A Conversation with Evan Osnos: Getting Hooked on China

In June 2012, Project Pengyou and NorCap China Internships hosted a talk with Evan Osnos, China correspondent for The New Yorker.

In this video, Evan talks about how he got interested in China and the similarities between China and America. Transcript is below. (Youku link)

EVAN: The true story of why I got interested in China is a little bit impolitic in the sense that it has a lot to do with Tiananmen Square.

I got to college—I was a political science major at Harvard. I was studying contemporary Chinese politics and here was this event, this moment. It had only happened six years earlier, because I’m 100. But it had only happened six years earlier and it was this unbelievably dramatic event. It was so operatic and dramatic and all of the actors, all of the people involved, were people my age.

It rescued Chinese history and Chinese politics from blue and white vases and ancient people in robes and suddenly made it so vivid and so relatable.

And I also instantly figured out, if I’m going to do anything with China I have to speak Chinese. I don’t know if people get this if they start studying French literature and they have that moment. But that was the thing about China. It just felt like there was this scrim that was between me and China and I had to decode it somehow and that’s where the language came from. So really by the time I got to China I really did have this fascination with the place.

I worked elsewhere later. I worked in the Middle East and so on as I was mentioning. I studied Arabic for a while but it never grabbed me quite the way that China does and I think there are a few reasons. The United States is very friendly with Saudi Arabia but we actually have very little in common in a basic sense.

China is a civilizational culture. It sees itself as a continental place. In many ways I think it feels more familiar to us as Americans. The sense of ambition, the sense of superiority, ultimately, that we are the center of the world. That’s an American sensibility and it’s also a Chinese sensibility.

I was fortunate that I was getting involved at a time where China was beginning to claw its way out of its own history and that was just an intoxicating moment to be here.