James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Last week I mentioned in two posts (here and here) the revived "artisanal salt" industry that a brother and sister, Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, are creating on the site of the family's very successful 19th-century salt factory in the little town of Malden, West Virginia. Malden, just outside Charleston, was previously known as Kanawha Salines, after its dominant industry. Its greatest source of fame, apart from though related to the salt works, is as the boyhood home of Booker T. Washington. (More current source of fame: the football phenom Randy Moss grew up in an adjoining hamlet.)
Washington's family, who were slaves, had left a farm in Franklin County, Virginia, when they were freed by the arrival of Union troops in the spring of 1865. (I am drawing from an official narrative by Louis R. Harlan for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.) They made their way to the Kanawha valley of the relatively new state of West Virginia, and there the 9-year-old Booker was soon put to work in the salt furnaces, where brine was boiled down to make commercial salt. From the state narrative:
Last night I described our fascinating and surreal trip to a successful "artisan salt" factory outside Charleston, West Virginia. The fascinating part is I hope obvious; the surreal part is that the people running the J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works are letting brine from a half-billion-year-old subterranean sea burble up to the surface, and then gently evaporating it down to its crystalline salt essence. They are doing this at a site where for millennia animals had gathered around salt licks formed where the brine came to the surface.
Bob Coffield, a lawyer and civic enthusiast in Charleston, took us to the salt works and spent more time and care taking pictures than we did during the visit. Here are a few more, for the sake of completeness.
In the photo at the top of the post, you see the austere, Japanese shoji-looking elegance of an evaporating room. I make the Japan allusion both on the merits and because one of the salt works' commercially important side products is nigari, the Japanese term for very bitter magnesium chloride flakes that among other uses serve as a coagulent in making tofu. The magnesium chloride can be separated from the normal sodium chloride (salt) as the brine evaporates.
Fair warning: I am not going to try to strap any Larger Policy Significance onto this report. It was just one of the more interesting things we've seen on our travel, and we wanted to let others know about it.
Our story starts some 600 million years ago, when a body of water now known as the Iapetus Ocean lay beneath what is now the eastern coast of North America. That's about as much geology as you're getting from me. For more, you can start here, but I will tell you where the ocean's name comes from:
The modern Atlantic Ocean was named after the mythological Greek god Atlantis.... In Greek mythology, Iapetus was the father of Atlantis, so the older ocean is named after the older mythological figure. (The Iapetus Ocean disappeared as continental plates shifted around and recombined as Pangea. After Pangea broke up, a younger ocean - the Atlantic - formed between Africa and North America.)
My friend Brian Glucroft, who over the years has done memorable photography and reportage about the vivid, diverse humanity of daily life in China, sends the picture above, taken a few days ago in Shanghai. He writes:
On Changping Road in Jing'an, Shanghai, I just heard saw / heard something I think you could appreciate. It reminds me that some of the criticism China hears from Westerners is motivated by a hope China can do better in areas where the West has failed.
Yet again, "oh well".
Then a little while later, he sent the two pictures below and this followup note:
Later in the day I saw two street cleaners less than a block away on the same road. A man swept the leaves off the sidewalk into piles on the road, and then a woman bagged them. No leaf blowers required. Their handmade brooms constructed from bamboo, branches, & leaves, still commonly used by street cleaners in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, worked just fine — plus quieter, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier. It's one way in which Shanghai and many other cities in China don't need to go green but already are.
The motorbike with the British design (seen many of those across China recently) and both people wearing face masks in the 2nd photo are bonuses.
These bottom two pictures resemble what I saw during our years in Shanghai, Beijing, and other big Chinese cities. But of course the country has "progressed" since then.
For an American take on this development, I direct you toward a measured assessment from Bill Radke in Seattle. And for more views of the variety of life in China, do visit Brian Glucroft's site. Its opening-spread picture gives an idea of its spirit:
It's been four weeks since the U.S. election day. Through most of that time I've been offline and underwater (or in the air), finishing one big project and beginning another. Starting this week, my wife Deb and I will be in the West for an extended period of American Futures reporting that fortunately coincides with the extended period known as "winter" in the East. To kick that off, a word about the connection between what we're seeing town-by-town and the larger politics of the country as a whole.
