Obama's town hall in Shanghai just now

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I got up to watch the live stream on the White House site, out of nostalgia for my Shanghai days. 

No very shocking questions from the students, though some had swathed edges to them: What about harmonious relations and arms sales with Taiwan? Obama doesn't answer about arms sales but does, carefully, about the harmonious relations. What about the Great Firewall and free access to info? Obama explains why free exchange of info makes leaders do a better job, even if he doesn't like the criticism some times. What about the risk that an intentionally- and historically-diverse nation like the US will misunderstand the situation of countries with different histories and makeups? Obama gives a defense and celebration of diversity, in his country and in his family. And says that he doesn't use Twitter.

Tomorrow's chore is a omnibus wrap-up on several recent Obama pronouncements, from the Ft. Hood eulogy to the Japan and China speeches. Main impression here is that he did well -- charming the students in the room itself, though almost any president can do that through the sheer magnetism of the office, but also talking in ways that will play well to Chinese sensibilities without saying a word that would go over wrong back home. Listening to him, I am not 100% sure that Obama has spent a lot of time conversing with non-native speakers of English. There is a different way you learn to talk: not condescending or stripped down, but more direct and less allusive. (For example, you wouldn't say "allusive." And I wouldn't say "swathed" in the paragraph above, to indicate questions that had a kind of protective wrapping to blunt their edge. I'd say something like, "The questions from the students were polite, but some had a slight edge.") People without experience doing this either talk in needlessly complex ways or talk in an insultingly clumsy oogah-boogah style. Sometimes Obama sounded as if he knew this approach; sometimes, as if he thought he was talking to a domestic audience.

It was also heartening for me to see these students, who resembled those I'd dealt with over the years -- and the truest moment of all came with the final question, where a student asked him frankly what was the right educational background that could lead to a Nobel prize. Now back to bed and more tomorrow.

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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. More

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.
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