Browser Interviews: Jordan Schneider


Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser interviews, today I'm with Jordan Schneider, who is a China technology analyst at The Rhodium group, as well as the host of The ChinaTalk podcast and newsletter. Welcome to The Browser.

Jordan: Thanks so much for having me. I've been a subscriber for like seven years. You guys make me an interesting and intelligent individual. Without The Browser, I would be much more basic. So thank you so much for doing all that you guys.

Baiqu: I didn't pay him to say this. So thank you, Jordan. That's awesome.

So as a friend of The Browser and an interesting individual yourself, I thought I'd just ask you for a bunch of recommendations. If you're ready, we'll just dive right in.

Jordan: Let's do it.

How to become a China expert by starting with Mao

Baiqu: Jordan, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about your area of expertise?

Jordan: I guess at the broadest level of what I do is China analysis. I think when trying to understand contemporary China, you can't just start in the 21st century. You have to go back deep in history, but in particular, you have to start with Mao. The best intro that I've come across for Mao's China, how he impacted the PRC, what legacies he left on the structure of governance, which the contemporary CCP is still grappling today, is this book by Andrew Calder called China under Mao. It's digestible, many Mao tombs are not, and it gives you a fantastic overview going from the founding of the country, through the initial first few years, into the Great Leap Forward. Calder's treatment of the Cultural Revolution, a topic that he spent most of his life devoted to researching, is really second to none. So, the first book I would pick up to try to understand contemporary China would be China under Mao.

Baiqu: Cool, thanks. I did read this Mao book at school. I forgot who is was by, but it had a yellow book cover with his face on it.

Jordan: Oh yes. Okay so, it's Mao Zedong a Life by Jonathan Spence, who is probably my favourite Western historian of China. The book is only maybe 70 pages but does a very fantastic overview, it was now written a few decades ago. I also think for anyone interested in getting a bit more of a longer respective, diving into some of Jonathan Spence's work on China's fantastic. His overview of the past 400 years of Chinese history called The Search for Modern China, is the book that got me hooked on this stuff in general. He also just has these gems of writing, in particular, a handful of works on the Ming and Ching dynasties; God's Chinese Son, about Taiping Tianguo - the heavenly kingdom, which was this revolt where the leader who literally thought he was Jesus and kicked off a civil war where 50 million people died. It is an incredible blend of theological analysis, psychological analysis, sociological analysis, all wrapped up in some of the best English language writing from a stylistic perspective you'll ever encounter on China. The Chan's Great Continent, The question of Hu, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, all are true modern classics if folks are willing to go before the 20th Century and explore somewhat deeper cuts on English language scholarship around China.

Baiqu: That's fantastic. Actually, I was just going to ask you what got you into China. You mentioned just now this book was the starting point, but can you go a little bit deeper into how you got so fascinated with China?

Jordan: Sure. I mean, I was a little late to the game. Kids these days are now starting Chinese in middle school and high school.  I actually went through university without ever taking a Chinese language class. I spent my first few years after college as a policy and later macro economic analyst. Those two jobs I think gave me like sense of how important China was. And I felt very silly writing things that were about like U.S. China relations without knowing anything about China.

I had a pretty dramatic health challenge over 2016. I had a very serious concussion, which had me on medical leave for a year. After that experience, once I was healthy again, I was very motivated to explore our lovely planet and I figured the most adventurous thing I could do would be to move to China. Luckily I was accepted into a Master's program at Peking University, and moved to Beijing in 2017. I guess that's kind of how it all kicked off. A combination of interest in a big change, open to trying a hard language, and free grad school all added up to a bit of a sidestep in my mid-twenties, which I'm very thankful I have had the opportunity to do.

Baiqu: Wow, that's crazy. Thank you for sharing that. I can't believe after sustaining such a serious injury, you had the motivation to then go and study Mandarin.

