Imagine this: you’re living in a different country, you sign up for a race and during one of your training sessions, an unknown number keeps calling you. You answer the phone, and it turns out to be a reporter from the local paper, she wants to interview you because she found out you’re a foreigner taking part in the local marathon. Cool! Right?
I agreed to the interview, and talked to her on the phone for about 10 minutes about why I was in China, what training I do, why I like running and how I found out about the marathon (I continued running whilst talking to her). Then the day before the marathon, which was in a smaller city a 30min bus away, she met me and my friend and took us for dinner. She wanted to get to know me better and would publish an exclusive interview with me in the paper on Monday. It sounded great, I’d get a bit of fame, could practice my Chinese and it was a free meal.
We talked about lots of things, it didn’t seem like an interview at all, she wasn’t writing much down and the conversation ran quite smoothly, as we talked about all the different sports I’ve played since I was younger, my reasons for coming to China etc.
I finished the race and didn’t manage to see her after to tell her how the race went. A few days later, I didn’t receive any post (she said she would post me a couple of copies of the paper), so I assumed she’d found another foreigner to take my place, one of the Ethiopians or Kenyans who won the race. But last week, I thought I would look on Baidu (Chinese version of Google) and sure enough, searching my Chinese name (李欧娜), I found the article.
I was pretty shocked at first, without even having read a character of Chinese. She had copied my Wechat profile photo without permission. Even so, why wouldn’t she send me the article? Did it get lost in the post? Why didn’t she send me the link to the online page, like she did when I appeared in a paragraph of a previous article?
I read the first couple of sentences, and felt like she was exaggerating a bit (I’m definitely not a 中国通！) and then I saw some things that just weren’t right. She’d quoted me as saying things that I simply hadn’t said, had exaggerated a lot of things, and written some things that were just downright lies.
I wasn’t sure how to react: I found it funny at first, but then I realised that all of the locals who read this and didn’t know me, wouldn’t know what was true and what wasn’t. I think even some of my friends would believe a lot of what she wrote, like how I “fell in love with China at 16 when I first tasted 辣子鸡丁 (a spicy chicken dish)”, how I compared Lanxi to New York central park or how when I left her the day before the marathon I told her to ‘remember my name’. This made me a bit angry, and I wanted to do something about it.
A few days ago I published an open letter to her on my Chinese blog and as soon as I pressed ‘发布’, she sent me a private message on Wechat. She was sincerely sorry for the exaggerations she wrote, and didn’t mean to cause any harm. She was rushed for time when completing the article and instead of asking me for the information she was missing, she decided to just invent some things. She now realises that wasn’t right, and thanked me a lot for pointing this out to her, as she is still new to this job. She criticised Chinese media, saying that in general, people do exaggerate and misquote, it’s common place. She also said that she was very embarrassed when she saw the final article, so didn’t send it to me. Her editor had changed a lot of the details, from things I’d actually said to things that Chinese people would relate to more. She knew she’d done wrong, and thought I would never see the article, but she is glad I wrote the letter to her, and she will keep it as a reminder for the future.
All this fuss over just a local paper, you might think, but I think it’s really important for me to stand my ground in cases like this. One newspaper says X, the next says Y and then before I know it, there’s rumours spreading across the whole of China about which dish made me fall in love with China, when actually, I’m not sure if I’ve ever fallen in love with China, let alone after biting into a fortune cookie from the takeaway back at home.