Author: Christina

Traveling solo

The first time I traveled alone, I took a train from Florence to see the frescoes at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

I had been studying in Florence for the semester and traveling on the weekends and holidays was a competitive sport. My classmates traveled to a new city or country every weekend, taking off Fridays or Mondays to extend each trip. The one with the most stamps in their passports (or different currencies in their pocketbooks — this was before the introduction of the Euro) won.

I had yet to convince any of my classmates to skip a trip to Paris or Prague or London to visit a tiny town known only for a large church with some paintings on the walls. So when I had a few days over spring break on my own, I got on a train on my own and headed south.

Nearly 15 years later, the day is mostly memorable for the feeling that I could do what I wanted and see what I wanted to see in my own time. When I was hungry, I found a restaurant. When I wanted to rest, I found a bench. When I wanted a little more time to examine a work of art I had seen only in a text book, I took as much time as I wanted.

This summer I traveled solo by bike through southern France for a week. I had done short bike trips before, but never anything longer than two or three days, and never on my own. I signed up for a group tour, thinking it would be fun to meet new people while traveling by bike through the French countryside, drinking pink wines, eating baguettes with brie and picking out fresh fruit at markets.

But two weeks before the trip, I was informed that the tour was canceled because there weren’t enough people signed up. I could take the “self-guided” tour or I could cancel. I hesitated, uncertain I wanted to travel nearly 200 miles by bicycle on my own. I thought maybe I would be better off traveling to one city in France and taking day trips, safely grounded in a home base. But a few days later I decided I had to do the bike trip. It was why I was going to France and not doing it would be a disappointment. And after a crazy couple of months at work, I needed a break from cities. A week in the country was exactly what I needed.

My coworkers’, friends’ and family’s reaction to my decision fell into two camps, divided entirely by generation. Those over the age of 45 were horrified that I would even consider doing a trip like this alone. Even the feminists in the group discouraged me, likely frightened by the dangers I could encounter alone on the road. The reactions ranged from “you can’t do that alone” to “what does your mother think?” After explaining my rationale to one surprised coworker, she finally admitted that she wished she had the courage to do something like this when she was younger.

On the other end of the spectrum, friends closer to my age all encouraged me go for it and thought it was a great idea.

Just like I would have on the group tour, I enjoyed the wine, the food, the markets, and the scenery. I packed picnics for lunch and ate four- or five-course meals for dinner. The only time I missed being with someone was at dinner, but on the road, I felt free and unencumbered. I could stop whenever I wanted, sometimes a few times a mile to take photos of the beautiful scenery. I took my time on the difficult hills, sometimes pedaling so slow I was amazed my bike was standing upright. But it didn’t matter because it was just me.

When I got back, I read an article by Glynnis MacNicol in the Guardian about the need for more stories of women on road trips—stories that negate the stereotypes of women in danger or along for the ride as a sidekick. She sums up the experience of freedom on the road best:

There is something intensely clarifying about being on the road. One day on the road feels like seven or eight at home. Life, regular life and all its restrictions recede; as though your former self is separating from you, pushed upwards and out by the increasingly big sky you are driving under, until it becomes a thin distant reality that hardly seems connected to you at all. You are suddenly able to see yourself as an individual, disconnected from your life and the people in it. You become whatever is happening in that moment.

The freedom that comes with traveling alone is like nothing else. There is no other situation where I can just be a human without the social influences that can bring so much stress and angst to my daily life. It’s that feeling that I will probably remember more vividly than any glass of wine or five-course meal. And that freedom is what I will think about the next time I hesitate before taking another trip alone.

Case Study: Results of the China Business Review’s Website Redesign

About a year ago, after a lot of late nights, tense meetings, and a breakdown or two, my staff and I relaunched the China Business Review‘s website. The relaunch was part of a move to drop the magazine’s print edition and focus on efforts to engage a broader audience in the US-China business world–a world that had been growing significantly in the past 5-10 years.