Jordan: I mean, you go through something like that and it's like, on the one hand I don't go snowboarding anymore, I'm not suiting up to play a hockey goalie anytime soon. But there are other things you just care a little less about, like taking career side steps or not sweating the small things. I'm very thankful that this brain injury was never something which was life-threatening. A lot of people you see go through cancer treatment or something have the same sort of reaction where their outlook on life changed. And I think I had a not entirely dissimilar response once I was over, or mostly over, the chronic pain stuff brain injuries tend to come with. That made a decision like this much more straightforward than it would have been otherwise.

The best way to learn Chinese

Baiqu: Yeah. How did you learn Chinese?

Jordan: I learned Chinese in the most fun way you can possibly learn Chinese, which is by hanging out on a university campus and pretending you're a Chinese national with really crappy Mandarin. So I very conscientiously joined a lot of clubs and activities where I knew I would be the only foreigner or one of the few foreigners, just in order to force myself to be in environments where there wasn't like a critical mass of English language speakers that people would switch to English.

So, you know, joining stuff like the badminton team, and the Chinese painting club, I was in a the musical group having never sang before, but they needed someone who could rap because we put on Hamilton. All of those experiences, I think just like add it up to immersion done the right way. Which is hard to execute, especially when you're starting from a relatively low base. It is kind of painful and awkward and you have to be comfortable that you are only going to understand 40% of what's going on around you, then slowly but surely that percentage started to creep up. And I think there's a real virtuous cycle you get where once you are able to speak up every once in a while, you get even more excited to put yourself in those sorts of stretch language situations.

You know, I don't think Chinese is impossible to learn outside of an immersion environment. There are definitely ways to build up that skill, through watching television, through listening to podcasts, through listening to Chinese music.  But it really does help when you really have no choice, if you want to eat or do laundry or buy a package on the internet, to be confronted with Chinese languages and characters on a daily basis.

Baiqu: Yeah, for sure.

So, did you put on Hamilton at Pecking University?

Jordan: We indeed did. I think it was the first production on the mainland. There might have been like one really precocious high school that got to it a month before us, but we don't need to talk about them.

It was a fantastic experience with a very small community of young Chinese people who like western musicals. So it was our university, but there were also kids from all around Beijing who knew that a show is happening and we needed 50 people. We got three set designers from Renda (Renmin University), two of our actresses were from Tsinghua University or whatever. They loved it, it took a year to put on, we had rehearsals every weekend, and we were able to put together a shockingly high level professional show. So definitely a highlight of my time there.

Baiqu: That's brilliant. I'd love to see that. I hope there's a link somewhere that you might want to send me so I can watch it.

Jordan: Um, Hmm.

Baiqu: Maybe?

Jordan: I'm not so sure about that. But we did tweet at Lin-Manuel Miranda that we would have been able to get him a few tickets had he decided to swing through.

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How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: So next question Jordan, what would your recommend if someone wanted to come across as being smart in the conversation?

Jordan: Well, I want to push back on the premise a little bit. I don't think coming across smart in a conversation should really be a goal. I mean, I think people should instead optimise towards knowledge and understanding, as opposed to like impressing folks at cocktail parties. But maybe this is just like my married self who's given up speaking. That said, I like to think of my newsletter as something like a Browser for China. I'll pitch a few more newsletters I think do a really good job of keeping focus on being relatively up-to-date and incorporating Chinese language sources, which happens surprisingly little in English language coverage of China.

The Interconnected blog,  by Kevin Shu, a friend of mine who actually was my boss as an intern in an entirely different context 10 years ago. We reconnected over China tech analysis which is fantastic. Every week he picks six or seven articles, and it's actually a bi-language newsletter, so he translates each edition. If folks are looking for bilingual content to practice on, it's fantastic.  Another newsletter, Slow Chinese, looks at contemporary developments from a linguistic context. So it dives into trending neologisms, trending Chinese words, and also whatever random idioms that Xi Jinping happens to be using that week. He does it in a very humorous context, both mixing internet stuff and CCP high political analysis into a nice little bitesize newsletter, which I think is interesting. Not only to Mandarin speakers or folks studying Mandarin, but also just people who appreciate how crazy language can be. Even without a Chinese background, you'd be able to have some fun with it.