Election Day brought a lot of results I was sorry about, from Maine to Florida to Colorado to Alaska, but also a few glimmers on the bright side:
Next year's class of freshman representatives will include two mid-30s Democrats who scored upset wins. One is Pete Aguilar, the mayor of my ancestral home town of Redlands, California, whom we met and interviewed as part of our reporting in Redlands last year. Republicans have held this district for most of my lifetime, but Aguilar made it through on a big Republican night by a 51-49 margin. The other is Seth Moulton, who upset long-time incumbent Representative John Tierney (not ourJohn Tierney) in the Democratic primary and then beat his Republican opponent easily in the general. You'll hear more from Moulton, among others, in my magazine story next month.
Through the 1930s, a woman named Caroline Henderson wrote a popular series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly called "Letters from the Dust Bowl." She had grown up in Iowa, gone to college at Mount Holyoke, moved to the far western part of the Oklahoma panhandle to begin life as a farmer, and married a man she first met when he worked digging a well on her farm.
For a while in the early 20th century, the Henderson family enjoyed good years. Here were Caroline and Will Henderson in their heyday on their 640-acre farm, standing in front of the house that Will Henderson built. It's the same house you see in the opening picture for this post.
Then things turned very bad for the country, and the high-plains farming region, and the Henderson family and their neighbors, during the combined economic and ecological disaster of the Depression and Dust Bowl years. That is what Caroline Henderson wrote about for the magazine, in installments that looked like this when they were first published (in a photo from our bound volumes, courtesy of my colleagues Jennifer Barnett and Nora Biette-Timmons):
Here is the sort of thing she wrote:
We have had several bad days of wind and dust. On the worst one recently, old sheets stretched over door and window openings, and sprayed with kerosene, quickly became black and helped a little to keep down the irritating dust in our living rooms. Nothing that you see or hear or read will be likely to exaggerate the physical discomfort or material losses due to these storms.
Less emphasis is usually given to the mental effect, the confusion of mind resulting from the overthrow of all plans for improvement or normal farm work, and the difficulty of making other plans, even in a tentative way. To give just one specific example: the paint has been literally scoured from our buildings by the storms of this and previous years; we should by all means try to 'save the surface'; but who knows when we might safely undertake such a project?...
The prospects for a wheat crop in 1936 still remain extremely doubtful...
You can read some of her installments from the archives here.
Why am I mentioning this? Through this week my wife Deb and I are making our way across the country in our little airplane, getting away from the East Coast just before the big storm on Tuesday night and heading for a period of Western-states reporting for our American Futures series in the weeks to come. Once we get to California we'll have more to say about some surprising experiences en route in West Virginia and Kentucky.
But I couldn't let this day end without mentioning the surprisingly emotional effect of seeing the very site from which a correspondent for our own magazine wrote about her and her region's hardships 80 years ago.
We decided to make the Thanksgiving Day stop in the western panhandle town of Guymon, Oklahoma, a commercial center about 30 miles from the Hendersons' farm. This is how Guymon looked on the way in today, with a very strong, steady down-the-runway wind that gave a slow-mo feeling on approach, as if landing a helicopter. ("I guess it's always this windy?" I said to the airport manager after we landed. "What wind?" he replied—but we both knew he was putting me on.)
Then we followed the instructions that Deb had gotten from the Henderson's grandson, a professor who still owns the land and has observed Caroline Henderson's wish that it not be farmed. (He now leases it to a man who runs goats there.) We drove west for 20-plus miles, toward the small settlement of Eva. Then up another 2-lane paved road, and then looking for the intersection of two unpaved roads, known as "Road N" and "Road 9." The GPS lat/long coordinates were a big help.
We found their farm, and the remnants of the buildings whose construction and care Caroline Henderson had described so painstakingly in her dispatches and an eventual book, Letters from the Dust Bowl. With one or two details removed from the frame — modern wires here, a large commercial sow-raising operation in the distant background there — we felt we could have been looking at a scene from the 1930s, minus only the dust.
This part of the country is now connected to the nation and the world in a way hard to imagine when the Hendersons were fighting dust and drought and despair. Yet even now, this area has the distinct sense of being very, very far away from anything, and very much on its own. Here is the view to the south:
And more to the east:
And to the north. In her letters Caroline Henderson describes the barn that Will built. It is now collapsing into itself, the roof timbers falling into its interior.
Everything seemed shaped by the wind, even without its former burden of dust.
