Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

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


BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading! … mjj


Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read Full Post »

[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor‘s Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.


Read Full Post »

[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read Full Post »

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

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s more. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

[This piece appeared Aug. 13, 2010, on The Mantle.]


PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

A Romani man in the Hungarian town of Heves describes the widespread unemployment his community faces. (Photo: mjj)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others. With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

[For introduction of the “Book-Writing Blog,” please see post below.]

BRATISLAVA – Where to start writing my book, but the Foreword. (Which, um, I embarrassingly first typed onto the page as Forward. Get me re-write!)

I dove right in, from the top. Oh, what zeal! My fingers were fluttering. Until I got a few hundred words down. Then, I began “spaghettiing.” Yes, spaghetti as a verb. I first saw the term used by Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, in his how-to guide, “Writing for Story.”

As Franklin wrote, “Writing also involves the processing and integration of large masses of individually trivial bits of data. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you’re going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially … A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.”

He’s right, of course. After 20 years in journalism, I’d committed a rookie error. It’s something I even exhort my students to do: start with an outline. Early in my career, I myself stubbornly resisted. Then, mysteriously, I’d struggle with the writing. I didn’t appreciate how an outline helps organize your material, especially to organize your thoughts – even my rather disorganized mind.

That said, I do have an outline of how this entire book will look. One thing I learned last year in approaching a few publishers is that they insist on a chapter-by-chapter description. This is too serious an industry to take the word of an “aspiring first-time author” like me: Don’t worry, I have enough for a book.

What I gleaned was this: think the whole thing through first, then show them you’ve thought it all the way through. What I failed to consider last week, though, was the necessity to outline each chapter, too.

Frustrated with my first day, I griped to my wife. She tried to help, thinking the hurdle was the Foreward itself. How to summarize a book until you’ve written it? Why not hold off with it until the end, and start now with Chapter One?

A reasonable suggestion. But I knew better. The Foreward is where my story begins. I always find it easier – and more logical – to start a story from the top. Instead, I needed to outline the Foreward: a skeleton of the beginning, the middle, the end … and how to get from one point to the next.

My fingers were again a-flutter. Now 13 pages in – and counting.

Read Full Post »

BRATISLAVA – Last week, I began writing a book. My first book.

Since I’ve diagnosed myself as suffering the “Narcissism of Blog-Love” [see May 27 post], I can’t help but blog about my entire book-writing journey.

OK, it’s more than narcissism. When I teach journalism, I try to de-mystify the process for others, to make it more accessible. This blog may do the same for book-writing, for the millions of folks who day-dream about writing a book of their own. Yet, like me, have no sense for what it really takes.

I don’t have a literary agent. Nor a publisher. But I have a book idea, one I think is pretty good. I pitched it to a few places last year, but no nibbles. So, in this tough book-publishing climate, I put my money where my mouth is: I start writing. A few chapters to begin with, something meatier for potential agents and publishers to sink their teeth into. Most important: my wife’s on board.

I won’t divulge the topic, yet. Let me make a serious dent first. Why? I may be paranoid, but I’m not so naïve to just throw my non-fiction idea out there, assuming it won’t be swiped. Rationally, I know it’d be tough for anyone to replicate my passion for this project, or the energy it’ll require to see it through. But still! Better safe than sorry.

Moreover, for this blog, the idea is secondary to the process itself.

I love those guinea-pig columns, where a writer volunteers to sample, say, various teeth-whiteners or anti-smoking patches, then describes which is most effective, which wastes your money.

Consider me the book-writing guinea pig. In occasional Book-Writing Blog (or “the BWB“) posts, I’ll document the good, the bad, the ugly. Or, as ABC Sports once rhapsodized, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Learn from my mistakes! Learn from my successes!

Finally, I admit this blog was inspired by the film “Julie & Julia,” the true story of a woman who plows through 500 Julie Child recipes, then blogs about each experience. The blog was discovered, her tale turned into a Hollywood film.

Will I be discovered? Stay tuned. But if so, I see Ben Stiller as the romantic lead.

Read Full Post »

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 …]


Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.

When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.

When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.

“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”

That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.

“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.

That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.

The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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

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

Dozens of my Chinese students. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

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

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

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

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


Read Full Post »

We Bratislavers enjoyed the warming weather this week. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I read the sports pages, which nowadays are obsessed with statistics. Well, I would like to note that I myself set a career record the other day.

Not something cool-sounding, like “Most publishable words produced in a single day.” No, this is one that you aspiring journalists out there should desperately avoid: how many months I went between jotting notes in my notepad, and finally starting to jig-saw together an article from those same notes.

Ten months. Ten months!

I think my previous record was about six months, set back after my 2008 trip to Kazakhstan. Boy, do I remember how painful that was. “Never again,” I muttered to my wife, over and over.

This time, in the spirit of Vancouver, I’ve bettered that mark. Oh, I’ve got terrific excuses for why I foolishly shoved an important project to the back-burner. (The Hong Kong posts below explain a lot.)

