Talking with Sinostand's Eric Fish

Culture | by James Weir
Posted: November 30th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments

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Sinostand China blog Here at the China Travel Blog, we spend a lot of time reading up on the adventures of strangers in China. So it's always a treat when we stumble onto a new blog that's full of fresh opinions, good stories and is written with balance and skill. Eric Fish's blog, Nanjing and "do something crazy" for a year or two, Eric now resides in Beijing and is pursuing a career in business journalism. He is well informed, passionate, and, most importantly, invested in China's future. His focus is on politics and culture here in the mainland, but unlike many of his ex-pat peers in the blogosphere, Eric doesn't resort to sarcasm and snark as a response to many of the systemic issues plaguing China, and the result is an intelligent discussion about where China has been, where it is now and where it is heading. I hope you all enjoy our conversation with Eric as much as we've enjoyed staying up to date with his blog. How did you get here? Eric: I grew up in Kansas, which is justifiably known for little more than The Wizard of Oz. I ended up in China the way probably most people my age do. I was a fresh college grad and wanted to delay making a serious decision about my future for a year or two while doing something crazy. China drew me in because it's about the craziest place in the world right now. The economy has blasted off while politics and society are trying to figure how to catch up. Conflicting ideas and values intersect everywhere, which makes for some bizarre and fascinating phenomena. I went to Nanjing to teach university English and found after the initial planned "year or two" I wasn't ready to head back to the plains of Kansas just yet. Why blog? [pullquote]Blogging has also kind of helped me continue to see China with a fresh can literally never run out of things to say about the country.[/pullquote]Eric: While I was in Nanjing I'd send emails to all my family and friends about China. A few of them started telling me I should look into writing professionally. Since I really had no other plan at the time I listened and started writing for newspapers and magazines. I found I really liked it and decided after three years teaching in Nanjing that I wanted to go into China-based journalism and get a proper journalism education. I was very fortunate I found a way to do that and stay in China by getting my MA in global business journalism at Tsinghua here in Beijing. I started blogging shortly before coming to Beijing so I'd have a constant medium to share the stuff I was seeing while researching articles and living in China. Sinostand China blog Blogging has also kind of helped me continue to see China with a fresh eye. After you've lived here awhile you start to get accustomed to most things, but when I'm always on the look out for blogging material, it makes me more conscious of all the interesting things happening around me. And you can literally never run out of things to say about the country. What was living here like in the beginning? And now? Eric: I really didn't know what to expect about living here. I watched and read everything I could get my hands on about China before coming and came to the conclusion that the country was too diverse to construct a clear picture of in my head. This turned out to be exactly right. I like to travel by bike a lot here and I've noticed that places within China that are very close geographically can actually be worlds apart culturally. I can be in a town where people are wealthy, worldly and not bat an eye at seeing a foreigner; then ride down the highway a few miles and feel like an alien who's just landed in his UFO. I'll learn something only to have it contradicted shortly after. It's made me appreciate how truly huge and unknowable China is, and really that the idea that "the world is getting smaller" is somewhat of a myth. One thing I still haven't really been able to adjust to is that feeling of being seen as totally alien. Some of these places where most of the people have never seen a foreigner can be pretty uncomfortable with all the baggage and stereotypes that come with my white skin and foreign passport. The vast majority of the time I'm treated better than locals would treat each other, but that's still pretty uncomfortable. But it's made me look at the situation in my own country that I never could have appreciated otherwise. Biking in China Having lived in Nanjing and Beijing, what are the biggest differences between the two cities? Eric: Nanjing basically felt like a Chinese Chicago to me. It's a big city with kind of a small town feel, especially for a foreigner. There's a good expat crowd but small enough that you run into the same people at the same places again and again, which I like. It's cleaner and greener than Beijing and has tons of history. But Beijing is much more exciting. Tons to do and so many interesting people. For journalism, Beijing is the place to be. Tell us a little about your travels in China. [pullquote]Word had spread that fast of the strange white guy on a bike.[/pullquote]Eric: I've been all over China, mostly to the East and South and a bit in the interior. Yunnan stuck out because the scenery is amazing and there's so many ethnic minorities with cultures very different than the rest of China. I loathe tourist traps, which is what a few cities there have turned into, but bouncing around the small towns there is like going from country to country and escaping the urban smoggy wasteland of the big cities. But like I said, my favorite vacations are traveling by bike. This past National Day I rode from Beijing to Shandong. It's not necessarily comfortable or totally enjoyable during the trip, but that's where you experience the lives of the 80% or so of the Chinese who don't live in the cities. I camped outside a lot, stayed in farmers' guesthouses and even had several people offer to house me for free. I caused a sensation in one small town where I arrived, talked to some people and then later went to a restaurant down the street. Tiger Leaping Gorge trip When I got to the restaurant, the owners already knew my whole story of where I was from and what I was doing. Word had spread that fast of the strange white guy on a bike. How has your experience in China evolved as you've lived here longer and grown more accustomed to the country, the language and the way of life? Eric: You never really get over displacement awe and linguistic problems—at least not for a really long time. All these small towns have their own dialects and react differently to me. I can navigate the cities fine, but when I venture out to the country it's still totally new every time. I've become accustomed to expecting the unexpected and never being truly surprised any more. Once in a small town I saw a really small rickshaw carrying a baby attached to a little dog . I thought, "Huh. A few years ago I would have been really surprised by that." So I guess I kind of miss that feeling of novelty and astonishment at every new thing. As a foreigner blogging about political/social issues in China, how do you balance the fact that you are, in essence, an outsider or visitor? Unlike many sites that use sarcasm, cynicism and snark to mock the systemic problems in China, your work seems to be rooted in the hope that something could change, that China can do better. You've clearly taken a liking and vested interest in the political and social climate of this country, how do you convey that to your readers? [pullquote]I am a "visitor" in the sense that I could hypothetically get up and leave if things got too bad, but for now China is very much part of my future.[/pullquote]Eric: Haha, I won't say that I don't revert to sarcasm on occasion, but staying balanced is an issue. With just about every sentence I write I try to ask, "Am I being fair?" Then after I've written several articles or blog posts I kind of look over and see if there's a slanted pattern. But I can proudly report that I've been labelled both a 50-cent party member (ed: a 50-cent party member is a term used to classify pro-government online commentators who are allegedly paid per pro-party post) and a CIA funded troll... so I guess that means I'm being balanced. One thing I absolutely hate hearing though is, "You should focus on your own country's problems." By this point I'm very physically and emotionally invested in China. My girlfriend of four years lives here and I've been warmly welcomed in as an extended member of her family. I have a very real interest in China and sincerely hope the best for it. I am a "visitor" in the sense that I could hypothetically get up and leave if things got too bad, but for now China is very much part of my future. I'm interested so much in politics and social issues because I think there's huge opportunity with the kind of power the state has. But I see it making a lot of the same mistakes totalitarian states and democratic ones alike have made in the past. And I think outsiders and insiders just have different perspectives of the country—not necessarily better or worse than the other. I liken China to a raft going down white water rapids at night. It's very hard to control and the people in the boat and on the shore have different views of the dangers ahead and how to address them. I've tried to come in, having previously been on the outside, and reconcile the two views to some degree. My readers are mostly foreign, but some are Chinese, too. I hope that I can give each side a good feel of the other perspective. Thanks for chatting with us, Eric. The rest of ya'll can read more about Eric and his opinions on his blog, Sinostand. We'll be checking his site regularly for updates, and we think you should too.
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