally chosen the name “Lex,” until an American woman told him “Rex” was cooler. I agreed, and told him to Google the Latin definition.

On my left was “Emily” – a popular choice. In America, too, as it ranks No. 1. (It’s also the name of my darling niece.)

Two days later, Emily came to our first class. Her name placard puzzled me: “Psyche.” I thought you were Emily, I asked. With another Emily in class, she wanted something unique. Next class, though, I may have to tell Psyche how uncomfortably close her new name is to a certain Alfred Hitchcock film …

(Sept. 7 note: I see the student has now reverted to the original, but Frenchified it — Amelie.  Excellent choice.)

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Gesundheit!

It’s a bit unnerving to see so many locals wearing surgical masks over their mouth and nose: the staff at the airport, at the hotel, at the bookstore, etc. On the streets, I estimate 1 in 20 wear them.

Sure, HK saw a few cases of swine-flu earlier this year. But do they know something I don’t know? Nahhh. It’s just a healthy dose of paranoia.

In 1997, Avian flu struck Hong Kong, killing six. Then in 2003, along came Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which traumatized Hong Kongers when it claimed some 300 lives.

So their anxiety is understandable, writes expat guru Rory Boland: “At the slightest sniffle of a cold they will, quite sensibly, don their mask, thus stopping any disease from spreading.”

In this heat, though, I can’t imagine exacerbating my misery by breathing into a paper mask. However, I just may adopt another popular accoutrement here: umbrellas to shield you from the sun.

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Land, Ho …

It’s sticky hot, and dripping sweat often burns my eyes. But I don’t mind. I arrived in Hong Kong this week, and the adrenaline I feel – day in, day out – reminds me of the rush I experienced when I moved to Budapest, way back in 1993: I’m damn lucky to have this kind of adventure.

This time around, more remarkable is that my wife and kids allowed me to do it.

Hong Kong is my foothold into Asia, just as it was in 1841 for Dirk Struan, the seafaring merchant in James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” – a 700-page epic I began reading on the flight over. In fact, it’s the farthest east I’ve ever been, eclipsing my journo-adventures Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Where those Central Asian countries are more “Russified,” after seven decades of Soviet control, Hong Kong is China. Or perhaps it’s better described as China* – the asterisk to denote the lasting cultural, capitalistic legacy of 150 years of British rule, which only ended in 1997.

At least I’m not alone here. No, I don’t mean the 7 million Hong Kongers crammed onto these rocks and islands. Turns out, of the 100 first-year graduate students I’m teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University, almost all of them hail from mainland China – and also have never been to HK before. In fact, they, like me, don’t speak the language: the Cantonese unique to this region, versus the Mandarin spoken by 1 billion-plus other Chinese. So, as I tell the students with a smile, “We’re in the same boat.”

Other than that, they have a clear advantage. They know the proper way to each jellyfish or chicken feet. They know their personal chopsticks from the table’s communal chopsticks. They also know why it’s acceptable to belch at the table. Me? I’m learning … quickly!

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MacedoniaKosovoMay09 410Ten years after being displaced by war, hundreds of Kosovar Roma still live where the UN put them – atop a toxic dump. A TOL multimedia presentation.

Michael J. Jordan, Special to Transitions Online, August 12, 2009

(Note: Below is the introduction to my photo essay. To view whole slideshow, click here.)

A decade ago, the orgy of violence that consumed Kosovo first revealed Albanian victims, then Serb victims. One victimized community was often overlooked: the Roma.

At the epicenter of interethnic clashes was the northern city of Mitrovica, which even today remains divided: Serbs on the north side of the Ibar River, Albanians on the south side, and NATO troops guarding the bridge in between.

In summer 1999, returning Albanian refugees virtually razed a local mahala (settlement) that was home to 8,000-plus Kosovar Roma, accusing the residents of collaborating with the Serbs. The UN mission in Kosovo relocated many of the displaced Roma to the abandoned Trepca mining and smelting complex in north Mitrovica, just a few blocks from the bridge.

But the Osterode and Cesmin Lug settlements, it turned out, sat on land contaminated by lead and other metals. And what was supposed to be temporary accommodation has turned permanent.

Despite calls by the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, and others to evacuate Osterode and Cesmin Lug, some 450 Roma continue to live amid what Thomas Hammarberg, the European commissioner for human rights, has branded “the single most major environmental disaster in Europe.” Roma leaders and their advocates allege that as many as 80 residents of the camps have died of cancer-related illness over the years.

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