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
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.”
Destruction and Prosperity
Newspaper work began with Evan writing for Greenwich High School’s student paper, The Beak. Eventually he became The Beak’s coeditor-in-chief. Osnos’ journalism career began in earnest with a college internship at the Chicago Tribune, where he became a cub reporter after graduation. An early Trib assignment put Osnos on the trail of a law professor running for his party’s nomination to represent Illinois’ 1st Congressional District. His name: Barack Obama.
Osnos remembers the candidate impressing him up-close in one-on-one interviews, then delivering rambling speeches: “He hadn’t figured out yet how to structure his narrative. You sort of had the feeling of a very talented athlete at a very new sport.” His 2000 intraparty challenge against incumbent House member Bobby Rush would go down in history as the future president’s first campaign, and the only one he ever lost.
Between stints at the Tribune, Osnos took photos for a West Virginia newspaper and made a documentary. His big break came when he was assigned the Tribune’s New York City correspondent in June 2001. Then came 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq invasion. “As a result of being in New York, and as a result of being young and unmarried and having no kids, I was a prime candidate to go off and cover a war,” he recalls.
For the next two years, Osnos covered the Middle East, starting out as an embedded correspondent with a front-line unit of U.S. Marines who drove into Baghdad by way of Kuwait.
His parents, naturally worried, still approved of his decision. They could hardly do otherwise, given the paths they had taken to find each other. “It made absolute sense,” Peter says.
Evan’s sister Katherine believes the experience “took a toll” on her brother, a sentiment he echoes. He saw some combat, but even more devastation. “I remember sitting in Baghdad, feeling it was ultimately, tragically, a story about the decomposition of a country,” he remembers. “It was painful to see. In the meantime, I had this sense that on the other side of the globe, there was this story about rebirth and the building of a country. I wanted to see that.”
The country was China. Osnos’ time in college had included a semester and a summer in Beijing studying Mandarin. Now he wanted to return, to cover China as a reporter.
At Harvard Osnos found himself attracted to what he calls a “spectacular drama” of modern China, a nation that as recently as 1979 was poorer per capita than North Korea yet reinvented itself as one of the world’s great economic powerhouses. By the dawn of the new millennium, China’s momentum had quickened considerably. It was a time of unimagined prosperity, yet the government remained firmly in charge, shedding blood when challenged, most memorably at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.
“That’s a wound on the country that remains unresolved,” Osnos says. “But there was also something amazing about the images of the event. One of the students told a foreign reporter: ‘We don’t know exactly what we want, but we want more of it.’ It was kind of this free-form energy, which had been pent up for decades when China was at its lowest, most poverty-stricken, socialized, kind of lethargic condition. Now it was bursting out.”
What Osnos found in his years writing about China, and which forms the core of Age of Ambition, were people channeling sometimes political yearnings for freedom and independence into a society that welcomed individual initiative, as long as it didn’t challenge the status quo.
Stories Osnos filed from China over the years run a wide gamut. Sometimes they cover major news, like a 2011 high-speed railroad crash at Wenzhou that killed forty people and exposed a serious vein of government corruption. More often, they are what might be termed human-interest pieces, like a retired soldier in southwestern China who discovered truffles growing on his farm and built a mushroom-shaped processing plant to satisfy his European clientele, or the secret house-churches of China’s Christian population.
“I think you have to go out of your way to write a boring China story,” Osnos notes.
Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, says, “I think Evan is the best journalist writing about the Chinese today.”
She notes his fluent Mandarin as well as an ability to be critical without condescension: “He’s not one of these journalists constantly running around with iPod buds in his ears or tapping out text messages. He likes to chat with ordinary people, and those conversations on the street and in airplanes inform his writing.”
Osnos and a photographer once hiked through Sichuan, a province in southwestern China famous for its spicy cuisine, to get a ground-level view for a series of stories in the Tribune.
“I would ask everyone we passed: ‘What is the way to the next town?’ And everybody would say, ‘The bus. Take the bus.’ I would try to tell them that we liked walking. But of course the Chinese have spent the last few thousand years walking, and they find very little charm in that.”
One of the most exciting stories Osnos covered was the struggle of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng. Having learned about Chen’s civil-rights activism, Osnos took a taxi to the village of Dongshigu, where he was greeted by a pair of plainclothes secret policemen. Osnos was told Chen wasn’t in. Osnos insisted he was. Finally he was given an ultimatum: You can come to the police station in order to “rest,” or leave right now and don’t come back.
“As a foreign reporter, one of the things that you’re constantly thinking is, Are my actions going to endanger the person I’m trying to write about? Oftentimes, that’s one of the mistakes we make.” He recalls the advice of an older reporter at the Tribune, when Osnos asked what he had learned from all his years on the job. The reporter told him: “Do no harm.”
Osnos got his interview with Chen later. But then again he doesn’t miss many opportunities. One of the striking takeaways from reading Age of Ambition is the access Osnos enjoyed in China to all kinds of people, and the candor with which they spoke of their lives and dreams.
“That’s one of the things that’s interesting and confounding about China,” he says. “It has the qualities of an authoritarian state. It is, after all, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. And at the same time, it is this chaotic, kind of wonderfully disorderly collection of impulses and individuals. You find the openings.”
Of all the people Osnos met in China, the one he talks about most eagerly is Sarabeth. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and he knew her sister at Harvard; but they had to travel around the world before they met, twice in one day as it turned out.
“That was totally dumb luck, in a city [Beijing] of twenty million people,” he says. “Even for me, who’s a fairly practical person, I thought that had to mean something, and lucky for me, she did too.” The second meeting that January day in 2008 was by a frozen pond where he had just happened to find a pickup hockey game. He recalls trying to impress her with his sporty interest, even though it had lapsed considerably since his days at the Dorothy Hamill Rink.
This time, Osnos found victory on the ice. They agreed on a first date and soon discovered much in common. They married in 2011.
“She only found out later I wasn’t a jock,” he laughs. “The truth has been revealed!”
“Sure, I think there was a sense of us being meant to find each other,” Sarabeth concurs. “Since I’ve known him, he’s only played hockey one other time.”
Like her mother-in-law, Sarabeth is active in nonprofit activities, in her case as vice president of public affairs at Teach For All, an educational-advancement group. She marvels at her husband’s work ethic. If he’s writing a piece about a Chinese shipping magnate, for example, she will see him poring over dozens of books with titles like The History of Cardboard Paper.
“There is a reason why The New Yorker feels more fulfilling to read,” she says. “He approaches things with a huge amount of research and thought. He doesn’t do anything off the cuff. Like anyone who performs at a very high level, there is a mix of talent and incredible brute force.”
The couple left China in mid-2013. He gives many reasons for that. For one thing, the couple is thinking about children, and air pollution in China is terrible. He also was eager to take on his present assignment, covering national affairs for The New Yorker, and to reconnect with family and friends after many years abroad.
“Maybe I’ve been there so long I’m becoming Confucian, but you start to feel you have a responsibility as a son, as a brother, as an uncle,” he says. “I want to be a more present person in people’s lives here.”
There’s no question in Osnos’ mind that wherever the future takes him, he will return to China someday: “China is going to be a part of my life forever.”