People interested in US-China commercial and trade policy used to consist primarily of academics, a few international trade lawyers, maybe a handful of journalists, and a small, elite group of policymakers in Washington and Beijing. Now, China is in the news every day. Friends I went to high school with in  Nevada are putting their young children in Mandarin Chinese classes. And I receive frequent requests for informational interviews on how to break into a job in US-China relations.

At the same time that interest in China has been exploding, the business model for traditional media has been collapsing. We were by far not the first media outlet to face the reality of declining revenues for traditional print media, so the news that I had been tasked to lead the redesign was not a surprise.  However, we faced a huge challenge in modernizing an archaic web presence that hadn’t been updated in about seven years–with a small budget and a three-month timeline.

After a year of running the new website and publishing in a completely different way — moving from a quarterly print magazine to online magazine is a huge jump in terms of editorial strategy — I wanted to revisit the redesign process and where we are now. So I wrote up the  case study below to lay out what we did, why we did it, and where we are now.

Case Study: Results of the China Business Review’s Website Redesign

The China Business Review, the official magazine of the US-China Business Council (USCBC), has published news about trade and investment in China since 1974. For nearly 30 years, the magazine was a traditional print magazine that published six times a year or quarterly. The magazine was available to subscribers and was provided free of charge to employees of USCBC’s 220 member companies.

In 2013, facing declining subscriptions and advertising dollars, the council ceased print publication and decided to move the magazine to an online-only publication.


The China Business Review’s website,, had been online in various forms since 1997. Before the redesign project in 2013, the previous redesign occurred seven years earlier in 2006. Selected articles were made available for free, but most of the content remained behind a paywall. Moreover, content was only updated once every two months or once a quarter, and updating the site could take two or more weeks due to repetitive and archaic systems.

The pre-redesign website was not suitable for an online-only magazine for the following reasons:

  • Unsuitable structure and design for a modern website that is updated frequently. The design mimicked the print magazine and homepage resembled the print magazine’s table of contents, making it impossible to post new content without replacing all the content on the homepage.
  • Archaic and limited content management system. Staff members could not access the backend to post new stories or photos, only to update limited databases (short blurbs on M&A deals and calendar listings). An online magazine requires a modern CMS to publish on-demand.
  • Paywall no longer needed. The decision to drop the paywall reflected the council’s desire to reach a larger audience, and would allow us to choose an off-the-shelf CMS.
  • Unnecessary or neglected sections. Sections like a company directory had languished because staff could not devote time to them. The sections drove web traffic, but 90+ percent of the traffic to those sections bounced.
Before: The previous China Business Review website was updated just four times a year, and the static layout and archaic backend did not allow staff to update content on an ongoing basis.
Before: The previous China Business Review website was updated just four times a year, and the static layout and archaic backend did not allow staff to update content on an ongoing basis.


Create a reader-friendly, easily navigable web magazine with all content available to the public. Utilize a modern CMS to allow staff to update the site as needed without help from an outsourced developer. Encourage readers to sign up for email list and share content across social media platforms.


  • Interviewed stakeholders and readers about their use of the website and discussed with staff how the current site fit into the council’s work and how the staff uses its content to determine features and sections to include in the redesigned site.
  • Generated list of necessary and desired features and, with the help of our web designers and developers, determined what was possible given our budget. We choose WordPress for our CMS and customized a WordPress theme to keep our costs low.
  • Selected and narrowed categories to organize archival and future content from among nearly 100 categories that had been used in the past.
  • Migrated more than four years of content manually before launch date; lined up fresh content for launch as well as recruited new writers for future assignments.

Results – One Year after Launch

The new launched at the end of April 2013.

  • We have maintained a publishing schedule of 1-2 new feature stories (1,500-2,000 words) each week, and 3-4 short news items on M&A deals that involve Chinese companies.
  • Unique visitors have increased by 400 percent since the relaunch, and in October 2013, the site surpassed the pre-relaunch record for pageviews and unique visitors.
  • Email list adds approximately 50-60 new subscribers per month.
  • Social media engagement and followers have increased substantially. Some of that has to do with the new website–particularly archival content that was previously behind a paywall–but it’s mostly thanks to increased followers on Twitter and Tumblr, as well as launching a new Twitter feed dedicated to mergers and acquisitions news.
  • Monthly unique visitors are still growing steadily, thanks in part to our robust archival content, ongoing efforts to provide timely and in-depth stories on business in China, and Google’s algorithm change that rewards real content over search engine optimized posts.

