Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why I'm Not In China

If you can't quite see behind the glare, that was the odometer reading on my car last night when I got home to watch the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. 88088. On 8-8-8. I am not religious and I am not usually superstitious except for one small illogical fondness I've always had for the number 16. I was born on one and a zillion other things have coincided with the number. And all those 8s that add up to all those 16s...well... whatever.

I've been quiet on this blog for the past couple of days in part because I'm a bit depressed. As I wrote recently, in what seems like another life I lived in Beijing and I had the thrill of dictating my story to USA Today from the madness in Tian'anmen Square on July 13, 2001, when the Chinese were awarded these Olympics. That night, I promised myself I'd find a way to make it back there to cover the Games and then, in this fantasy, I would take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia and fly home from Paris.

Then my life happened. I returned to the US in 2002, broke up with my first partner and decided to apply the same skills I discovered I had while I lived in China for finding interesting stories and selling them to the national media to a freelance career in Las Vegas. And it has been a richly rewarding decision for many reasons, most importantly because in the process I met Miles and the stability of our life together.

I also slowly but surely lost my grip on what I knew about China. I went back to Beijing a few times, covered SARS for USA Today and did some travel and feature writing, but if I had wanted to remain a go-to journalist on this topic I would have gone over periodically and found some good stories to remain sharp and stay in touch with editors who might later have turned to me for Olympic coverage. I decided after considering it not to further study the language because of the time commitment that would involve, so I'm left with a shadow of the small bit I once spoke confidently.

What's more, with Las Vegas being my primary interest, the part of China that became more valuable for me to pay attention to was Macau, where I've been twice in the past three years. I've not been back to Beijing at this point in almost four years and I hardly recognize it on TV, so great has the transformation been. It's not unlike Las Vegas, a fast-growing and constantly changing place that is best understood from close range. If I left Vegas for four years, I suspect I'd be similarly bewildered and disoriented.

I did toy with the idea of going over for the Olympics anyway. I had Miles' blessing. A friend there offered his couch. I suspected I could've placed myself there and gotten the papers I work with regularly to take some of my material. But the airfares were very high and, on a social level, I suspected all of my friends over there would be madly busy as well.

The amount of resources I'd expend was risky and, unlike those earlier days, I have responsibilities now to my partner as well as my debtors! The secret of my success is a very simple formula: Find a place where there's loads of interest but very few qualified, versatile, industrious freelance writers or bureaus of major news agencies. It worked in China earlier this decade and it works today in Las Vegas as well. This month in Beijing? The whole world is there. Everyone's sending people. Even that stooge Ed Graney from the Review-Journal whose blog posts and snarky news stories are driving me bananas with his juvenile observations and Western ignorance.

But that's another thing. The Beijing Olympics was primarily a geopolitical story until last night's spectacular opening at the Bird's Nest. But as of today, it became primarily a sports story. I'm sure Ed will be great covering what he understands, which is sports and not complicated foreign cultures and international politics.

So I'm sad. I watched last night and saw Yao Ming, who could now speak English but was young, nervous and fearful when I met him as the first Western journalist to profile him in early 2001. As I watched, I knew that this is where I ought to be, in this life working on these stories and spending my time and resources on this family. And it was foolish of me, knowing how uncertain my life was back in 2001, to imagine I'd know where I'd be or with whom I'd be involved seven years later. Miles was patient and understanding and brought in Chinese to make it an occasion. He even let me commandeer the TV for four hours, which is a supreme sacrifice!

Had I known where I'd be now, I'd surely been pleased both personally and professionally. In both instances, I am far more confident and comfortable with my direction. I've got a big piece in tomorrow's New York Times examining Northwest Arizona as the next bedroom region for Vegas and significant pieces due in coming days on politics in both the Times and the Washington Post. And, of course, I'd not be able to participate in the Vegas Podcast-a-Palooza next Saturday if I were among the hoards of journalists all writing the same stories.

But even today, my heart strings were tugged. The stabbing murder of an American tourist occurred at a site, the Drum Tower, that was once a common landmark in my life, where I'd tell taxi drivers to drop me off because there was a tiny bar that my friends and I would relax along a small lake a few winding alleys away. Last I heard, though, the adorable little bars and homes were razed to make way for wider thoroughfares, so I suspect the Beijing I knew in 2001-04 is also significantly less quaint and charming.

I also felt incredibly sad for the Chinese. Yes, I feel sad for the victims. But they were victims of something bizarre and excruciatingly unusual in China at precisely the wrong time. In all my years of following this country, I'd never ever heard of a foreigner even being pickpocketed, let alone suffer a violent crime. That may be a function of what the official police will report and/or acknowledge to the public, but a murder of an American tourist overseas would be something even the masterful Chinese couldn't conceal.

I know I've written some bruising criticism of the Chinese as recently as last week in my Philadelphia Inquirer essay. But that's because I despise the authoritarian rule and the West's willingness to sell the Chinese people short by legitimizing it. But I still want people to go, to witness some of it's majesty, to learn about a place so important and vibrant. And now the brilliance of the Opening Ceremonies, which might have made millions in the West the idea that maybe they might go see the amazing country that can create such extraordinary displays, may be replaced by a fear for tourist safety.

I'd go in a heartbeat. But I'd go when the cost isn't prohibitive and when I can introduce Miles to the people and places that transformed me and led me to him. And these two week in August is just not that opportunity.


Anonymous said...

this is really a lovely testimonial and gives us real insight into you, steve. you should write this sort of post more often. thanks for sharing. - JJ

don said...

Well, I read the title of the post, then looked at the picture and saw the word "Miles". I thought: "How sweet. He didn't go to China because he didn't want to be away from Miles." :)

A very nice post. Thanks.

I wonder if I can find a boy friend named Kilometers? Then I could see his name every time I got in my car.

Anonymous said...

Are you certain you were the first American journalist to profile Yao Ming? ESPN magazine put him on its cover in 2000 for its year-end issue. And Javier Solano of the Orlando Sentinel did a story on him 1998. Check it out.