After more than a decade of living in the Middle East and Communist China, The New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos has plenty of stories involving danger and intrigue. But it’s the story of a nation’s rebirth that fascinates him the most
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Evan Osnos has stuck his neck out bringing the world to his readers, whether that required him to barrel through war-torn Iraq in an amphibious assault vehicle or face down the secret police outside a Chinese dissident’s house.
Why the daunting life of a foreign correspondent? In Osnos’ case, reasons include the example of adventurous parents, a fascination with world affairs, and long-ago winters chasing pucks with the Greenwich Blues youth hockey program at the Dorothy Hamill Rink in Byram. “I was very small; I used to get knocked around,” Osnos recalls of his favorite activity as a child growing up in Greenwich. “I think in a funny way, the experience of playing hockey was the first time I began to feel at home in my body. I realized you could go out in the world and you weren’t going to be dashed to pieces. You weren’t quite as fragile as you thought you were.”
Now, after more than a decade of living overseas, Osnos is back on the East Coast, covering national affairs for The New Yorker while living in Washington, D.C., with wife Sarabeth Berman. This month marks the release of the thirty-seven-year-old’s first book, Age of Ambition, which draws upon eight years of reporting from China for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker.
Subtitled “Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” Osnos’ book profiles various Chinese nationals finding their place in a society in rapid flux, yet tightly bound by a sixty-five-year-old Communist regime. Subjects include a young foreign-language student who retains his optimism amid a life of diminishing returns, a gambler who ran afoul of gangsters, and a noncommunist patriot whose YouTube videos criticizing the West captivate his compatriots.
“Looking at it [China] from far away, it’s tempting to see it as threatening,” Osnos says. “It’s got this big military. It’s growing pretty fast.
“The truth is that up close, China feels just as anxious and self-conscious and flawed as we often feel about ourselves as Americans. One of the most important things about being there was to try and convey the sense of what it feels like to be Chinese; they are just as concerned about getting their kids in the right schools and the right jobs.
A People Person
A Harvard graduate with multiple journalism prizes and appearances on NPR and Charlie Rose under his belt, Osnos spent years immersing himself in the Chinese experience, which he can draw upon extemporaneously with discursive, professorial ease.
To look at his unsmiling head shot on The New Yorker website is to be struck by the stoniest expression since Buster Keaton. His eyes are gimlet-hard and penetrating, his mouth fixed in an expression of serious skepticism. Meeting him in person, at his parents’ home on Round Hill where he has stopped in for a visit, requires an adjustment. He’s shorter than expected and looks more than ten years younger than he is. His eyes radiate enthusiasm, and a broad smile never leaves his face.
The niceness is genuine enough, and also useful to his work. One point that associates agree upon when talking about Osnos is that he really likes people and brings an unusual degree of empathy to what can often be a cold job.
Asked about the foresight of choosing to study China at Harvard in the 1990s, he shrugs it off as the result of “wandering” into a classroom. Regarding his fluent Mandarin, he immediately recalls Western friends who speak it better than he. “The more you learn the language, the more humble you get,” he says.
“One of Ev’s endearing qualities is modesty to the point of self-deprecation,” says his father, Peter.
The two sides of Evan Osnos may be personified by his parents, who met in Vietnam in the early 1970s while Peter covered the war there for The Washington Post and Susan counseled GIs in trouble for the Lawyers Military Defense Fund. He’s sharp, voluble and clear in making his points. She’s quieter, more relaxed and inclined to take a long view.
Evan’s older sister, Katherine Sanford, an instructor at Kaia Yoga in Glenville, recalls that when she came home complaining about something that happened at school, her mother would reply: “You know what’s unfair? Female genital mutilation.”
“She brings a real sense of perspective, a certain way you should treat the world around you,” Katherine says.
Today Peter is editor-at-large at PublicAffairs Books, a publishing house he helped found; Susan is an independent communications consultant with various human- and women’s-rights groups. It may be simplistic to say he supplied the storyteller in his son, and she the conscience, but it seems borne out in a conversation with them.
Talking about Evan’s days on the Blues, for example, Peter remembers a “good player” and, as evidence, references his son’s MVP award playing for Pucci Carting. Susan’s take is different: “I think his life was in danger on the ice.” Evan’s own version of the story corresponds more closely to his mother’s. The victory he remembers was getting back up and playing some more. “I can’t emphasize enough that I was a terrible hockey player,” Osnos chuckles. “I was a much better hockey player in my mind than I was on the ice. But it helped introduce me to Greenwich.”