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Mr. Joke Returns to China

Our traveler returns to China this summer for a month of teaching, lecturing and learning at industry and university sites in Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing. Last summer, during his Fulbright to Beijing, he was once introduced to a formal conference as “Mr. Joke,” a moniker that has stuck. Following is the record of Mr. Joke’s reprise.

The bright-eyed kid named Zheng Ruolan stood up in the classroom of 50 and confidently grasped the mobile mic to ask her question.

“What is the future of community journalism in China — if we in China have no sense of community?”

The community journalism class listens as my colleague, Prof. Ren Li, introduces me before my first class. (Jock Lauterer photo)
The community journalism class listens as my colleague, Prof. Ren Li, introduces me before my first class. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I responded, “Do you think that the Chinese people should have a sense of community?”

Yes, she nodded.

“Is that something that you would like to see happen?”

Yes, her head bobbed up and down, eyes bright.

“Then BE the change in China you want to see,” I said, (apologies to Gandhi). “It is your generation that will shape the new China.”


It is for teachable moments like this that we do what we do. And it is for moments like these that I returned to China this summer to teach community journalism.

Today I found myself in a sixth floor (no elevator, no air conditioning) classroom facing 50 enthusiastic journalism majors who peppered me with questions (in excellent English) during a two-hour introduction to community journalism in the U.S.

We flew here Sunday after the four-day workshops concluded in Shanghai, and as a new leg of the Chinese Community Journalism Roadshow took a 1,000-mile turn to the direct west, deep into the interior.

No shabby provincial outpost, Chongqing boasts 23 million residents and several universities, including my host academic unit, the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, where my colleague Associate Dean Li Ren teaches community journalism and where he and his students started their own community newspaper last year, the Huixing Journal,  as a teaching device, not unlike the Carrboro Commons or the Durham VOICE.

So we have much in common.

The staff of Huixing Journal, ready for two weeks of fun.
The staff of Huixing Journal, ready for two weeks of fun: front row, left to right: Han, Chen Ying and Helen; back grow, Liang, Feather, Zhang, Betty, Karlla, Abe, Deng and Prof. Li.



Prof. Li’s newspaper staff is my core target group to teach. But it goes both ways. It is they who fetch me, escort me about town, instruct me in Chinese culture and social mores, ask endless big questions and basically hover around me like a band of angels, treating me like some beloved old uncle. How cool is that? Yesterday afternoon they showed up at my hotel for our neighborhood walk armed with bottled water and snacks. When we step off a curb at a traffic crossing, they are there to grab my elbow. I am totally spoiled.

Just as with my American students, I learned their names, Chinese or “American,” on the first day, by coming up with idiosyncratic identifiers…as in Liang Feng who has the most charming dimples, and her name “Liang” reminds me of my wife’s name, Lynne. And “Helen” reminds of an old song titled “Helen in my Dreams.” “Feather” dressed in a Native American outfit could easily pass as a Lakota. So there you go.

Then there’s “Karlla” the video diva from Harbin; photographer “Han,” the lone guy who I call “Dude;” “Deng,” who doesn’t use an American name but is as cute as the proverbial speckled pup in a red wagon; “Abe,” who is tall and looks like she could be a model; “Dong,” the lead editor who calls herself  “Betty” is thus Betty-Boop;  the art director “Zhang,” who personally drew me a campus map; “Chen Ying,” who is from Guangdong Province near Hong Kong; and “Wang,” who calls herself “Jeannie,” tall and sophisticated, wants to go into corporate law.

There is also a student video crew shadowing my every move. Making a documentary about the visit, Prof. Li tells me. Those kids include Tong, Ivy and Li, the latter of whom has worn a black designer T-shirt every day and thus is dubbed “Calvin.”

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