Jeremy Goldkorn is the editor-in-chief of SupChina and the cofounder of the Sinica Podcast. He spoke with us about his 20-year adventure in China, as well as his new adventures transitioning to life in the US. He also gave us a peek into what it’s like to be in the field of media as a China watcher and bridge-builder, and a bit of advice for those interested in launching their own bridge-building careers.
What drew you to China in the beginning, and what made you stay so long?
As you know, there’s never just one motivation to get you to China – but one of the biggest attractions about China is that I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. China culturally and geographically fit the bill. I’m originally from South Africa, and I really did want to immerse myself in a place that was completely foreign. At the time, China seemed closed off enough from the west that it was a place I could go to experience a different kind of reality.
Actually, the first year I was there , I didn’t really enjoy it. I initially came to teach English to workers and managers in a joint venture factory for a year. I lived in a worker’s dormitory in what was, at that time, the countryside south of Beijing. I was making a migrant worker’s salary and living with migrant workers. It wasn’t a lot of fun, but I thought I should learn Chinese, and it was learning the language that made me think, “one year isn’t enough, I need to stay another year.”
After that, I got on a plane and flew to Pakistan, and rode a bicycle to the Afghan border at the Khyber Pass, and then up the Karakoram Highway back into China. I spent about a year biking around, going through Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet, ending up in Nepal. The original plan was to go back to China, pack up my things and go home, but when I got back to Beijing I was offered a job through a friend of a friend as a writer on Beijing Scene, the first independent weekly English-language entertainment magazine in the city.
I eventually became the managing editor, and worked on that for about two years – it was a terrible business really because we were never legal. We never had our publishing license sorted out so we were always getting closed down by the police. I left at the end of 1999 just before the whole thing really came crashing down. That experience of being a media entrepreneur in a country where you weren’t really allowed to do it was just so exciting! It seemed like you could get away with anything if you just did it without asking for permission.
At this point, I was able to speak Chinese to the extent that my range of experiences was much broader and it was like a whole new world had opened up to me. I think that is what kept me curious, and still keeps me curious. I don’t know if I’ll ever live in China again, but I think that curiosity is with me for good. It’s a culture that remains, in many ways, so different from Anglophone Western culture. If you’re interested in the human experience, I think China is an easy place to be fascinated by.
You’ve been in China during a period of huge development – What has it been like to witness that change?
China in the 90s was still a developing country, very unsure of itself on the world stage. The number of Chinese people I knew who had any wealth at all was tiny. In Beijing, there were still donkey carts on the second ring road. There was no fourth ring road. The country has completely transformed itself over the past 20 years.
Like a lot of foreigners in Beijing, I lived in the hutongs for a while. At the time, there was nothing like Nanluoguxiang or the Houhai bar district: in terms of commercialization: they were just shitty old alleyways that people lived in. The experience of living in one of the world’s biggest cities in what feels like a quiet rural lane, is an enduring memory.
I also did a lot of walking in the countryside around Beijing, often looking for bits of the wild Wall – unregulated sections of the Great Wall. I made friends with a family who run a guest house near a nice bit of the wall which you can visit if you’re in Beijing: Great Wall Fresh.
How did it feel to move to the US after such a long time in Beijing?
I’m actually a first time immigrant to the States – I’ve spent quite a bit of time here in the past, but it is very different living here. I needed a break from China, and I’m enjoying living in the states, despite everything that’s going on.
I really miss the everyday things, like friends and food! In Nashville, there are basically two decent Chinese restaurants, and they’re really just ok.
I do also miss the sense of energy and optimism you still find there. Despite the fact that Chinese people are some of the most cynical I’ve found, in other ways they are an incredibly optimistic people. For most of the time that I was living there, people believed their lives were getting better and they are trying to do something about it. That doesn’t always keep them in China though, sometimes that energy leads them to immigrate or sometimes that leads to businesses or making some sort of dramatic changes in their lives. That’s a very attractive atmosphere to live in, especially if you compare to the US where both left and right seem to think the country is in a really bad way, and people generally seem to have a pessimistic view of their future. I definitely miss that sense of energy and optimism that was so strong in China while I was there. The pace of change is really addictive.