Just know, it’s hung over me for months. I knew the bill would come due.

For those of you who haven’t gone through this before, how to describe it?

First off, I’m reading that chicken-scratch penmanship. Especially, if I’ve taken notes while walking, sitting in a moving car, or if someone is just talkin’ fast.

When the material is still relatively fresh, it’s much easier to decipher certain words. I can feel the context. The words around it trigger the memory and sensation of speaking with some unique character, in some place that 99 percent of the world’s population would consider “exotic.”

Those embers, though, start to go cold after a while.

This week, I’ve been reading through, and it’s like poking into an attic of mementos. (“Was I buying that guy’s story as he was talking?”) Slowly, I’m breathing life into those notes. I’ll also spruce them up with updated research and fresh interviews.

Those articles, produced with young Romani reporters in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania (visited last month), will appear in the coming weeks in Transitions Online. And on this blog, of course.

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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.)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in the Dec. 9, 2009, edition of Harvard’s Nieman Reports. It was accompanied by two related pieces on breaking into the business. To read them, click here and here.]

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

LITVINOV, CZECH REPUBLIC – Miriam and Lisa have struck pay dirt. It’s a hot late-July day in the Czech mining town of Litvinov, in bucolic northern Bohemia. We’ve just driven into the Janov “estate”— or what the Czechs derogatively call a “ghetto.” Built into a hill on the eastern edge of town, the wall of whitewashed apartment buildings are mostly occupied by Roma, known less kindly here as “Gypsies.”

For young reporters Miriam Ostermann, a 22-year old freelancer for Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, and Lisa Coghlan, a 21-year old Welshwoman who lives in the English midlands, this is the first time they’ve worked on a foreign news story. And a trickly one it is. In Central and Eastern Europe, eyes widen whenever you announce plans to visit to a Roma quarter. It’s the kind of place locals would never visit; they’d cross through only if they had to. Go there, and someone might beat you, folks will warn, or pinch your bag. Neither, it must be said, has ever happened to me in my journalistic forays into Roma neighborhoods.

In Litvinov, the fellows are out early, a lucky break for us. Shy of noon, the casino is closed, yet Stepan Chudik and his friends are hanging in front of the Vietnamese-owned grocery—with its large sign misspelled, Supermaket—nursing a round of cold beers. Stephan’s shirt is unbuttoned to his rotund belly, revealing a heavily tattooed torso with a dragon, a devil and what looks like Al Capone in white fedora. He’s a clear character, so Miriam, Lisa and I approach him.

In particular, we want to know what’s happened since last Nov. 17th, when some 700 weapon-wielding skinheads marched on Janov, where they clashed with about 1,000 Czech riot police. After 17 were injured, half of them police, some Czech observers wondered if Litvinov was on the brink of “ethnic war.” This was not the first time this question arose; a decade ago, some 20 Roma were murdered by Czech extremists, and as recently as April, three Molotov cocktails tossed into a Czech Roma home severely burned a two-year-old girl.

While I’ve visited the Roma on other occasions to report on their lives and circumstances, this time I’m here as a teacher. (more…)

Read Full Post »

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – Success in doing international reporting as a freelancer isn’t about what transpires in a foreign land; it lies in the thorough preparation done back home, well before your departure.

Why? Because the reporting trip will cost a bundle, and your time spent on the ground will be limited. So it’s essential that you can collect the story elements you need as efficiently as possible. With 15 years of experience behind me, I can now gather enough material so that I can work on up to six news features during an eight-day reporting trip.

The essential formula to make this work can be summed up this way: Start by producing a salable idea, then deliver what you’ve promised. There are two approaches to finding stories, after you’ve targeted a country or region in which to focus your reporting.

*Search the Web to learn about something interesting or important happening in that country or region.

*Pursue topics of interest to you, then find out if these issues are compelling in the country you’ve targeted.

The most promising approach, though, is a combination of the two, if you hope to convince editors to send you there.

Hints About Finding a Story

If, thanks to Genghis Khan, Mongolia fascinates you, then sit and think: “What exactly interests me about Mongolia today?” Business? Tourism? The environment? Human rights? Yak-herding? Let Google lead you to appropriate Web sites and start brainstorming ideas. Save relevant articles and reports in your file. And once you decide on a direction to take, you’ll want to strengthen your piece by citing any relevant research, history, or quotes from experts found in this file. (more…)

Read Full Post »

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – For those who want to do real foreign reporting, the Transitions Online Foreign-Correspondence Training Course offers preparation through the biannual program it created in 2005. Attracting 15 to 25 participants each January and July, the class takes place in the historic, cobble-stoned city of Prague with lectures from journalists with The Economist, the BBC and other well-respected news organizations.

I often kick off our time together with a lecture about how to break into foreign correspondence. While my colleagues are primarily full-time staff, the 15 years I’ve spent traveling to 25 countries as a freelance foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and others means that I bring a different perspective. In the digital age, this type of freelance reporting work is changing in important ways, though there is much about doing these stories that remains the same.