    After: The redesigned site allows for easy updating, has much better search functionality, and allows users to easily sign up for email updates.
    After: The redesigned site is easier to navigate and to update, has much better search functionality, and allows users to easily sign up for email updates.

Write What You (Don’t) Know

Write what you know. Anyone who writes for a living, or even a hobby, has heard this cliche countless times. But is it always the right approach?

I’m pretty sure Adam Johnson, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer in fiction for his novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, would say no.

Johnson spoke last weekend at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, about being a guy from California who wrote about North Korea. He said he first became obsessed with North Korea after assigning the memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang to his fiction writing students.

After reading Aquariums Johnson obsessively researched North Korea for six years — including reading state propaganda, books on policy and politics, more memoirs, spent a notable six months reading about gulags, and meeting with North Korea experts — but still won’t say he’s an expert.

The most knowledgeable people on North Korea, he says, are people who constantly ask questions instead of taking positions of authority. (I found this statement to ring particularly true with my experiences with China experts. The most thoughtful among them admit that they can’t and don’t know everything, but instead try to constantly learn.)

Still, as much as he read, Johnson couldn’t find a the book about North Korea that he wanted to read — one that looked at the everyday lives of North Koreans.

Journalists and nonfiction writers must verify facts, he noted, and it’s almost impossible to verify anything when it comes to North Korea. Fiction offered an avenue to explore the lives of regular people in North Korea, to fill in the blanks where, at this point in time, we cannot verify each and every fact.

Even Barbara Demick’s wonderful Nothing to Envy states in the introduction that she filled in some of the blanks on her own, to imagine a fuller story for the North Korean defectors she was writing about.

Not adhering strictly to the facts would have bothered me about a decade ago. But many stories of people and places are not clear cut or verifiable. And sometimes facts that are verifiable are manipulated. In these cases, writing what you know may not be doing your audience any favors.

So should we only write what we know? I believe we would be missing out on a lot without the combination of in-depth research and imagination of writers who dare to write what they don’t know.

Tweeting from an Embassy Near You

“The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak.”
Jared Cohen in the New York Times Magazine piece, “Digital Diplomacy” (July 16, 2010)

In the city of suits, Blackberries, and tight-lipped messaging, social media can be a hard sell. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in DC knows that most organizations — whether government, nonprofit, or private sector — are obsessed with controlling the message.

So it is interesting to see how in the last few years the State Department has been loosening the shackles of “the message” a bit and embracing social media to get its message out both in the United States and countries where the US has diplomatic missions. And it’s about time, really.

Last weekI listened to US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul talk (via Google hangouts at a DC Social Media Week event) about how he uses Twitter and Facebook to respond to questions and comments from his various constituencies. McFaul tweets a lot for a busy ambassador. (You can check out his feed at @McFaul) He also tweets prolifically in Russian, which he says helps him connect with his audience, even when he makes language mistakes.

His tip for using social media to engage an audience in an official capacity? Take your time with your response. Social media moves fast, but you can take your time before responding. McFaul also says he sets aside time after dinner–often a few hours–to respond to tweets and Facebook messages personally.

The State Department’s use of social media fascinates me not only because of my personal interest in foreign affairs, but because it’s an agency average Americans rarely interact with and have little idea about how it functions. The same can be true for citizens of countries where the United States has diplomatic missions. If you ask the average person what a diplomat or foreign service officer does day-to-day, they might tell you something about meetings over tea with foreign officials or frantically sending a cable back to Washington about unexpected political turmoil or a hostage situation — all images cemented by movies and television. If you ask the same question in a country like China or the Philippines, two countries I’ve spent a year or more in, the answer might be something like: “They reject visa applications.”

