American journalist Jonathan Adams reported on East Asia for a decade. Welcome Home, Master is his honest, funny, and revealing behind-the-scenes look at foreign reporting, and the reality of making a living as a freelance newsman. Part-travelogue, part Asian journalism primer, the book explains why Adams loved the job and why he ultimately left it.
What does the book title refer to? Why did you choose it?
“Welcome Home, Master” is the English translation of what a customer hears when they enter a Japanese-style “maid cafe,” like I did in Tokyo. It’s part of the pretense that the customer is a “master” coming back to his home, where he is waited on by young “maids.” (In Japan’s corresponding “butler cafes,” young men wait on their “mistresses.”) When looking for a title for my book, I wanted to use a word or phrase that came directly from my reporting, but also something that evoked a meaningful theme. Throughout the book I touched on the experience of being an expatriate, and how being a long-term expatriate changes your concept of “home.” By the end of the time covered in my book, home for me was Taiwan. It was the return to the United States that was jarring – the classic experience of reverse culture shock. The title “Welcome Home, Master” captures the idea of a strange new “home” that’s both familiar and exotic. My article on the “maid café” craze in Japan was one of my favorite pieces that I never had published as a freelance journalist, so I liked its connection to the book’s title.
What are some of your favorite fiction/non-fiction works?
As I mentioned in Welcome Home, Master, the author who most inspired me to want to write was David Foster Wallace, in particular his non-fiction pieces for Harper’s magazine. His collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again includes many of those articles. For Chinese works in translation, I’m a fan of Yu Hua, especially his book Brothers, and his collection of essays on many of the same themes, China in Ten Words. I enjoyed Jonathan Spence’s books on Chinese history – especially God’s Chinese Son on the Taiping rebellion, and The Question of Hu. Finally, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island is one of my all-time favorite books.
How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books?
After many years as a skeptic, I am finally sold on ebooks, mostly because I think the technology is finally in place. I wasn’t a fan of early black-and-white Kindle readers, but am now addicted to my Kindle Fire, with its vivid colors and portability. As I said in my book, I think the New Yorker magazine on a color e-reader like a Kindle Fire or iPad is a thing of beauty. I think e-books are a great fit with magazine-style journalism that includes illustrations and photography, and I believe someone will eventually find a way to make money off that combination. I am not one of those cranks who gets nostalgic about the “feel of print and paper,” and was surprised myself how quickly I was won over, once e-readers came equipped with high-resolution color display. Now that I can pack a library of books and a New Yorker subscription on a lightweight device I can take anywhere, it’s hard to go back to print.
What makes your book different from others in the genre?
I’m not aware of any non-fiction books that deal specifically with the subject of being a foreign correspondent (though I’m sure there are some), let alone one in my book’s specific place (Taiwan, mostly) and time (the demise of traditional journalism and rise of New Media in the early oughts). So that makes my book different. It’s an account of writing from abroad for an American audience amid the journalism industry’s implosion. It offers a skeptical take on the hype about “New Media,” without defending that endangered species – the pampered, often lazy “traditional” foreign correspondent – that is probably overdue for extinction. I welcome the change and promise of new media technologies, but I just don’t think we’ve quite figured out yet how to harness all that energy while also producing quality journalism.
Why did you choose to base yourself in Taipei?
In graduate school I had focused on China and interned in Hong Kong, so I was looking to get back to that part of the world as a journalist. Several people advised me that Taiwan was a great place to live and work, and an under-appreciated and under-reported story in East Asia. That was all true and I’m glad I took their advice. More practically speaking, the Taipei Times was the only publication to answer numerous emails I sent about job opportunities in the region. They offered me a copyeditor job that could pay my bills while I struggled to “string” for Newsweek and freelance for other publications. The job also provided an excellent introduction to Taiwan politics and society, on a daily deadline.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists/writers looking to cover East Asia?
Just go. Find some job set-up or excuse to get there, and go. My ability to support myself as a freelancer came from contacts I made in Taiwan and the generosity of friends and colleagues I met there, it’s not something I could have set up from the United States. And nowadays there’s really no excuse not to get on the plane – the Internet and Skype have made a huge psychological difference in allowing us to remain close to, and get support from, friends and family back home.
What were the highlights of working as a freelancer?
The freedom of being able to create your own schedule. This was usually possible, aside from the rare times when there was big breaking news that international editors would notice. As I say in the book, I still miss getting up at 6 am to start the day with a bike ride into the hills surrounding Taipei, followed by a stop at a Taiwanese breakfast joint or Starbucks. Those days usually included a post-lunch nap, too. That’s a routine that’s hard to maintain in any structured workplace. That said, the downside of the freelancer’s life is the isolation, which can be tough if you don’t make a concerted effort to meet up with friends.
Do you still think the rise of China is the world’s biggest story?
There are a lot of big stories, but yes, I still think China’s rise is the biggest. I think we’ve only begun to see the consequences, and impact, of China’s rise as a major power. It’s a story that’s not going to go away, and which I believe will take some major twists and turns in the coming years.
What is an untold story from the region?
As I say in my book, I think the Philippines is perhaps one of the most under-reported countries that I visited and worked in, particularly given that it was a former U.S. colony. For that reason alone I think American readers in particularly should take a much bigger interest in what’s happening there, since we have had such a major impact on its development in the last century. I think the efforts to find a way for Muslims and Christian communities to live side by side in peace and prosperity in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, are oddly ignored, given the implications for similar challenges in other parts of the world.
ICRT’s Keith Menconi recently did a podcast interview with Jonathan Adams for ICRT’s Taiwan Talk.