This time last year in Shanghai, I found myself sitting down with the executive chef of the Peace Hotel after my unbelievable five-star meal, chatting with the owner of a popular (and beautiful!) Cantonese restaurant near Jingan Temple, posing in boxing gear next to a five-time world champion in boxing, and just creating so many incredible opportunities to meet people. Yes, I say “creating,” because at Shanghai Expat, I had complete freedom to choose whichever establishment I wanted to review. And I certainly made the most of it.
Somehow, reaching out as an (unpaid, 21-year-old) intern resulted in more-than-willing responses to have me come in, try their services—whether it be hot yoga or ice-chilled milk tea—and chat as if we were buds. For each and every experience, I walked away without having to pay a dime (or kuai), on their unwavering, fully trusting belief that I would write anything but a non-raving review. Ethical? We’re talking about China here. Sure, I felt the pull and I took the bait. I made my way throughout Shanghai’s best restaurants, gyms, hotels, and more. I discovered just how many international people look at Shanghai as one huge business opportunity, catering to rich (are there any but?) expats with boxing classes from the U.K., copycat Chipotle burritos from the U.S., and aerial yoga classes from NYC.
And today, I felt as if I were in Shanghai all over again. Assigned to write an immigration/diversity story for my beat journalism class, I eventually settled on writing about the “ramen revolution.” A new ramen shop from Tokyo just opened its 60th location in Cambridge, the second U.S. franchise after Seattle, and I had to write about it. After tweeting about the best time to come in (something you couldn’t do in China without VPN), I quickly received a response to call the consulting group that works with Santouka. Suddenly, I was offered to come in for a meal (“free” was implied) in exchange for this story I was writing for, what was it called again? BU News Service. Oh, okay…
The next morning at 11 on the dot, I arrived, chatted with the chef, and then sat down for a great lunch and conversation with the marketing specialist. Oh, how the Shanghai memories flooded my mind. Instead of two Chinese marketing people sitting down with me at the top floor of the Peace Hotel, it was one Japanese marketing/real estate agent at this ramen shop in the former Dunkin’ Donuts space in Harvard Square—different yet somehow completely the same. We talked, and I listened, and we shared, and she taught me to just live. “You only live once,” she said, as I talked about my post-graduation travels. Yeah, we even talked about love.
I couldn’t tell if I was coming across as any more mature (one year, technically) than I was in Shanghai. But with one of her first questions to me about my age, I had a feeling I was as green-looking as I was in Shanghai. So, so green. But taking that into consideration, I am just even more grateful for strangers’ trust and kindness. This hardly passes as journalism—only in that I get to meet amazing people and haves experiences I wouldn’t otherwise. But in terms of objectivity…eh. YOLO.
Despite (and maybe because of) these experiences, I can’t say that I’m cut out for “food journalism,” whatever that is. To be a food writer, your willpower must be ridiculously strong. I mean, how can you not feel biased and excited when reviewing your favorite cuisines and have that not overpower your writing, while trying to create a legitimate review. At the same time, reviews are subjective by nature, but you also can’t be completely and so easily sucked into the marketing bait. You can’t just write such raving reviews just because the employees knew you were writing about them and therefore may have treated you better and gave you free food. You can’t write raving reviews because you sat down with the marketing team and reflected on life with them.
But that willingness and understanding to not be sucked into PR or marketing people’s tactics applies to other areas of journalism, as well. Heck, I would argue it applies to every aspect of journalism. To be a good journalist, you have to develop good relationships with your sources in order to stay on top of whatever you’re covering. At the same time, how do you keep these relationships at a fair enough distance for you to understand that they can’t affect legitimate reporting or prevent you from digging deeper and making those difficult choices when things might not go well?
Journalism can be fun, but when it gets too fun, you know you’re doing something wrong. People need to hate you for you to know you’re doing meaningful work. That’s the hard truth.
Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan told us in our Media Criticism class two weeks ago that if everyone loves a journalist, he or she is a bad journalist. It makes total sense.
I can’t be a food writer. My descriptions would never go deeper than “delicious.”
EDIT: If you’re interested in reading the reviews I mentioned in this post, read them at your own risk.