The idea is that after the last picture, we leapt out of the car as it flew off the cliff and grabbed onto the police helicopter. Our car exploded as it landed and one of the police cars didn’t brake in time. The actual picture is more colourful than this scanned version.
It’s fairly self explanatory, but I should point out that the car Mum is driving off the cliff is the exact same car from Thelma and Louise. Also of note are the bags of cash in the back seat.
Hey I figured I’d put up my essay I submitted for the course school gave me credit for. It works as a blog, as it’s even more self important than my usual tosh.
Official figures released by the Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau in December 2011 put the city’s expatriate population at 208 300 (Shek 2011), with most hailing from Japan, the United States, Korea and France in that order (Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau 2010). However, given the “floating population” and the number of unregistered “expats” who work on renewable tourist visas (a group that included myself, my girlfriend, both of my roommates, several close friends and a handful of coworkers) some have estimated their population to be at least 400 000. In the world’s largest city proper, whose inhabitants outnumber the entire country of Australia, expats constitute less than two percent of Shanghai’s residents yet they comprise an oddly powerful minority of what anthropologists call “privileged migrants” (Reilly 2011) – the rich foreigners.
City Weekend is one of four English-language entertainment and lifestyle magazines that cater to Shanghai’s expat community. An offshoot of Swiss media conglomerate Ringier International, its circulation is 60 000 units. Over 90% of its readers make more than RMB10 000 per month (AUD1 488), several times the city’s average of approximately RMB3000 (AUD446) and the nation’s average of RMB1730 (Global Times 2011). 33% of its readers are from North America, 31% from Europe, 32% from Asia Pacific and 4% from other countries.
Having spent a year in Shanghai as an English teacher some years back, I was offered an position at the magazine over the summer. The aim of this reflection is, in the words of Joy Amulya (2004:1), to “examine (the) experience rather than just living it” and to “(open) the possibilities of purposeful learning—derived not from books or experts, but from our work and our lives (…) Real knowledge comes from experience,” something City Weekend gave in spades. I aim to write an account mindful of Amulya’s belief that reflective practice is driven by stories and dialogue, i.e. “thinking about the experience out loud.”
I was taken under the wing of Leslie Yeh, the editor of City Weekend’s two supplements, the bi-monthly Parents & Kids and the quarterly Home & Office, a business and real estate publication. When guessing at what the stint would entail in my proposal, I wrote that I would be “writing and interviewing for my own articles and activity guides, as well as exploring and reviewing venues and areas of the city to recommend as appropriate places for expatriate families.” I hoped, “to have amassed a solid portfolio of work and to have perhaps written a feature of a thousand words.” I underestimated my role.
I produced several features of over a thousand words. I wrote half of the two issues of Parents & Kids that were released over the summer, and contributed to every edition of the main City Weekend publication with interviews, activity guides, diet tips, breaking news, book reviews, art reviews and more. I wrote cover stories for City Weekend, for both issues of Parents & Kids, and an edition of the lift-out Community section. I interviewed choir leaders and cocaine dealers, DJs and schoolteachers, fashionistas and AIDS campaigners – contributors at City Weekend write constantly and are shared between beats, their allotted three work days per week often turning into five or six. I’m fortunate that the editorial team gave me so much responsibility and experience. To be given one cover story, let alone several, humbled me to the core.
I was also able to work with the magazine’s Brisbane-born web editor Claire Miles, who taught me to write the weekly Parents & Kids e-newsletters and upload articles to the website. She fulfilled my prediction that I would learn simple website maintenance, and I can now use HTML, Adobe Dreamweaver, In Copy and very simple Photoshop techniques. City Weekend places great emphasis on their online presence: the website has 170 000 unique visitors per week and 140 000 registered users – fifty to seventy percent of Shanghai’s expats, depending on the figures. The average time spent on the site is four minutes and ten seconds, longer than the industry average of three minutes and twenty-five seconds – I learnt from Claire that, “the goal is to keep people on the site for as long as possible,” a target she seemed adept at hitting. As a proud netizen, I confess I was tremendously jealous of Claire’s QUT degree in Digital Media and Journalism; I think that out of all of the editorial staff, her skillset is the most valuable and marketable. She inspired me to take some classes in Photoshop and web design, and I hope to gain some expertise that I can bring to a job in the future.
