Grainne Quinlan
Lenora Chu in China in 2017.

‘A true outsider’s perspective’: Lenora Chu on the power of cultural influences (audio)

Over time, familiarity can work against a reporter’s essential tool: the drive to discover. New connections bring this writer fresh viewpoints.

Lenora Chu on the Power of Cultural Influences

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Wherever she works, Lenora Chu, the Monitor’s special correspondent for Europe, is as attentive to the sweep of history as to the nuance and detail of day-to-day life. A keen observer of culture and politics, she exhibits in her writing a sensitivity to human emotion and deeper meanings underlying the news.

That’s unsurprising, given Lenora’s own background as the U.S.-born grandchild of migrants who fled China during the 1949 Communist revolution. After growing up in the United States, Lenora launched into journalism and retraced her roots to China, finding during a decade of living in Shanghai that her personal connections there amplified her reactions to unfolding events.

Now in Berlin, Lenora says it’s refreshing to be free of the baggage of such ancestral ties. She enjoys discovering what makes Germans tick, and she’s particularly energized by the relative openness of people in Germany and how they welcome her into their lives. During the pandemic, many of her encounters have shifted to Zoom. But still, Lenora digs deep, unearthing the rich insights that illuminate her articles.

One of her insights is counterintuitive: It can actually feel liberating to have a government set down clear guidance and limits for the public during a health crisis – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done. In contrast, too much choice – such as exists in the U.S. – can end up creating burdens for individuals, she observes.

Episode transcript

Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas, a producer here at the Monitor. This holiday season, we're doing something special. Over four episodes, we'll be hearing from veteran Monitor reporters and amazing new additions to our staff. They'll be talking about how they bring a fresh, balanced perspective to their reporting, and find the humanity and compassion behind today's headlines.

Today, we’re joined by the Monitor’s Berlin-based special correspondent Lenora Chu. Lenora covers Europe, and with 15 years experience in the U.S. and China, her reporting skews toward the intersection of politics, education and culture — a passion borne in part from growing up with Chinese parents in America.

She’ll be interviewed by Ann Scott Tyson, the Monitor’s Beijing bureau chief. We hope you enjoy their conversation.


Ann Scott Tyson: So, Lenora, I'm catching up with you in Berlin right now, but since we've got some shared background as reporters and authors in China, I've just got to ask you, how's your transition been from the Middle Kingdom, as China was known, to now Central Europe correspondent for the Monitor?

Lenora Chu: You know, as we all know, China is a very unique and special place. I've spent most of my professional career in the U.S. or China, so I was born and raised in the U.S. And then I spent the last decade in China, which is a country that my grandparents fled in 1949 as the communists were coming to power. So I had a special relationship with the country because obviously I am American, but my ancestry comes from China. So I always felt such an intense disappointment or also on the flip side, an elation, you know, when my expectations were met or when they fell short with its government, its education system, anything. It was sort of like, you know, like an old auntie letting me down. And I would say that Germany is the first beat where I haven't had that relationship with the country, you know, coming to the job with zero baggage, so to speak. I don't have any emotional or ancestral ties, and I'm finding that really refreshing. You know, I only have my eyes and my ears to guide me. And it gives me that sort of outsider's, true outsider's perspective, which I didn't have in either the U.S. or China, which informs my work here.

As far as what's been jarring, you know, I think the pace of life and the pace of work is very different. You and I, we both know how quickly China moves. This is a country that's seen rapid economic development. It's almost like whiplash living there. And things happen very quickly. You can find someone to meet you at 11:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. You know, if you find a house, you can sign a contract at midnight. You know, here in Germany, sometimes it takes two weeks to get an appointment. You know, everything just moves a little bit slower because of that expectation that the quality of life is, is a bit better. But at the same time, it takes a lot longer to get things done. So I think that was from a day to day perspective, the most jarring difference.

Ann: Wow, a big shift like that I found and especially in someone with your cross-cultural experience, often sparks new insights or a rethinking of the news.

Lenora: Sure. You know, Germany is at a different point in its development. China, you know, you would meet someone who, you know, they were just one generation removed from extreme poverty or one generation removed from, you know, a father or an aunt who had died of starvation in the countryside during the great famine. You know, the first generation to go to college. There's a lot of heavy and emotional baggage there. Not to say that Germany doesn't have that either. You have World War II, you have the Holocaust. But I'd say that that trauma isn't so apparent on the surface. You know, you talk to people and and they're – they're finding things to talk about other than how quickly their lives have changed in just a generation or two. And so it's a completely different way of approaching work when you haven't had such jarring change over the last two or three generations.

I was surprised to find how different it is here. You know, people like to say, 'Oh, you're back in the west now. You know, you were in the east and now you're back in a western country.' But Germany is still so very different from the U.S. I live in central Berlin, but I'm in the part that was the former East Germany. And you can sort of feel that just underneath the surface – you walk around and you see people drinking coffee and it feels like a capitalistic society. But right underneath that surface, there's this sort of anticapitalist sentiment. And also big government. You know, China is run by a communist government, but they were still capitalists, you know that you came across almost every single day. There's so much money circulating in that economy. And here in Germany, if you have money, you don't talk about it. If you have a car, it's a choice. You know, Germany is very forward thinking in ways that the U.S. and China are not, in talking about energy, for example. There's a real duty to society that I'm finding here that I haven't found and the other two countries that I've lived in.

Ann: Wow, that's fascinating. And since arriving in Germany, you've been busy covering everything from the pandemic to refugees and islamophobia. What has struck you most as you've engaged with German society in your reporting?