What is the Chinese community like in Nashville?
There is a pretty big student community, especially at the universities like Vanderbilt. There are several good universities in Nashville and the surrounding area so the number of international Chinese students keeps growing.
There’s also a tiny older American born Chinese population, and a small but growing group of new immigrants who are not students. People come to work at the universities and hospitals in Nashville as well. I remember seeing some census data that in Davidson county the Chinese population is about 0.8%, however they didn’t separate the Vietnamese or Koreans from that data, and there are actually more of both of those groups than there are Chinese.
Can you tell us about your work at SupChina? How did you get started there?
SupChina was founded by a very successful investor named Anla Cheng who has done business in China her whole career. She wanted a way to keep up with the China news without having to read all of the different newspapers everyday. So it really started out as a project she was working on just for her and her friends, but she found that so many people were interested in it that she decided it was actually worth making a business, and expanding way beyond news aggregation.
Last summer, Kaiser Kuo and I came on board with our podcast, Sinica, which we had kept up as a hobby since 2010. At the end of last year, I took over the editing role for SupChina. I still cohost the podcast with Kaiser, and I’m responsible for all of the other content that we put out.
So what is SupChina about?
We have a mission that broadly seeks to generate better understanding of China and improve US-China relations, but we’re not committed “panda huggers”, and we don’t receive money from the Chinese government. We’re not “dragon slayers” either, and aim to present balanced and informed views China and its influence around the world.
We are also interested in all of the non PRC populations as well, including Taiwan and the overseas Chinese diaspora.
We are looking to expand into certain niches – particularly in food and cooking, finance and business, we’re evaluating Chinese language media and seeing if we can cover that niche, as well as women’s issues in the field of US-China! We arranged the SupChina Women’s Conference in May, which was about business, politics, and culture in China — all of the speakers were women. We’re going to repeat that next year – it was really well received! Following women’s issues is one of the things we want to do particularly well.
We’re really just getting going! It started out just as a phone app and email newsletter, but we’ve been expanding the website, and even experimenting with video; everything from short gifs to short feature documentaries.
Why do you think it’s important to have a media voice like SupChina out there dispelling myths and trying to be an unbiased middle ground?
China is such an important country that for any global issue you can think of, from pollution to business, food safety to war or peace, China has an outsize role to play. If you want to understand our world today, I don’t think you can avoid knowing something about China. The US-China relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship and if it’s handled badly, it will be very bad for the entire world.
On a more lighthearted side, China is such an incredibly fun and interesting place. The Chinese government or even a lot of privately controlled Chinese cultural organizations do such a bad job of showcasing Chinese culture that unless you are prepared to put in the work spend time there and learn the language, you are likely going to find it uninteresting and not fun, and that’s a shame. One thing I’d like to do is really make China fun!
What piece of advice would you give to Pengyous?
Keep an open mind. There’s a lot of bullshit you’ll hear about China, and some of it may be true. Be open to believing anything, but don’t trust anything at all on first glance.
Learning the language is obviously key. There are a lot of foreigners who work in China that don’t know any Chinese, but I believe that is really depriving yourself of the most magical experiences. Speaking Chinese is essential if you want to enjoy yourself in China and really understand the place. The level depends on what you want to do with it – everyone is different. But really, anything past “nihao” is a good step. If you really want to increase your fluency quickly, go live in a second or third tier city. That’s what I did for about a year to get my first grasp of the language. If you go to Beida or someplace like that, you have to be really disciplined because otherwise you’ll find yourself speaking English a large part of the time simply because there are so many foreigners there. If you are out of the big cities, you’re forced to speak more Chinese.
The Project Pengyou team would like to extend a big thank you to Jeremy for his time catching up with us. We really enjoyed hearing his story and learning more about SupChina!
SupChina is a new media company dedicated to news about China for the hundreds of millions of Sinophiles, Chinese living abroad, experts, and China-curious readers and listeners who aim to develop and refine their expertise on the nation. SupChina features top news from more than 150 high-quality sources, original essays and articles, the respected Sinica podcast, and photographs of the country from the award-winning photographer Michael Yamashita.