City Weekend does depend on its online community and always publishes user-generated content such as venue reviews and discussion board comments in their online and print editions. The focus on reader participation puts it at odds with traditional journalism; I wouldn’t pretend that this is due to a global shift toward citizen journalism or any of the characteristics of the amorphous world of 21st century journalism that I learned about during the first year of my Master’s – the free of charge City Weekend is powered by advertising, and drawing its readers into the creative process is a method to increase their loyalty. The magazine focuses on events, exploring, eating and imbibing, and while the magazine’s Community section has expanded of late, hard hitting it is not. I learned over the summer that this isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
I wrote in my proposal that I hoped “to learn some more about the way magazines themselves function.” The relationship between the readers and the writers of a publication like City Weekend is simple: the magazine advertises itself as a guide to enjoying the neon-bathed megacity in every which way, and the readers expect nothing more or less when they pick up their free copy. The magazine makes money from advertisers. Bars, restaurants and event organizers pay to spread the word about new venues and events, which is what the readers look for in the magazine. While not a completely scrupulous publication – the “Editor’s Pick” of restaurants in each issue is paid for – I see the relationship between reader and publisher as an honest one.
Despite the lofty intentions of many journalism students, not everyone who studies the field aims for a Pulitzer, just as not everything one reads needs to break a Watergate. There’s a commonly held belief in Shanghai that recreation and community is necessary to retain one’s sanity in a place so far removed from one’s home country. Probably more than anything else, foreigners come to Shanghai to make money and enjoy themselves. City Weekend provides blueprints for a day or night of Shanghai indulgence, and its value is further augmented by the ability of the Chinese-speaking writers to provide a view of the city that many monolingual expats might miss. They report on international politics like the Economist reports on shoes, but human interest drives what newsagents sell, and in that way Shanghai is just like the rest of the world.
In many others, of course, it’s not. No essay on a journalistic stint in China would be complete without a discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s famous stance on the freedom of the press. I somewhat ironically lived in a flat on Xinhua Road, Xīnhuá (“New China”) being the name of the official government press agency and a constant reminder that the CCP had a firm grasp on my writing. I naively wrote in my proposal, “I expect that government influence will be minimal, due to politics not being covered by City Weekend’s mission statement.” I soon learned that even an events rag was subject to the CCP’s omnipresent eye.
Every time the magazine goes to print, it must first be sent to the government censor. I initially assumed this was a simple formality, until I heard of articles being sent back to the editors, sometimes it was due to “decency”: a friend’s nightlife column had the word “copulation” stricken from it. She replaced it with the made-up adjective “copulatory,” and it went to print. I interviewed a cocaine dealer for a piece the same friend was writing about Shanghai’s drug scene, but the article only referred to its subject with obscure slang and was written to be as impenetrable as possible to anyone who spoke English as a second language – it passed as well.
Decency control could often be circumvented through wordplay and obfuscation, but should an article stray into political territory, the censor takes no chances. A review of Ezra Vogel’s new Deng Xiaoping biography was pulled, with no chance of a re-edit being published, and when writing an article about the rise in HIV cases, I had to excise some terrific quotes from the director of an NGO that damned the alleged government prejudice against the HIV community and the untrustworthiness of official figures on the epidemic.
