One on One: Thomas Clouse, Free Lance Journalist in China

Interview by Noah Graff

Today’s Machining World Archives February 2007 Volume 03 Issue 02

Free Lance Journalist in China, Thomas Clouse

Thomas Clouse is a 31-year-old freelance journalist living and working in China since 2002. He has written for Global Finance, Accounting and Business Magazine, and Automotive News China. We asked him to give us an insider’s perspective on an American living in China.

What made you go to China to be a freelance reporter?
I majored in philosophy and economics, and both attracted me to China. I went there in 1997 and traveled, then went back in 2002 to teach English for a year. Shortly after that, I applied to a Chinese magazine in Beijing that was searching for an English editor.

Are you fluent in Chinese?
Spoken Mandarin, yes. I’m still working on the written Chinese.

What strikes you as the major difference between Chinese and American people?
I think Americans are very individual-oriented. They’re conscious of themselves, of expressing themselves and being different. In China, there is a group mentality. I think the strongest example is their emphasis on family.

What’s the make-up of the friends you’ve made in China?
About half my friends are Chinese and half are foreign. The ex-patriot community in Beijing is also a very interesting group of people. There are diplomats and investment bankers and filmmakers and artists – it’s a really diverse collection of people.

How do the foreign business people blend in?
Many don’t necessarily have a particular interest in China outside of business. A lot of them bring families, and there are areas of Beijing where they all live and all the signs are in English, and there are strip malls and single-family housing. There are Chinese people who live there as well, but it’s kind of like suburbia.

What type of place do you live in?
I currently live in what would be considered Chinese middle-class or upper middle-class housing, which is a giant apartment complex that has a shower, a bathroom and a bedroom, with air conditioning and heating. In the past, I lived in what is called a hutong, which is like the buildings in Chinese movies such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – where people are jumping around on the roofs. A lot of them have been knocked down, but many are still there. They have a lot more personality than the newer housing, but they also have shared bathrooms and generally no showers.

What is the social scene like in China?
China tends to be a place where the elderly in particular are very social. Especially in the evenings, the older members of the community will generally be out in the neighborhood park talking, and in the morning doing Tai Chi. Foreigners are a new subject material. I think just about anywhere you go in China there will be someone who will come up to you, maybe a student or a businessman, who will say in English, “Would you like to have a chat?” or they’ll ask where you’re from or what you do.

Do you go to Starbucks?
Sometimes. When I was working at a Chinese magazine, occasionally when we were meeting foreign business people or foreign diplomats we would meet in a Starbucks, and every once in a while there would be a famous Chinese movie star in there. It’s really expensive – for those prices you can feed a family at a pretty nice Chinese restaurant.

So it’s a status symbol.
I think China has a pretty status-oriented culture, similar to that of the U.S. Chinese people like to be in a place that’s considered to be cool and are willing to pay for it, and they’re willing to pay for brand names. They like to have the best stuff, the best cars. It’s the second largest car market, just over Japan.

What’s the thing you miss the most from the United States?
Mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can’t get it at the store. Though there is a Baskin Robbins, and sometimes mint chocolate chip will revolve through.

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