THE BLOG
09/04/2011 08:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2011

Evan Osnos, Stephen Colbert and My Shanghai Summer Job of a Lifetime

I used to single out 1983 as the year of my best summer job. I was mid-way through a master's program in East Asian studies at Harvard that summer, when I saw that a junior faculty member in the Sociology Department had work study money to hire someone to help her with a research project on popular culture and attitudes toward American institution. I got the job and couldn't believe my good luck. What it entailed -- and, remember, I got paid to do this -- was ducking out of the Boston heat into a cool underground campus screening room and watching top-grossing Hollywood films from the 1930s-1950s. I did have to write up short reports afterwards. Still, it was an amazing gig, not only for the fun and the money but because it ended up giving me analytical skills that have benefited me in later activities, since I've gone on to occasionally write essays with cinematic twists.

By the mid-1980s, I'd moved to Berkeley to get a doctorate in History and had lost track of the sociologist who hired me, Kiku Adatto, but I always thought I'd get in touch with her again one day and tell her that I remember her as the best boss I ever had. I do plan to contact her soon, just to let her know how much I've been enjoying reading her 2008 book, Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op. But I won't be able to say, as I always thought I would, that I've never had as good a summer job as the one she gave me. Why? Because I got an even better one in 2010. It, too, gave me an excuse to escape a city's brutal muggy heat to a place that was cool -- in that case, the Glamour Bar at the famous riverfront Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund -- and do something very enjoyable.

In 2010, I wasn't hired to watch Bogart and Bacall, but to do something just as enjoyable: pretend to be a talk show host. I would show up at M on the Bund, an elegant restaurant in a stunning landmark building, and chat for an hour or two in front of a crowd, the members of which would laugh from time to time during the event and clap when it ended. This was a great way to spend some time -- and I didn't mind at all that it was the witty people who joined me on stage tended to earn most of the laughs and the lion's share of the applause. And one thing made that 2010 summer job even better than the 1983 one: to use cinematic terminology, only the M job has led to sequels. At the end of the summer of 2010, I was given a standing invitation to play talk show host whenever I come back through Shanghai.

This is what I'll be doing this Thursday (September 8) at 6:30p.m., when I'll be in dialog with Evan Osnos, who is not only a New Yorker writer and a past winner of an Asia Society journalism prize, but also someone who has shown he can hold his own with much higher profile interrogators than me. He was a big crowd-pleaser at M back in 2010, but a bigger sign of his ability to think fast on his feet is that he has been on the Colbert Report more than once. And he not only lived to tell the tale, but offers tips on his "Letter from China" blog about how to make the most of the Colbert Report experience.

I should note that my 2010 summer job wasn't supposed to be such a cushy one. I was hired originally to teach a course on Shanghai history for the local branch of CET Academic Programs, an organization that has helped generations of U.S. college students get their first exposure to foreign settings (like China) and start learning or hone their skills in a foreign language (like Mandarin). The problem was that students had the choice of either taking my history class or a course with a business focus, and that summer drew mostly students interested in the latter offering.

Realizing they were stuck with me (they'd agreed to fly me over, put me up, and even provide a modest living stipend), CET decided they needed to get creative. Since their program had an internship component, the Shanghai office's director, Jeremy Friedlein, came up with the brainstorm of having me do a series of public events aimed at raising CET's profile within the expat community. The result was a series we called "Cosmopolitan Conversations," which was a joint production of CET and M on the Bund, which was already hosting the annual Shanghai International Literary Festival near the start of each year, and was interested in expanding its cultural activities into other seasons.

I had to do a little more than just show up four Sundays in a row. I also had to contact writers I thought would be good to chat with in front of an audience of expats, tourists and Chinese residents with global interests and a good command of English. I then had to convince one or two of them to join me on stage each week to converse on a given topic. "Americans in Old Shanghai," for example, was the theme for the July 4 Cosmopolitan Conversation," while "China in the 1980s" was the subject for the July 11 one, and on July 18 the theme was the similarities and differences between how scholars and journalists write about Chinese current events. Wrapping it up was my first dialog with Evan, who joined me to discuss online versus print writing.

The other writers who I got to chat with that summer included three fixtures of the Shanghai literary scene: Tess Johnstone, who has a well-deserved reputation for knowing all there is to know about the city's historic architecture; Graham Earnshaw, a jack-of-all trades and master of several who is a publisher and editor and writes songs as well as books; and Paul French, who was then in the midst of researching his new true crime thriller Midnight in Peking, which is just out and generating a lot of positive buzz. Also taking part was the acclaimed journalist Howard French, who had been Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times for several years and had come back there for the summer to teach a short course for a different study abroad program, and Lijia Zhang, the Beijing-based author of "Socialism is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China, a book that is both lively and poignant.

I thought at the time that this second perfect summer job would, like the first one, be something that could never be repeated -- and I'm not planning to spend another steamy July in Shanghai anytime soon. As I've said, though, I've been invited to do additional "Cosmopolitan Conversations" at M on the Bund from time to time, which meant getting to share a stage with Ian Johnson and Pankaj Mishra, two writers I admire, last March.

The event next week will set a new precedent, though, as it will mark the first time that an author has come back to join me at M a second time. I'm not sure why Evan (who just tag-teamed a piece with me, in which we take turns weighing in on big news stories of the past summer), agreed to make the trek down from Beijing again. One factor is surely the food: Michelle Garnaut, the "M" in M on the Bund and its newer companion restaurant in Beijing, Capital M, has promised to throw one of her famous authors' dinners for us at the restaurant after we've had our conversation (this time on the broad them of "China on the Move"). Or maybe what inspired Evan to say "yes" a second time is that, before starting his career in journalism, he was a CET student.

Most likely, it's some combination of these things and one more factor. After being grilled by Stephen Colbert, who makes his living asking tough questions, Evan might think it a nice change of pace to have a less strenuous on stage Q & A with someone who only gets very occasional opportunities to hone his interrogation skills.

* This essay appeared earlier today on the UC Irvine-based "China Beat" blog