In later installments Deb will have more to say about Caroline Henderson's writings, her life, and her example. At the end of Thanksgiving Day I merely wanted to note the very powerful effect of seeing the very house in which she wrote her chronicles of a terrible stage in the country's history, the very land that she and her husband and their daughter fought to preserve. (Let alone the improbability of letters she wrote at her desk, which we saw inside the house, making their way to editors in Boston, who made them known across the country.) Most of us fancy ourselves "brave" and "independent" in various ways. But to have even this rough idea of where and how these families lived, through all those years, gives a different meaning to courage and independence. Today I am thankful for what Caroline Henderson and others like her did; and that my wife and I had a chance for this further understanding of the world they lived in; and that our magazine played its part in their saga long ago.
Now, back on the road early tomorrow.
* To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here.
I spent much of this afternoon flying a small airplane, with my wife Deb. The idea (after closing an article) was to get off the East Coast, toward our destinations in the west, before the latest winter storm immured people in the east for Thanksgiving.
Our landing at Huntington airport on the West Virginia - Kentucky - Ohio border was right at dusk, so I was grateful for the big, wide runway and the absence of any problematic wind. On the other hand, I can see pretty well ... which is why I noted this video about what it is like to land the same kind of airplane I've been flying, if you can't see at all. Watch and admire. People are capable of a lot. Early happy Thanksgiving.
I like and respect former Senator, soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, and I am sorry that he is leaving this position. For day-job reasons, namely closing a long magazine story that involves the Pentagon, I have been absent from this site for a while and will be for another day. But let me quickly put up what I consider a useful reference: it's a conversation I had with Hagel just four weeks ago, at the Washington Ideas Forum here in D.C:
In particular I direct your attention to:
The section beginning at 15:30 in the video above, when I ask Hagel how his experience as an enlisted combat veteran of Vietnam affects his decisions and outlook in the Pentagon. Note especially what he says starting at around 16:50 on how lessons of Vietnam made him want to know, or at least to ask, how a military commitment would end before deciding to begin it. "It's made me cautious."*
Around 2:10, I ask a several-part question, the last part of which is: Will today's "long wars" ever come to an end? Hagel covers other parts of the question, but not that one, in his initial response. So at 6:45 I re-ask it and say, At what point, if ever, will our Middle Eastern wars be declared over? You'll hear his reply.
Right at the start, I ask him about Defense Department measures to cope with Ebola. This was news that he had announced a few minutes before our talk.
Starting at 8:50, I ask about the Pentagon's view of whether climate change is a national-security concern (answer: it is) and what he thinks should be done about it.
More later. In the meantime, my Atlantic colleague Steve Clemons explains the view from inside Hagel's camp here, and Fred Kaplan explains in Slate some of the sources of Hagel's distance from the White House and other power centers.
* For the record, early in this answer Hagel makes a verbal slip that I decided not to correct. He says that 1968 was the bloodiest year for America in Vietnam, which is true, and that 56,000+ Americans were killed in Vietnam, which is also true. But he says that they all died that year, which of course (and as of course he knows) is not true. The actual American death toll in 1968 was over 16,000, which is shocking on its own (more than 300 per week) but is not 56,000. I judged in real time that Hagel's meaning was sufficiently clear that it was unnecessary, and would have seemed pedantic, for me to interrupt and say "You're talking about the casualties for the whole war, not that one year."
Also for the record, if you'd like a reminder of the odious attempt to block Hagel's confirmation based on smear allegations that he was anti-Semitic, a claim denounced by leading figures in Nebraska's Jewish community and by Israelis with whom Hagel had worked, and also based on the preposterous suggestion that he might be on the North Korean payroll (I'm not making that up), see this and this on the anti-Semitism campaign, and this on North Korea. Spoiler: the person challenging Hagel to prove that he wasn't a North Korean agent was none other than Ted Cruz.
I've been offline for many hours and am just now seeing the announcements from Beijing. The United States and China have apparently agreed to do what anyone who has thought seriously about climate has been hoping for, for years. As the No. 1 (now China) and No. 2 carbon emitters in the world, and as the No. 1 (still the U.S.) and No. 2 economies, they've agreed to new carbon-reduction targets that are more ambitious than most people would have expected.
We'll wait to see the details—including how an American president can make good on commitments for 2025, when that is two and possibly three presidencies into the future, and when in the here-and-now he faces congressional majorities that seem dead-set against recognizing this issue. It's quaint to think back on an America that could set ambitious long-term goals—creating Land-Grant universities, developing the Interstate Highway System, going to the moon—even though the president who proposed them realized that they could not be completed on his watch. But let's not waste time on nostalgia.