Favourite purchases from Amazon

Baiqu: I think I'm going to sign up to that one. I sort of missed browsing through  Chinese Weibo and just picking up fun things.

So next question then, what is the one thing you'd recommend from all of your Amazon / online purchases over the last year and a half of the pandemic? Assuming you've been stuck at home.

Jordan: I mean, you see me in my bedroom right now.

I think the one thing... I've always cooked a lot, but not quite appreciated the magic of special ingredients as I did before. I think just like having basic recipes that you make - like when you bake a salmon, or make a pasta, or you roast a chicken or whatever - and then if you have a few ingredients which you just put on top of it, all of a sudden it's a different thing, or it's a special flavour. As opposed to cooking something more elaborate which is going to take more time and effort. That's been a real revelation for me so I have a few of those sort of special ingredients which I've incorporated over the past year and a half of pandemic cooking. Which has been a great return. The relative time investment to tastiness ratio is very high. I think I said that backwards, but you get the point.

So fried onions they're on Amazon, I'll send you the link. You can put them on anything. Uh furikake in various shapes and flavours, this is like Japanese rice spice under $10. I have a yuzu one and like a sesame one, both are great. Fly by Jing's Zhong dumpling sauce, also a real favourite on mine. I just had it on butter noodles this morning, which made me feel like a little bit less of a child for eating garlic butter noodles.

All three of those, and just whenever you're in a supermarket, taking a flyer on that $10 condiment because it just may very well change your life and make boring home cooked lunch turn into something worthy of the limited meals we have left to eat on this planet - a bit of a dark turn. Yeah small internet purchases are one of my favourites, and one of life's great joys. I'm really looking forward to seeing what your other guests come up with.

Cure to an existential crisis

Baiqu: Condiments is a first. Yeah, pastes and sources I think make a real difference.

All right, next question.  Although I guess you sort of touched on it a little bit earlier. What would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?

Jordan: Yeah I don't know if I would recommend moving to China as a cure to an existential crisis.

The one thing I will say is, to challenge your premise again, I think some existential crises shouldn't be cured with like reality TV or something, but occasionally have to be confronted somewhat head-on. That said, over the past few years I've taken up Chinese landscape painting. If you're someone who's  into drawing, but doesn't really like watercolour, or find things like acrylic or oil paint is just too involved, the really nice thing about landscape painting is that it's basically one colour. So you only have one ink it's super fast to set up. You can finish a painting in a few hours. It's very forgiving, in that you can't erase, but so you can turn your mistakes into just another rock or another tree. It is very Zen in that sense, you kind of let your mistakes lead you into your next thing on the canvas.

It's super cheap, and you can kind of do it while doing other things. So I like listening to a book at the same time, it's a great way to start off a weekend.  There are a handful of YouTube video introductions in English if folks aren't sure where to start. But you know, you can be up and painting for like $30 and it's a very sort of Zen habit.

Baiqu: Nice. And are you painting on an actual scroll? Or are you using  watercolour paper?

Jordan: I just have these (shows A4 sheet on camera with painting). This is not my best. I have a cat, I'll show you my cat.

I've done a few scrolls, but the scrolls get really stressful because I know it was like $6, and if I screw it up, I have to buy another one. I have not done a scroll and given it to someone as if I'm some Ming dynasty aristocrat, making friends and drinking booze on a river. But maybe I'll get there. I just think I need friends who can like give me one back, right? Because that's how you build the bond. So yeah, if anyone out there watching this wants to exchange scrolls with me, I'll be happy to spend the $6 and purchase one.

Baiqu: And you're going to have to get one of those stamps.

