Every news organization, including NBC and msnbc.com, will be scrambling for fresh story ideas before and during the Olympics. Undoubtedly, we’ll see the obligatory story about how different Chinese culture is with the West. On television we’ll be bombarded with images of pandas and dragons and the Fuwa. The message: China is exotic, a magical place of bamboo, acupuncture, kung fu, chicken feet, cheap DVDs, karaoke bars, pirated software, pungent food stalls and dangerous pharmaceutical drugs.
Any story about the differences in culture will be shaped by the preconceptions and beliefs of the author. And that’s where the trap lies.
At the Forbidden City, I met two students in the journalism department at UNC who were volunteering at the Olympics. Their group was contributing three stories a day to the Olympics web site. Their main job was to interview athletes after each event, transcribe the quotes and send them along to the press center.
After some chitchat, we parted ways. But as were walking within the expansive Forbidden City, I overheard them talk about one of the stories they wanted to pitch. One of the students wanted to write a story on the differences in culture, the East vs. the West. The subject in itself is fine, if it’s done intelligently and diligently.
But I knew the article, if it was going to be written at all, was going to end up at the bottom of a squat toilet when I heard the student say, “I should got back and get a photo of that naked baby [for my story.]”
Why don’t you take a photo of the migrant mom with her two children begging on the streets while you’re at it. That will really give your piece that extra oomph.
Sure, there is that side of Beijing and China — moms who don’t dress their babies because of the blistering heat and men who pull up their shirts to cool off (I nearly considered doing that today while I was walking around Tiananman Square) — but if we’re going to compare and contrast two different cultures, let’s do it in a thorough and conscientious way. Let’s talk about the country’s history, let’s talk about the decades of oppression, external and internal, that ravaged the Chinese, let’s talk about how the New China is only in its infancy, let’s talk about how the culture has been shaped and molded over centuries.
Hopefully many journos will avoid falling into that trap. But I guarantee there will be a story on the crazy, zany eating habits of the Chinese. They eat chicken feet! They eat fried pigeons! They eat donkey meat! The Chinese, they’re so strange!
You’ve been warned.