Before we have all the details, here is the simple guide to why this could be very important.
1) To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability—even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related. (I'll say more about this connection some other time, but you could think of last week's reports that visiting groups of senior Chinese officials bought so much illegal ivory in Tanzania during a state visit that they drove the black market price to new highs. [I've changed the description of these allegations slightly from the first-posted version.])
You can go on for quite a while with a political system like China's, as it keeps demonstrating now in its 65th year. But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won't last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution denialism to a "we're on your side to clean things up!" official stance.
Analytically these pollution emergencies are distinct from carbon-emission issues. But in practical terms pro-environmental steps by China are likely to help with both.
2) To have looked at either the numbers or the politics of global climate issues is to recognize that unless China and the U.S. cooperate, there is no hope for anyone else. Numbers: These are far and away the two biggest sources of carbon emissions, and China is the fastest-growing. As John Kerry points out in an op-ed in tomorrow's NYT, reductions either of them made on its own could just be wiped out unless the other cooperates. Politics: As the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks five years ago showed, the rest of the world is likely to say, "To hell with it" if the two countries at the heart of this problem can't be bothered to do anything.
We see our own domestic version of this response when people say, "Why go through the hassle of a carbon tax, when the Chinese are just going to smoke us to death anyway?" This new agreement does not mean that next year's global climate negotiations in Paris will succeed. But it means they are no longer guaranteed to fail.
3) China is a big, diverse, churning, and contradictory place, as anyone who's been there can detail for hours. But for the past year-plus, the news out of China has been consistent, and bad.
Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer. Two years into his watch, his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before. The gratuitous recent showdown with Hong Kong exemplifies the new "No More Mr. Nice Guy" approach.
A nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone has spilled over into China's "diplomatic" dealings too. So to have this leader of China making an important deal with an American president at this stage of his political fortune is the first news that even seems positive in a long while.
We'll wait to see the details. But at face value, this is better news—about China, about China and America, and about the globe—than we've gotten for a while.
"At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity."
This post is to introduce a new email newsletter that I hope you’ll be interested in. It’s about the “American Futures” reporting project that my wife Deb and I have been undertaking through the past year and are ready to take in what we think will be exciting new directions.
When we began this project for The Atlantic in the summer of 2013, with our colleagues at Marketplace radio and the digital-mapping company Esri, our idea was to visit some of the smaller towns and cities the media tend to overlook, to see how people were adjusting to the economic, environmental, and technological opportunities and challenges of this era.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
This was a variant on the classic road-trip approach to reporting the diverse realities of America, the variant being that we were making the journey in a little Cirrus SR-22 propeller plane. Since only a few small towns are on an Interstate, but nearly all of them have local airports—a total of 5,000 across the country—this has allowed us to range among places as far-flung as Eastport, Maine and Redlands, California, or Duluth, Minnesota and Columbus, Mississippi. In the months ahead we’re planning to travel through the Central Valley of California; to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana; to coal country in Tennessee and Kentucky, and rural Alabama; and many places more.
By now we’ve done two articles in the print edition of The Atlantic; with our reporting colleague John Tierney we’ve done well over 200 on-line features; we’ve joined Kai Ryssdal and his Marketplace team for reports from South Dakota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Maine, and other corners of the country; we’ve done video and audio features for The Atlantic’s site; and we’ve made speeches and presentations across the country.
We’ve learned about tidal-energy projects, about the rise of craft brewing, about how old cities are attracting young residents to their downtowns, about the surprising role that libraries are playing in the digital age, and a dozen themes more.
Deb has a background in linguistics and has reported on regional language patterns, as well as stories of innovative schools, refugee resettlements, arts programs, and the fun of flying. John is a former college political-science professor and has written about innovations at community colleges and research universities — and also the craft-distillery movement, neighborhood-redevelopment efforts, and the public architecture of the Great Plains. We’ve ended each day of reporting very tired, but even more excited and surprised by what we’ve learned.
We’ve found this project every bit as engaging as we expected, but we’ve also discovered something we hadn’t foreseen. There is a pattern that connects the individual stories we’ve reported, and that sharply differs from the tone of most coverage we read or hear. At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity.
Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I are producing reports for this project on TheAtlantic’s site almost every day. You can find a master collection of them here: http://www.theatlantic.com/special-report/american-futures/ But with the daily surge of material appearing so often on TheAtlantic.com, we wanted to make it easier for readers who are interested to follow the reports we’re putting up. That’s why we’ve decided to start this newsletter.
Every few days or once a week, I’ll send you an email that contains links to the latest items by Deb, John, or me from our American Futures reporting. A typical email newsletter will be brief, with very little text, merely calling your attention to the five or six most recent new pieces, with links you can click to read more.
I hope you’ll find this interesting and will want to continue to receive the emails. If not, there’ll be an easy-to-use “Unsubscribe” link at the bottom of each email. Click it, and we’ll bother you no more. Sign up by putting your email address in the box below and clicking "subscribe."
Here is a small sampling of pieces we've done in the past year that will give you a taste of the variety of topics and places we’re exploring.
What you see above is part of the mailings flooding into homes in West Virginia's Second Congressional District. It's now represented by Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, who is expected to win today to succeed Jay Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate. Alex Mooney is the Republican candidate to succeed Capito in Congress. Barack ObamaNancy Pelosithe anti-gun Michael BloombergNick Casey Jr. is the Democrat.
Here's what a local Republican received yesterday. It gives a flavor of how local races are being "nationalized."
We're not here on a political-reporting swing—it is amazing how much more interesting it is to see the country doing something other than watching campaign rallies—but it's election day, after all.
The other big item on the local ballot is a levy to support improvements in the Charleston public library. On Halloween, Larry and Sandra Groce, about whom you'll be seeing more in this site, decorated their entire house on the theme of: You know what would be scary? No library! There's a nice story about them and their house in The Charleston Gazette; here is the way the house looked in the stark autumn light yesterday, which gives a rough idea:
I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.
Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)
Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:
Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.
Now the details:
I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.
Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".
Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:
-- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.
-- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)
-- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.
-- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!
-- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?
-- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."
The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."
Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.
We can only imagine...
Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.
A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]
1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:
While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.
Two weeks ago Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself doing a speech and Q-and-A session in China, in Chinese. Soon thereafter, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy, whose friends had asked him how Zuckerberg's Chinese was, responded "terrible." He did an item called "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old." Yesterday I posted a critical-review-of-that-critical-review, by Kevin Slaten, plus some other thoughts about language learning.
Since then I've received an avalanche of interesting letters, and I plan to share an assortment of them tomorrow. For now, Isaac Stone Fish deserves a clear shot to reply to Kevin Slaten's criticisms. I turn the floor over to him:
Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful post, and for giving me the chance to respond, and Mr. Slaten, thanks for your contribution.
After Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin, several newsoutletsclaimed his Mandarin was fluent. That is incorrect. There’s a difference between speaking unstandard Mandarin -- which, as Mr. Slaten correctly pointed out, is what that Mao and Deng spoke -- and speaking broken Mandarin with mangled tones, which is the way Zuckerberg spoke.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was not just his pronunciation; he also made many grammatical errors. You’re right that a seven-year-old native speaker -- even if his mouth was full of marbles -- would not make the tonal or grammatical errors that Zuckerberg made. It was the best analogy I could think of to describe the quality of his Mandarin: any other suggestions for analogies would be much appreciated.
Learning Chinese was great fun, and very helpful to me in my career; I strongly recommend it to people who want to work in China. But it’s very time-consuming. Even if it would be encouraging, I am not going to pretend that a beginner can study Chinese part-time for a few years and suddenly learn to speak excellent Mandarin.
In the end of his piece, Mr. Slaten writes, “Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world.”
I must admit defeat. Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s, especially if I prepared for the topic, as Zuckerberg seemed to have done. But I will never be able to satisfy Mr. Slaten’s request to do so in front of millions of people. Why? Because only an exceedingly small number of people actually care about the level of my Mandarin. Take my former Chinese teachers and my parents out of that equation, and that number drops dangerously close to zero.
Thanks to Isaac Stone Fish for his good-humored response, to Kevin Slaten for his stimulus for this discussion, and to everyone else who has written. Tomorrow it will be your turn.
About ten days ago Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself giving a speech and handling a Q&A with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing — and doing it in Chinese. You've probably seen it already, but here it is again just in case.
A few hours later, Isaac Stone Fish of FP posted an item with his answer to the question that most Westerners who've been in China had been asked by their friends. Namely, How did Zuckerberg sound? And his answer was harsh. It began:
I've gotten several emails asking about how Zuckerberg's Mandarin is. In a word, terrible.