- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American novelist whose books Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook enliven the farcical edges of living in a totalitarian society, returned recently from a two week reporting trip to China, the cruel and prosperous land of the future. "We suck," Shteyngart said over the phone. "The saddest flight in the world is Beijing Capital to Newark." FP interviewed Shteyngart about Jews in China, how to build a successful business, and the world outside Brooklyn, edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Did you tell people you were Jewish in China?
Gary Shteyngart: I did. They said ‘why are Jews so sad and anxious? Why can’t you cheer up?’ What I said to that, was, you know, the Holocaust. They said we were kind of similar that way. I don’t know what happened [to the Chinese] exactly, I read about it on Wikipedia.
FP: You mentioned in a tweet that you started your own boutique investment firm in Shanghai but it failed after five hours. What did you get from it?
GS: A lot of dignity. You can’t really monetize dignity.
FP: What did you talk to the Chinese about?
GS: A lot of people in the United States want to be Chinese. A lot of the Chinese want to be writers. They’re adorable. I told them not to do it. It’s so sweet — I was talking to one young lady, she was so touched that I would speak to her. Kind of a rough and tumble society, China. We gentle Jewish professors of creative writing are just incredible to them.
FP: What did you feel after you came back from China?
GS: The saddest flight in the world is Beijing to Newark. Beijing is Charles De Gaulle, Newark is Burkina Faso. I’d feel better if America looked great — but we don’t. We’ve been working too hard, we need to retire now and let someone else do it. It’s not easy. The pollution in China. I’m still coughing up some weird petro-chemical things out of my lung (and I’ve been back for ten days). My whole cardio-vascular thing is so affected.
FP: What did you perform at Racist Park [a Chinese theme park that shows all of the minorities living together in harmony, now known in English as China Ethnic Culture Park]?
GS: I did the ol’ Fiddler in the Roof. I was the third daughter, the one who married a goy. Fiddler on the Smokestack.
FP: What about Shanghai?
GS: I went to Pudong and saw that they’re building the (world’s) tallest building there. It’s going to be taller than the other buildings.
We went to a steampunk club, called #88; [people were wearing] all sorts of Victorian corsets — I guess some people had the leisure time to look appropriate. The world is so fascinating, I’m telling you — this is what I tell young writers: Get out of Brooklyn.
Oh, and I drank this horrifying thing. If there is one of thing chaining civilization back, its baijiu. You’re burping sorghum for the rest of your life. There’s no cure for baijiu.
FP: What do you recommend a young writer do in China?
GS: I’d start in the financial side — young guy or girl, just out of Princeton, gets involved in some sort of private equity thing, learns about the corruption, and at the same time learn about the Asian work ethic. That’s amazing that there hasn’t been a great expatriate novel; it seems like half of the Ivy League is holed up in Shanghai.
FP: What about for the Williams environmental science grad?
GS: Well, they can go teach English. English teaching is sad, because everyone does it; it’s the last resort. Or you could do NGO work. I met some NGO people, they were cute.
Writers, though. You have a lot of power as a writer here; anything with an embossed business card gives you face.
FP: Did you hand out copies of an embossed business card in China?
GS: No, I brought 800 copies of my book to give out to China, and handed them out with two hands to people all across the country, cab drivers…
FP: What did cab drivers think of your book?
GS: The cab drivers loved that it has both postmodern and traditional aspects.
FP: Best business idea in China that would last for more than five hours?
GS: We could have Communist Party youth league people collect used wire, and use this used wire in the penal system to flog people, or just to poke people with the wire. It’s green. [environmentally friendly]. It’s a good way to get in on China’s growing penal system.
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Passport |