When the author of Apologies to My Censor left Toronto for Beijing, he also left Mitch Moxley for Tall Rice, journalism for live date-shows, and the routine of a local for the wild life of an expat.
Zola: After over half a decade as an expat in Beijing, what’s the single best piece of advice you could give someone who’s moving there?
Mitch Moxley: Learn the language. A friend of mine, an American who is fluent in Chinese, once told me that speaking the language is comparable to “seeing in color.” That’s exactly true. One of my biggest regrets is that I was so slow picking up the language. When I first moved to Beijing, in April 2007, I was only planning to stay for one year, so I didn’t see the need to immerse myself. I started applying myself after my first year, when it dawned on me that I might stay a while. I took three two-hour classes each week with a private tutor, and I quickly realized that wasn’t enough. After two or three years, I could speak it pretty comfortably, but nowhere near fluently. It’s a hard language and I know now that the only way to really learn it is by truly applying yourself–taking a semester or three and devoting yourself entirely to study. My experience in China became so much more fulfilling as I picked up the language. I have friends still with whom I only speak Chinese. I also think the days of foreigners coming to China without knowing Chinese and having any kind of success are over. Especially journalists. There are so many talented people over there who speak ridiculous Chinese, you’ll never be able to compete without knowing the language.
Zola: Your Chinese name is Tall Rice, but it is more than just a name: it is also, as you put it, an identity. In what ways is Tall Rice different from Mitch Moxley?
MM: Tall Rice and I look the same, but that’s about it. It’s very common for foreigners in China to develop a new identity; I think living abroad is a chance to re-invent yourself, and speaking a different language, for whatever reason, can be a mask that you can step behind to become this whole different person. For me, by taking on a different identity I was able to step way out of my comfort zone and do things like dance in a music video–albeit awkwardly–and appear on a Chinese dating show. I would never have done that prior to coming to China. It also helped in my reporting. Chinese people react very differently to you when you speak the language; their comfort level with you as a foreigner increases greatly. That means people were much more willing to open up.
Zola: When you interviewed those young girls about the horrors of human trafficking in Erlian, you struggled between getting too involved and getting the facts down. This was one of your first major stories. As a seasoned reporter, how have you managed to reconcile compassion with precision?
MM: Sometimes when you’re reporting a story it feels like you’re not really there. You ask a question, and then start scribbling in your notebook and recording every detail around you. It feels like you’re looking through a camera–not that you’re a participant in a conversation. Because of this I think reporters can turn off the emotional element of the interaction. Obviously, you feel something, but you’re trying to remain one step removed. The feelings of compassion become much more pronounced later on. I remember having a sense of guilt after we did the interviews for that piece, because in a way you’re using these people who have had horrible experiences in order to get a story. You start to ask yourself questions such as: “Why didn’t I feel worse?” Or: “Why is my life like this and hers is like that?” I think that’s just the nature of reporting.
Zola: You also covered African commerce in Guangzhou and neo-Nazism in Ulaanbaatar. Are there other cities in China with such specialized trends?
MM: China is such an enormous and diverse place that every nook has its own thing going on. Out west, in Xinjiang province, there are these markets where people from all over Central Asia are selling things like cell phone parts. Along the North Korean border there’s an entire world of black market trade (including, for example, crystal meth.) It’s a much more varied place, from city to city, province to province, than most people think, and that’s what made the country so fascinating to live in.
Zola: Your book ends right as you’re preparing to leave Beijing. After such a thrill-packed experience (you were a dating-show participant, an actor, a fake businessman) what have you been up to? Any fun additions to the roster?
MM: Other than moving to New York, which is one of the few places in the world crazy enough to satisfy ex-Beijingers, my biggest post-China adventure was taking a cargo ship across the Pacific. I left from Pusan, Korea, in mid-April, and arrived in Seattle fifteen days later. It was a great way to finish off my time in Asia and provided a lot of time for introspection as well. It was insanely boring though. I was dying for a beer by the time I got to the States.
Zola: Your work so far has focused on Asia: you’ve filed stories from China, Myanmar, India, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. What draws you to that region of the world? Would you consider switching focus at some point?
MM: One of the reasons I moved to New York was because I was interested in expanding the scope of my writing and reporting beyond China and Asia, but I’ll always be fascinated with that part of the world. It’s just so different from here and it’s changing so fast–it’s an exciting place to be. Especially now that I’ve invested so much time in the region, I think it will be a life long relationship. I expect some day I’ll go back to Asia again to live for a few years. I’m just taking a time out for now.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.