Jordan: Oh yeah. Stamps are necessary too, otherwise you know, when the emperor picks it up, he'll never know that it was Jordan Schneider who was the original creator.

Favourite book, hobby, and daily habit

Baiqu: Exactly.

Cool, and we're down to our last question in the form of three mini questions. Can you recommend a one book, one hobby, and a daily habit that you think people should pick up or that you've found useful?

Jordan: You know what? I have an audio book suggestion, Maggie Gyllenhaal's reading of Anna Karenina. Unbelievable. I read this book when I was 17 in high school and sort of appreciated it. I thought I was this angsty Levin character. Right now my sister is actually reading my hard copy, and she's sending me photos of the notes where I say "that's me," which is incredibly embarrassing.

But I will say that Maggie Gyllenhaal and the translation she's reading is contemporary, fun, approachable, and just incredibly deep. I remember my parents telling me when I was in high school and reading these books that, you will appreciate them much more when you're a little older and you've seen more of life and more of people. And I feel like that's absolutely the case, and it's such a joy to come back to great works of literature as a middle-aged, well I guess as a somewhat approaching middle age person. So if someone's looking to take a pause and re-read an 800 page Russian novel, or just wants to listen to it while while they're painting Chinese landscape paintings. It's a fantastic pairing.

Okay now we have one hobby and one daily habit. I feel like we've talked about my hobby.

So I've been playing a lot of basketball, I guess, my whole life. But I've never tried to get better at it. Thanks to YouTube and the global pandemic, I've improved dramatically in a way that I didn't think was possible.  There are these YouTube tutorials of these coaches who teach you how to do the moves of specific MBA players. They're like, oh play like Devin Booker, here's how you do his dribbling, and here's how you'd change the shot to look like him. Like Giannis, do you want to learn like a Euro step eight different ways?

It's both been a fantastic way to work out, and improve as a basketball player. Probably most importantly for the long run, it made me appreciate the degree of difficulty that these folks are able to execute, with the almost balletic aspect of the sport. Which I don't think I was able to process playing pickup and watching the NBA. But actually trying to sort of do the things that these incredible athletes do in a structured way, where you do the easiest version and then a somewhat harder version, was a really fantastic experience over the past year and a half. And I'd highly encourage it for anyone who's fallen off the bandwagon, or just looking for a new workout routine.

Baiqu: I mean, I know they have YouTube tutorials for everything. But I never thought about trying YouTube tutorials for a physical exercise. During lockdown, I thought to myself, I'm going to learn how to skip properly because I go boxing and skipping is the usual warmup, and I'm always the kid who is really slow. And there were these YouTubers who taught you how to skip, and I didn't know if it was going to work but it really works. It's crazy.

Jordan: There you go. So skipping is skipping rope? Like (mimes skipping rope).

Baiqu: Skipping. Yeah skipping rope. Not like skipping down the street.

Jordan: I was like wow, you're coordinated enough to box, but you can't jump on one foot and land on the same foot?

Baiqu: Yeah. Good to clear that up.

Jordan: Daily habit. So, oh, I got one for you.

I have this podcast, right, and I try to find new authors and interview them on my show. It is like shockingly difficult to collect all the academic presses and see where all of the new books are coming out. Because there's not a great centralised place to do that, if you want to scan all of the somewhat academic book releases. Until I realised you can search on Amazon by upcoming 90 days, if you are in a specialty field or have some weird specialty interest.

I just searched China, or Japan, or South Korea, or technology, or China technology, and limit it by the time window. I found that to be a great way of saving me the hassle of going to Princeton University Press or Oxford University Press, and navigating their incredibly ugly websites. So yeah, shout out to Amazon's new release search engine if you're trying to see what kind of under the radar books are out there in your area of interest.

Baiqu: Cool. Thank you for that great tip. And thank you for speaking with me today. It was really fun.

Jordan: Absolutely. Likewise.

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