Here are a few pieces of advice I share with the participants, especially those interested in working as free-lance journalists:

Find a cheap place to live. At first, the assignments and revenue may not roll in. You won’t want a high cost of living as added pressure. So head south or east. When I lived in post-Communist Hungary in the 1990s, one story payment typically covered one month’s rent.

Invest in learning. Take a course in photography or camera work or film editing since demands for multimedia are far greater now. The ability to enhance your story-telling with a slideshow, streaming video or even a short film might be enough to turn a “maybe” from an editor into a “yes.” For the past two years, I have not travelled to an assignment without expecting to shoot photographs that will appear with what I write. [See my photo essay about the hundreds of Kosovo Roma who still live in a United Nations camp atop a toxic dump, 10 years after being displaced by war.]

Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. This means not shying away from the “start-up” costs of any business, such as setting up a home office, purchasing professional-quality technology and other investments of time and energy that may not pay immediate dividends. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Slovak student Katarina Micatkova (Photo: mjj)


Nov. 22, 2009

By Michael J. Jordan

I got my first whiff of the problem two years ago. That’s when I started teaching journalism at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius in historic Trnava, Slovakia.

Eva Pelyova was among the most enthusiastic of my students, one of the few willing to speak up in our journalism discussions, to at least practice her English. These 30 bright students each had a reporting project with a seemingly simple task: explain why exactly any situation is the way it is.

Eva was gung-ho for her project, exploring the lousy traffic situation in Trnava, her hometown. Forty minutes outside the sedate capital, Bratislava, Trnava is renowned for its golden honey wine, 13th century town wall, and ample church steeples—so many, in fact, Trnava is dubbed “the Slovak Rome.”

Yet since communism’s collapse in 1989, soaring car-ownership and trucks belonging to the new Peugeot factory on the edge of town combine to clog the city’s single-lane streets.

Yet Eva’s first draft revealed a pattern that would repeat again and again in Trnava and likewise among my students at Masaryk University across the border in Brno, Czech Republic. Gritting my teeth, I found that although Central European students like Eva do a fine job of describing what the situation is, they press no further. Why exactly is traffic so bad? Why exactly didn’t city officials anticipate the problem? Why exactly didn’t they respond sooner? What will officials do now … and why?

“Why?” represents a real psychological hurdle. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.”)

Read Full Post »

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.



Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Thousands in Hong Kong lined the streets for a parade to celebrate China’s 60th National Day. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 1, 2009, in The Global Post.]

In Britain’s former colony, now China’s property, the mood is mixed.

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Editor’s note: Oct. 1 is the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. To mark the occasion we have two dispatches from two very different corners of China — Tibet and Hong Kong. And from Beijing, Kathleen E. McLaughlin looks at the event’s unique security arrangements.

HONG KONG, China — One month ago, Chinese journalists flocked to cover renewed violence in Xinjiang province, as ethnic Chinese blamed the Uighur minority for a rash of mysterious hypodermic-needle attacks.

China’s media is among the most restricted in the world, so it wasn’t entirely surprising when reports emerged that police had beaten and detained three of the bolder television journalists, accusing them of inciting inter-ethnic violence.

Except, this trio hailed from Hong Kong, the one beacon of democracy in all of China. So news of their treatment struck a nerve in a territory that London returned to China 12 years ago, after 150 years of British rule. Hundreds of Hong Kong journalists took to the streets to demand not only an apology from the Chinese authorities, but even an investigation of the event.

“Press freedom and rule of law are core values of Hong Kong society,” said Yin-ting Mak, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “That’s why people were so angry, because this was the most vivid, most extreme example of violating these values.”

The incident exposed ongoing tensions within the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that underpinned the British handover and lies at the heart of China-Hong Kong relations today.

This helps explain why this week, as Beijing celebrates 60 years of the “People’s Republic of China” and Communist Party accomplishments, the reaction is far more mixed in politically polarized Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong has shared only one-fifth of that history, and many locals descend from the Chinese refugees who fled since the 1949 Communist takeover. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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?”

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.)

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

QuillLogoBy Michael J. Jordan, August 2009 Issue

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Every foreign correspondent has a tale of their big break: the story that, in the eyes of editors back home, suddenly transformed them from a dreamer who only talked about the overseas reporting they wanted to do, into someone who’s proven they can deliver the goods.

My break came in Spring 1995, amid the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. My story: the babies abandoned by the Bosnian Muslim women whom Serb paramilitaries had raped. Rape as a war crime.

My journalistic journey had actually begun years earlier. I was the son of Cold War refugees from Hungary and Egypt, and my professor father often took us along to international conferences. I, too, wanted foreign adventure.

There are essentially two ways into foreign correspondence: Climb the ladder at a major newspaper, win awards and seniority, await the vacancy of a plum post overseas. Or strike out on your own, push through the back door.

I chose the latter. (more…)

Read Full Post »