Mid-summer 2010 and I was scheduled to have lunch with Jeff Wasserstrom, academic, author, blogger, and all-around good guy. A few days before we met, Jeff emailed to say that he’d like to bring along Rob Schmitz the (then) new Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace program (heard on US public radio affiliates). Fine by me, and we met up for (if I recall correctly) Turkish food. In retrospect, though, I wonder if Jeff didn’t have second thoughts: for it didn’t take more than ten minutes before Rob and I figured out that we’re both Minnesotans, and thus Jeff (a Californian with no Minnesota ties) had to sit through two Minnesotans in China, comparing notes for – I must admit – a little while.
Of course, that’s not all we discussed that day.
Rob’s background, and circuitous journey to being a business correspondent in Shanghai started in the Peace Corps in Sichuan with an illustrious class that included two colleagues who would also become important China correspondents (revealed below). Me, I think Rob’s Peace Corps background provides him with a different, richer perspective on China than what’s typically offered by correspondents with no prior relationship to China. In any case, I’ve been meaning to do a Q&A with Rob on this very subject for a long time, and – with the launch of his new Marketplace blog – Chinopoly – and the opening of his twitter account – @marketplacerob - it seemed like the right time. So, without further ado, an emailed Q&A with Rob Schmitz on China, reporting … and the Minnesota Vikings.
Scrap: How does one go from Peace Corps volunteer to China Bureau Chief for Marketplace?
Schmitz: I’ve met journalists who always knew that this is what they wanted to do with their lives. They wrote for their college paper, they worked the police beat at a tiny newspaper and worked their way up to foreign correspondent. I lacked that sense of direction. I took a long, circuitous route to the profession, and the Peace Corps was a big part of that journey. I’ve always had a single-minded determination to see the world, learn languages, and learn about other cultures. Much of that comes from growing up in rural Minnesota, where I was endlessly fascinated by the natural world. It was pretty much all I had in a town of a couple thousand people. As I grew up, that curiosity evolved into a desire to learn about other cultures, and that, in turn, spurred my interest in journalism.
After coming home from the Peace Corps in 1998, I spent the next year holed up in Northeast Minneapolis scheming a return. I came back in 2000, started freelancing, and then refined those skills at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I focused on broadcast journalism—in the period between my two China stints, I listened to a hell of a lot of public radio, and I loved the way the stories had the power to transport me to exotic locales similar to the one I was pining to go back to. Immediately after graduating from Columbia, I was back home in Minnesota starting my first public radio job. I managed to return to China on reporting trips nearly every other year after that, and ten years later, here I am.
Scrap: You are one of three foreign correspondents for major news organizations to come out of your Peace Corps cohort. What’s up with that?
Schmitz: There were three of us from that group who became journalists: Pete Hessler, Craig Simons, and me. I think it was a combination of being part of a small, tight-knit group—there are only 13 of us, and we’re still good friends—and having an opportunity to live in rural Chinese cities that had seen few foreigners during a time when these places were finally opening up to the rest of the world. In many ways, each of us played a role in that ‘opening up’ process, and I think that’s why the experience had such a profound impact on us. Those two years inspired me to start writing. And journalism was a natural culmination of that passion.
Scrap: You are, I believe, one of the few national-level reports to come to China with substantial China experience already under your belt. How does that past experience guide your choice of stories. Do you think it weighs you in one or another direction?
Schmitz: Those years teaching in rural Sichuan definitely play a role in how I cover a story. My feature reporting tends to gravitate toward the voices of laobaixing in rural areas. Despite all the migration to the cities, the majority of China’s population remains rural, and as a consumer of news about China, I’ve always felt the international press devotes an inordinate amount of coverage to Beijing, Shanghai, and the more developed Eastern parts of the country. Now that I live in Shanghai, I understand why. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to stay where you are. But that’s a trap that’ll give your listeners/readers/viewers a skewed view on China, so I’ve tried to get out of the city as much as I can since I’ve been here.
I’ve always felt that having a bureau in Chongqing—the city farthest West in China that allows foreign journalists to reside—would be a great place for a China bureau, but foreign editors don’t seem to agree with me.
Scrap: Tell me about the blog. What made you want to start it? Any why ‘Chinopoly?’
Schmitz: There’s only so much I can pack into a four-minute feature. And in a place as interesting as China, my cup runneth over on many-an-occasion. That spillover can sometimes be more intriguing than the story itself. The other reason for the blog is that I enjoy being a visual storyteller. I’ve spent years working as a video journalist, and photography has always been a hobby of mine. The blog gives me an outlet to tell a story that way.
Why ‘Chinopoly’? I wanted a one-word name. Something simple. But something people would remember, too. A made-up name like Chinopoly seemed like a good choice. I think the word sums up an intensifying fear in the West of China’s global intentions; a fear that I don’t necessarily agree with, but that I’m curious about. The Chinese name for the blog, 中国控, roughly translates to ‘China controls,’ and I think that sums up the intention of China’s government towards all aspects of its own society…I’m equally curious about that. The subheading I used (“Coming to an economy near you”) was something I came up with after my web editor told me we needed to have the words ‘China’ and ‘economy’ somewhere in there to boost search results. I would have preferred not to have a subheading, and the one I came up with is imperfect at best. China’s already arrived to an economy near you. If anyone has a better idea within my web editor’s parameters, please email me, as I haven’t gotten around to coming up with something better.
Scrap: A question for the Minnesotans out there: Minnesotans are vastly over-represented among correspondents in China (past and present), just as Minnesotans are resident in China all out of proportion to their population (5 million, total?). Any thoughts on what draws us to China?
Schmitz: For Minnesotans with Scandinavian ancestors (myself included), the answer might be in our genes. The Vikings had a reputation for invading and pillaging. But they were also adept at foreign trade, and for that, they needed to understand foreign ways. Minnesotans are the same way, complete with the unfair stereotype: always smiling, saying ‘Ya, you betcha,’ and generally being nice. What draws us to China? People live here! We’re a lonely tribe in need of human interaction. There’s a lot of that here. The other obvious reason for our over-representation in China and in other countries is that Minnesota’s just too damn cold to not leave behind once in a while. On the day of my graduation from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, there was still ice covering Lake Superior. It was June. A few weeks later, I high-tailed it to China.
Schmitz: 1. Change the rules of the game so that the team with fewer points wins.
2. Use the Metrodome’s unstable roof to our advantage: unleash tons of accumulated rooftop snow onto the defense during our typically disappointing offensive drives.
3. Move the Vikes to China and make the other teams play here.