I learned the most about “censor-tivity” when I was tasked with writing the cover story to the Chinese New Year edition. The article was to be a retrospective of the past six Years of the Dragon, and I had some difficulty filling the word limit. This wasn’t because of a lack of information, but rather the CCP’a aversion to discussing the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan unrest or anything that could cast them in a negative light. 1952, for instance, was a Dragon year of unprecedented drives and mass purges by the CCP, including the “Hate America” campaign and the anti-intellectual movement – the article that went to print had the year’s most noteworthy events as the building of important rail lines, the opening of a new library in Shanghai and the record high in national income.
Perhaps the most interesting year was 1976, when China experienced the most deadly earthquake of the 20th century, an event that I was encouraged not to write up. When I asked how a naturally occurring disaster could possibly tarnish the government, the editor told me that in the same way that Hurricane Katrina resulted in criticism of the Bush government’s reaction, writing about the Tangshan Earthquake could lead to people researching the event and becoming critical of the CCP’s response to it. The entire Year of the Dragon article was in fact deemed so sensitive that I was asked to write a second cover story about Shanghai’s live comedy scene in case the original piece was pulled entirely (fortunately, it wasn’t).
Struggles, according to Amulya (2004:1), provide a window onto what is working and not working, and may often serve as effective tools for analyzing the true nature of a challenge. “Some struggles embody a dilemma, which can provide a rich source of information about a clash between our values and our approach to getting something done.” The City Weekend experience was great for many things, but perhaps especially for providing clashes between preconceived notions and values of journalism and the “approach to getting something done.”
I quickly learned the first lesson of journalism: what you write isn’t what gets published, and what gets published you might not like. While word and space constraints were the cause for many edits, my work was frequently edited for style, and more often than not I didn’t agree with the changes. My Year of the Dragon piece was re-edited to have a clunky introduction and no conclusion at all, and my Community section cover story was edited to include some juvenile humour that I felt devalued the piece.
Amulya states that the dilemmas lead to “breakthroughs,” which reveal “what was learned and what our theory of success looks like.” Being edited led to a “breakthrough” that anybody smarter than me could have imparted: when you’re new, you don’t control how you’re edited or what gets published. If you want to write whatever you want, you have to control things. I found that a lot of the job is about learning to let go; your work will always get edited to hell. At the beginning, I would work hard on something until I submitted it, but when it had to be edited to fit the frame in publishing programme In Copy (I was sometimes given the freedom to edit myself), I would become petulant and flub the job. I wouldn’t care how it came out, because I didn’t feel the edited version was mine. Obviously, this isn’t true: the published version is the only one with my name on it and the only one that counts. I realized there are three articles: the one you plan, the one you write, and the one that’s published, by you or (more often) someone else.
Another Amulyan breakthrough was that sometimes you’ll work on something that won’t be published. After receiving a tip, I went to a parent-teacher conference that was being held at an international school one Wednesday night. At the meeting, rumours were confirmed that the teachers had not only been working illegally with tourist visas and were facing deportation, but their school wasn’t registered with the government, who wanted to shut it down. I raced home and finished typing up the article in an adrenaline buzz at 2 a.m.– it wasn’t very well written, but it received more comments than any other blog in 2011 and was cited by the city’s English language newspaper, Shanghai Daily, and some blogs like Shanghaiist.
Though the school threatened to sue for publishing the piece, I spent the next few weeks writing a follow-up article which was much more polished than the first, with quotes from teachers, parents and government officials. It was never published. The managing editor, in a curt e-mail, told me he didn’t want to “poke the bear” and prompt further legal issues. I was devastated, and my sources felt foolish for contributing to something that never made it to press. I was powerless to do anything, but sometimes, even in fluffy magazines like mine, that’s the way it goes.
