I'm Not Edgar's Granddaughter

Lesson Two in Snow's Job

October 1 , 2007

By Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow, associate professor of communications, is a visiting senior scholar and professor in Beijing, China, through November. She is teaching a graduate course in public diplomacy at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication, as well as working on joint research projects with Chinese faculty. While overseas, she will be sharing her experiences.

Lesson 2: When in China, know your history.  

Even better, know who wrote about Chinese history. Edgar Snow is the most famous Western journalist in China.

Though he died in 1972, Snow is revered in China today as someone who understood the Chinese better than almost all Westerners. He is credited with bringing a better understanding of China to Americans during his repeat visits in the ’60s and ’70s when a lot of open hostility from the West existed. Certainly he understood and was sympathetic to the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In his 1937 book, “Red Star Over China,” he includes interviews with many CCP leaders, including Mao Zedong. I have not read the book; I just know that the surname Snow is somewhat cherished here because of Edgar Snow's works. The Mao book by Chang and Halliday states that "Mao offered Snow a mixture of valuable information and colossal falsification, which Snow swallowed in toto ... calling Mao and the CCP 'direct, frank, simple, undevious.'"

My e-pal Rene Henry, who writes at length about China at http://www.renehenry.com, says that Edgar Snow is the John Reed of China. Almost as famous is Snow's wife, Helen Foster Snow. Are Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty too old to play them in China Reds?

I was barely into Day Two of my stay in China when I was asked if I were any relation to Edgar Snow. I don't think so, I replied, but who knows?

My surname is certainly a bonus here. Not only does it evoke fond familial ties to a major writer, but also my name, Snow Nan (Chinese surname precedes given name), literally means "Snow in the South." This is somewhat comical to the Chinese since snow doesn't fall in the south. But it's also rhythmical. Several have said how pretty my name is.

Compliments — I'll take 'em where I can get 'em.

Medical Check-Up

Last week I was contacted by the foreign administrator of the School of Journalism and Communication with a short message: Pls bring 700 yuan, 3 photos, 8 am at lobby.

The next day I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the international health center for visitors here in Beijing. Anyone who stays in China with a "Z" work visa must be poked and prodded by local Chinese doctors.

Actually it wasn't bad at all. The visit was very efficient. We all stood politely in separate lines for rooms marked "Physical," "Blood Draw," "ECG," and "X-Ray." It was a bit like a game show where you had to guess what might be behind closed doors. In our case it was women and men in white coats.

China is trying hard to control the spread of infectious diseases and given the numbers of foreign visitors these days, it makes good public health sense to check out everyone at the beginning. Of course I didn't like to spend the 100 bucks for the short 5-minute visit through each door, but I'm learning that to enjoy oneself in another country, you've got to approach new things with a sense of humor and a certain respect for how things are done.

Most Honorable Teacher

Although I was originally invited to teach a graduate course in public diplomacy, my Chinese colleague Zhou asked if I would like to also teach 72 Chinese freshmen a short course in English news journalism.

I jumped at the chance. The class time isn't great, but typically first year early. We meet Thursdays from 7:55 to 9:30 a.m. I'm used to rolling onto campus for my 4 and 7 p.m. classes. I was stunned to see how many students were quietly waiting for the class to start when I peeked in around 7:30 a.m. I'm able to use whatever course materials I want, including explaining about our sacred First Amendment to the Constitution, advocacy journalism, the watchdog role of the Fourth Estate and opinion writing. I'm starting small. Hello letter-to-the-editor.

During our five-minute mandatory break — which is noted with a chiming of bells — a student came up to me and said he was so very sorry. He came to class and sat in the back to finish his breakfast. He said, "Professor, please forgive me for having dishonored you in this way." I told him sternly, "Just don't let it happen again." No, not really. I thanked him for his apology and said I was glad to have him join us. A good breakfast makes you think better anyway.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard the word "honor" in some context, often in respect to the teacher-student relationship. I don't want to stereotype, but there is a palpable love of learning among these Chinese students that I haven't seen in the U.S. Of course, any teacher loves a student who wants to so eagerly learn. I'm a fish (actually Double Fish aka Pisces) in my kind of water.

Made in China

I gave a talk on U.S. media coverage of the Made in China product and food safety crisis to the State Food and Drug Administration, like our FDA. The meeting was held in Qingdao, China, a European-style tourist destination on the Yellow Sea, and host city for the 2008 Olympic Sailing Regatta. Our hotel, Qingdao Huanghai Hotel, was a 3-star hotel that promised to be 4-star in time for the Olympics, like so many Chinese hotels aspire to these days.

As a communications and journalism professor, as well as a regular news media source, I explained how the U.S. media tend to cover stories, including sharing concepts like bleeding news and the exception to the rule is the rule. The Chinese people, particularly these government officials, are greatly concerned with the U.S. coverage of Made in China, and I tried very hard to explain how important it was to have a media strategy in every government institution. It is not typical for media and public relations to be a major part of the bureaucracy.

It's my hope that the U.S. media will do some more in-depth thematic news reporting about China, its people, culture and society, rather than just its products and economics. I've fallen for the Chinese people and what's missing in the Made in China crisis reporting is a human face, an employee, and all the people behind such a label.

My bottom line to the state officials was this: Your goal should be for every global consumer to say, "I want to learn more" when they see the Made in China label.

Next week: Foot Massage, US Media and the Olympics, Becoming a Foodie in China

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