One perception is largely negative, one is positive, and both are stereotypes that social media has the potential to break apart. McFaul said when he heard feedback from Russian that they thought everyone was getting rejected for a US visa, his staff used visa stats to show that Russian nationals were among the top visa recipients in the region.

Of course, digital diplomacy initiatives can’t solve everything. Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, argues that diplomacy is best practiced face-to-face, and that no amount of social media communication could change the Iranian nuclear program. But he says the tools are effecting the scale and speed of communication, as well as introducing new audiences to the State Department’s messages. It’s important to keep in mind that an audience on the Internet will be wealthier and better educated, and has not only access to the Internet, but often access that is not restricted by their own government.

Digital initiatives are relatively new to the State Department, and will no doubt evolve and change over the years to address new challenges.

Further reading:
America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Foreign Affairs
Digital Diplomacy The New York Times Magazine profiles two State Department employees leading digital initiatives in diplomacy.
The Political Power of Social Media In this 2011 Foreign Affairs article, Clay Shirky examines how social media can affect national interests and political change.
#Unfollow: The Case for Kicking Terrorists Off Twitter This recent Foreign Policy essay makes the case for kicking terrorists off the Internet and social media.

Magazine Design

2012 cover after

After taking over as editor of the China Business Review, then a quarterly print magazine, I focused on improving our magazine covers, data spreads, and use of photography and design elements. With talented designers at Next Year’s News, we updated the look of the magazine, conceptualized engaging covers and data spreads, and used more photographs and design elements to enhance long-form articles.

The slideshow below features images of the improved cover, data spreads, and story layouts. To see before and after comparisons, you can download PDF files here:

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Not the Beijing of the Olympics

Now that Flickr is finally unblocked in China, I’ve posted a bunch of photos I took on a walk with my friend Marco (visiting from Shanghai en route to Italy) from our hotel to the Dandelion School. Every day the students and I take the bus to school because the walk is long, the weather is hot and the sidewalk-less road is dusty. People were curious but friendly as I walked around like a tourist with my camera. The walk is not what I would call pleasant, but it was a fascinating tour through a predominantly migrant neighborhood. This is where the people that build Beijing’s skyscrapers and sweep its streets live.

Dandelion School on NPR

The first day the DukeEngage students and I arrived at the Dandelion School we were put to work with a team of dentists who were volunteering their time to examine the mouths of 600 students. At lunch we were fed the same food Dandelion students eat every day: stir fried vegetables, a tiny bit of meat thrown in, and nutrient enhanced rice. The school doctor told us not to be scared of the yellow-orange pellets mixed in with the otherwise normal looking rice — that’s the added vitamins. I eat the rice every day now, and hardly notice the little pellets in my food.

NPR broadcast a story about the nutrition program at the Dandelion School about a week and a half ago. (It’s amazing that I work at the school, but found the NPR story a week and a half after it was broadcast!) I’m not sure how much the added nutrients actually increase standardized test scores — that could also be due to the school’s better teacher recruitment and retention in the last one or two years — but I’m sure it’s helping out the students who arrive at the school malnourished or the students who, like the story points out, ate a steady diet of instant noodles.

Art at the Dandelion School

One of my favorite things about the Dandelion School is that it’s covered in murals and mosaics designed by students. Without the artwork, the school would be a drab collection of cement buildings surrounding a cement courtyard.

This week, artist Lily Yeh was at the school continuing her work with the Dandelion students on tile and mirror mosaics in a narrow path that leads to the library and more classrooms at the back of the school. She has helped the students transform the school into a work of art and has worked with them to write about their journeys through China and about their hometowns.

The students work on the mosaic in groups of 10 or so, and then rotate with their classmates. When I walk to the library, I dodge 13-year-olds smashing mirror and tile on the ground to attach to the wall. (The boys enjoy smashing the mirrors so much that I’ve started to wear closed-toe shoes to protect my feet from flying glass.)

More photos soon…