I also wrote in the proposal that I hoped to “gain some insight into the expatriate community of Shanghai (…) uncover all the different sides of the experience of a foreigners living in a city of twenty-three million people they can never completely understand.” While I now realize this is outside of the scope of the coursework, I will say that bar the occasional expat who speaks Mandarin, there is a profound disconnect between the white elite and the native Chinese that surround them. The majority of Westerners live in the city, sometimes for years, content with learning just enough Chinese to make it from their apartment to their workplace to their bars and back home again. They otherwise spend their lives in an Anglophonic, hedonistic haze of alcohol, drugs and cash, a haze in which I was immersed as an English teacher in 2008 and which I revisited this summer. The amazing fact is that expats can live in Shanghai for years without needing to know anything about the Chinese language or culture. They may need someone from their office to help them sign an apartment lease, but as there are enough expats to form a small city by themselves, their community is more or less sufficiently complete that they can shun the very country they live in. It is to this community that City Weekend caters.
I can’t ignore the casual racism and ethnocentrism that abounds in expats, an attitude to which few would admit but underlies most every conversation they have about the Chinese. Most expats share a subtle but undeniable ideology that the Chinese are backward. I certainly cannot claim that the Chinese society is flawless – far from it – but I do find it fascinating that so many hundreds of thousands of people can live in a country with which they fundamentally disagree. “We trade freedom of speech and the freedom to be understood for financial freedom, the freedom to walk down a street drinking a beer and the freedom to bang as many Asian girls as we like,” said Ralph, an expat lawyer and former teaching colleague. “A lot of people can’t handle that tradeoff. The ones who can, they stay here.”
Reflecting’s important. At any second of the day, we need to be able to ask ourselves, “what am I doing, and why am I doing it?” Amulya (2004:4) notes that reflection is necessary to “excavat(e) learning from experience” and that “knowledge is embedded in the experience of work.” Lastly, Amulya believes reflection should make us more purposeful. The big question one asks at the end of an experience like this is: has it helped me discover what I want?
Indirection is probably the prevailing theme of my adult life, and is admittedly what drew me to a double Master’s in Journalism and International Relations, two of the broadest areas of study one can choose. I had enjoyed blogging and writing some articles in Kenya and India, but otherwise there was little drawing me to a career in journalism. Yet my time at City Weekend was the only time I’ve ever enjoyed my job and the only time my stomach wasn’t a pit of despair when the alarm rang on Monday morning.
I liked it. I took my first job ten years ago at the Pizza Hut call centre in Brisbane. Since then, I’ve earned cash through translating French, teaching English, delivering fruit, writing cholera prevention proposals, real estate, modeling, and a long list of others. I’ve tried hard to find a job that I don’t hate, and I may have made an Amulyan breakthrough this summer. It might not be the most world-changing or lucrative job on Earth, but after trying almost everything else, this made me happy. I’m closer to knowing what I want than I’ve ever been before. I’d say it worked out great.
Amulya, J. (2004) ‘What is Reflective Practice?’ in Center for Reflective Community Practice, Issue 3, no. 4, Massachusetts Institute of Technology : Cambridge
CNNGO (2011) ‘Shanghai officially just got a bit more crowded,’ 19 January, viewed 8 March 2011 < http://www.cnngo.com/shanghai/life/shanghai-just-officially-got-bit-more-crowded-096925>
Global Times (2011) ‘Average salaries up 13-14% last year as income disparity increases,’ Global Times, 5 May, viewed 5 March 2011 <http://china.globaltimes.cn/society/2011-05/651640.html>
Reilly, F. (2011) ‘Privileged Migration: An Anthropologist’s Take on Shanghai Expats’ City Weekend, 21 November, viewed 2 March <http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/mag-sh/family-matters/privileged-migration-anthropologists-take-shanghai-expats/>
Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau (2010) ‘Resident Foreigners in Shanghai in Main Years,’ Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau, viewed 1 March 2011 < http://www.stats-sh.gov.cn/tjnj/nje10.htm?d1=2010tjnje/E0214.htm>
Shek, M. (2011) ‘Shanghai home to 1 in 4 of nation’s expats’ Global Times, 20 December, viewed 1 March 2011 < http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/689137/Shanghai-home-to-1-in-4-of-nations-expats.aspx>