After 25 years in Asia, reporter Mary Kay Magistad finds herself breathing a little easier

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco: I'm Marco Werman, and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Mary Kay Magistad joins me in the studio now. You know her, or her voice, anyway. For the past decade, Mary Kay has been our East Asia correspondent reporting for the world from her home base in Beijing. She's been our expert link to China and its many transformations and the seemingly infinite ways that China affects our lives here in the U.S., but her expertise also took her far from Chinese borders to report award-winning stories from places like Burma, Bhutan and Indonesia. Well, three weeks ago, Mary Kay left Beijing to move back here to the States and from time to time, she'll be joining us to talk about the role of China in our lives, right, Mary Kay?

Mary Kay: Absolutely, and as you say, China affects our lives in myriad ways, so it'll be interesting for me to look from the perspective of being an American in America, looking at how China impacts American lives, and occasionally going back and looking again at how everything here looks from the Chinese perspective.

Werman: So, I know, your time in China, it seems like a lifetime there. Now, just three weeks back here, so maybe it's a little tough to compare, but just in the time that you've been back here in the states, what have you noticed about China's presence in our lives here in the U.S.?

Magistad: Well, I'm living in San Francisco, and particularly in a neighborhood of San Francisco where I can walk for several blocks and hear Mandarin and Cantonese for that whole stretch. A very multicultural community. But also, you go into any shop, and as we all know, many things are made in China, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco was built by Chinese engineers. There are a lot of different ways in which Chinese manufacturing, Chinese immigration and Chinese culture affects, certainly, San Francisco itself, but also the United States as a whole.

Werman: It's always hard to get the news from China when you're in China. How are you getting your news about China now that you're back here? Are you actually getting news walking through those neighborhoods in San Francisco that you wouldn't have gotten in Beijing, do you think?

Magistad: Well, yeah. I mean, I always try to chat with people no matter where I am, and I have gravitated toward places that speak Chinese and where I can connect with people who have something in common with where I came from in Beijing and I have found a few places like that. I'm continuing, I mean, the internet is a wonderful thing, right? So I can continue to check out some of the same sources I was using when I was in China: blogs about China, newspapers within China and Hong Kong, and Listservs that I've been on for many years about China.

Werman: Ten years is such a long time. What do you miss?

Magistad: Well, actually, I was in Asia for almost 25 years.

Werman: 25 years is a long time. What do you miss?

Magistad: The buzz. You know, actually, I think anyplace seems quiet compared to the sorts of places I've lived in Asia; Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok. These are extraordinarily vibrant cities that have been going through a historic shift, where people who were used to a certain way of life are very rapidly adopting a different way of life, and in Beijing in particular, from one week to the next or one month to the next, neighborhoods would disappear, new buildings would come up. Suddenly, I would notice people would be wearing completely new sorts of ensembles and my neighborhood, which was a fairly trendy neighborhood, it was just really interesting, it was always interesting every day. And, I'm sure my new neighborhood will prove interesting as well, but I think it takes a little bit more awareness and digging and just recognizing more subtle changes as you go along. In Beijing, It's just like a firehose.

Werman: In just the sheer scale of the population, I recently saw a map where there was a circle placed over Southeast Asia, so over China, covers a bit of India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and it said "There are more people inside this circle than outside this circle in the entire world", so that gave me a sense. Are you just seeing that as well, just fewer people in an appreciative way?

Magistad: Well, sure. I mean, Beijing's a city of 22 million people.

Werman: Amazing.

Magistad: And, San Francisco, I think the greater metropolitan area is, what, somewhere between three and five million? Which is nothing to sneeze at, but it does feel, I look around at some comments about how much traffic there is and I'm like 'what?' We're still moving, that's something! Of course, it's great to be in a place where you can actually breathe.

Werman: Well, I was just going to say, when you were in Beijing and we'd speak, you often had to start early in the conversation, clearing your throat. That's how bad the air was. So, how's the air compare here in the U.S.?

Magistad: Oh, it's so much better. The air pollution in Beijing was 40 times the maximum that the World Health Organization says human beings should expose themselves to, the maximum level of pollution. It was just extraordinarily bad. I was staying inside with window closed and the air filter on, taking shallow breaths.

Werman: Breaking Bad ended last night. I gather it's huge in China. Do you know why?

Magistad: Well, there are a lot of viewers who just find it a fascinating story, but there are some who are a little bemused by the premise. They're saying 'okay, so this guy, he's a schoolteacher, right? But, he's got a house, he's got a pool, so you're telling me he has to work these weird jobs and cook drugs to make money? I don't get it'. In China, you've got people who are schoolteachers who are barely making it. You get people who are making even better money who still can't afford to buy an apartment. For the average Beijinger now, middle-class Beijinger, it takes 25 years income to buy a two-bedroom apartment. It's a huge problem and it's one that the government's going to have to be grappling with in the months and years to come.

Werman: All right. Before you go, Mary Kay, since you're freshly back in this country, I've got to check your pop culture IQ really quick, so three questions, let's see if you can field any of these. What's twerking?

Magistad: Twerking is dancing in a very sexually-suggestive way, and Miley Cyrus was doing it.

Werman: Very good. Describe the ingredients of a little-known dish in China called 'crab rangoon'.

Magistad: No idea.

Werman: Okay, see, it doesn't exist there, people. It's cream cheese and crab, either real or artificial. And, finally...

Magistad: Yeah, the cuisine is so different in China than it is here. What you call Chinese cuisine.

Werman: Crazy, isn't it? Not that you'll ever need it, but finally: what is the cost of a first-class postage stamp these days/

Magistad: 45 cents?

Werman: Oh, very close! It was 46 cents. We'll give you half a point. All right, Mary Kay, we'll end it there. We look forward to hearing more from you. We'll check in regularly and get your perspective of China from an American point of view, and you'll also be blogging for us and we'll post a link to your latest at Great to have you here, great to have you in the studio, Mary Kay. Thanks.

Magistad: Thanks, Marco. Always a pleasure.