Lenora: You know, I've loved how open people are to talking to reporters. And I think in China, I always had that feeling that, you know, Big Brother is watching. And if I didn't feel that, I know that my sources were. And we were always very careful about the content that we talked about. And if it was politically sensitive in any way, you know, I would use my second phone, I would make sure we'd be meeting somewhere where, you know, nobody could track us or follow us or whatever it was. And what that does as a result in China as people are very wary of talking to journalists in general. So it's often very, very hard, and getting even harder now, as you know, to find people to let reporters into their everyday lives, to get that sort of fabric and the context that gives a story substance and meat, so to speak.

And it's been so refreshing to be in Germany and people are so much more willing to open that door. You know, you're spending time with their parents or their children and you're understanding how much they make at work and how the government supports them and their dreams for promotion and that sort of thing. It's just – it's so much easier to find people to talk because it's less dangerous. And also people are just generally more willing and open to do so. So that's made my job much easier as a journalist here.

Ann: And at the same time, you've been in Europe at a time of really dramatic upheaval during the pandemic. Can you compare the responses of governments and individuals there with what's going on in the United States?

Lenora: Sure. You know, I had in March on March 2nd, actually, when Seattle reported its first U.S. death and I remember we actually saw each other at dinner there. I then came back to Germany and I felt immediately that the messaging was different. Angela Merkel, she got on television and basically told the German population that most of us were actually going to catch this virus, that this was a very serious situation. She quoted science. And she said we're all going to have to do our part to hunker down and make sure that we, you know, suffer as few deaths as possible. And then she announced, you know, a staged lockdown that then basically closed schools for a number of weeks. And I think that she was probably one of the first world leaders to really put it so succinctly to their population that, look, this is really, really serious. It could be potentially very, very bad. And this is why we know this to be true. And this is what we all need to do.

And I think that was very different, obviously, from the messaging out of the U.S. And because it was clear from the start that government was in control, that it was being run by people who were taking the advice of scientists, in some ways we were told what was expected of us, what we had to do. And in a funny way, it was actually very liberating. Right? Like we knew we could get take out at a restaurant. We knew schools were going to be closed. We were going online, but they had a plan for reopening if we met certain milestones. Conversely, when I was speaking to my friends in the U.S., I felt that they had so many more liberties because there was no direction they could choose whether to fly to Denver to see a grandparent, whether to go to a restaurant that hadn't been closed yet. But in that individual freedom, there actually is a loss of liberty in a way. When you talk about economies reopening, when there is clear instruction and when people feel that the government and hospitals and everyone are pretty well coordinated and they have your back, then it gives you a little bit more confidence that the light is at the end of the tunnel. So I've really appreciated being here at this time.

Ann: Yeah, I can see those differences. And I'd really love to hear a little bit about your behind the scenes day to day work. Sort of what obstacles do you face in reporting on this really intense news development?

Lenora: You know, I've never had to rely so much on social media before from my reporting. And I'd say that my abilities there have really been grown and stretched in new ways, you know, trying to find someone to talk to, whether it's you know, I did a story about how the Bundesliga was going back, but only without fans. And I found every – all of my sources just by going on Twitter who was tweeting about it. There's a lot of people on Facebook now. There's probably millions of people online expressing themselves, finding communities that were not doing that before because of the pandemic. That's pretty much the only outlet you have left, right, is anything online. And and that's pushed me in new ways. And I think that it's been a thrill to make connections that way. And you can actually have a very rich, deep conversation with someone over Zoom. I've been pleasantly surprised. You know, most of my reporting recently has been done over Zoom. A few times I've wanted to meet with people in Berlin, but they were in and out of quarantine or were uncomfortable having face-to-face meetings. And so you sort of improvise. And I think one of the ways you can do that is, you know, use Zoom to bring me into their home environment. We're talking about experiences in much more sensory ways, like because I can't actually observe someone at their first boxing match, I actually have to have them show me pictures. I'm asking them questions about the smells, who was there, what did people say? And it takes a lot longer, but it's ultimately just as rich. We just have to get there in a different way. So that's been a pleasant surprise, actually, is that I don't think the reporting has suffered.

Ann: Lenora, it's been so great chatting with you. And as we close, I thought you might share with the listeners what we should watch for in Germany and Europe in 2021.

Lenora: Sure. I think, you know, Germans have been waiting to see who would win the White House. And of course, Trump has had very low approval ratings here in Germany, at least. He has high approval ratings in Poland and Hungary. But in Germany, you know, I think they've been waiting for the next occupant to hopefully reforge those transatlantic alliances that would then be more helpful to keep bad actors in check, such as China and Russia, you know, the western world working together to get to make sure that China is holding up to its promises and that sort of thing. So I think that that's something we'll be watching for. Domestically, Angela Merkel, after being at the helm for 15 years, she'll be stepping down. And so we're waiting to see who will be stepping into her shoes with the federal election next year. And I'll be watching that as well. In society, we're still watching to see how, you know, the disparate elements continue to integrate. There was a wave of migration in 2015, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. And I'll be watching to see how those stories develop. I'm also looking forward to continuing to follow how policy decisions are informed by science. And I think that's one of the biggest differences that has set the chancellorship here in Germany apart from the administration in the U.S. And I think it'll be interesting to see whether they converge and I think they will. So those will be some of the stories I'll be looking at.


Samantha: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Just search “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts. And to support more work like this, subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. We’re offering discounted subscriptions this holiday season. Visit csmonitor.com/holiday for details. This special rate will be active until early January, so sign up now! Again, that’s csmonitor.com/holiday.

This episode was produced by Ibrahim Onafeko, Jessica Mendoza, and me, Samantha Laine Perfas. Editing by Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.