By SHEN CHEN
Global Business Journalism reporter
Rick Dunham gave up a comfortable life as a Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent in 2013 to move to a country halfway around the world, where he knew no one and did not speak the language. Ten years later, he looks back at the culture shock and shakes his head, a relaxed but confident smile on his face.
“I sometimes got frustrated," he said of those early days in China, "but I never gave up."
Moving from the United States to China at a time of growing bilateral tension is a hard decision for anyone to make, but the job choice was especially hard for Dunham – not only because he had never been a full-time university faculty member, but because it took courage to make a career-altering decision at the age of 56. Most people might think it’s an age to take a break from a high-pressure job and spend more time with their family. However, Dunham thrives on trying new things and is always seeking new adventures in his life, even though he knows that the adventures often come with tough challenges.
"I like to challenge myself," the former BusinessWeek White House correspondent said. "Mentally and physically. I have climbed the Great Wall 37 times in China. I have hiked some of the most scenic mountains in America, Europe and China. I have rappelled down the tallest bell tower in the former Soviet Union. I am not afraid to leave my comfort zone."
From the U.S. to China
When you search Google for “how far is Washington DC from Beijing,” the answer you will get is 11,172 kilometers. The fastest nonstop airplane flight takes 13.5 hours. The data show us results in precise ways, but real life is not that straightforward. Traveling from the US to China involves a complete change in environment. Dunham had to say goodbye to his comfort zone and head somewhere he had never visited. He didn’t know the local language, had no friends there, and needed to learning about local culture and customs.
“The biggest challenges to me were language and bureaucracy.” Dunham recalls a decade after arriving at Beijing Capital Airport, “Because at the beginning I knew no Chinese, I studied culture, education, history, and movies. I did a lot of reading and watching documentaries on China for months before. But nothing prepares you like coming and experiences it first-hand.”
While Dunham has embraced Chinese culture and immerses himself in its history, bureaucracy still is one of those challenges that drives him crazy.
“I’m not patient when it comes to having to wait," the former National Press Club president said. "I always ask the question, 'Why?' And very often in China, there is not an answer to the question of 'why?' The answer is 'because it is the way it is.'”
That kind of answer is frustrating to a journalist whose career focused on explaining the hows and whys of Washington, D.C., to readers around the United States and the world.
“There were many frustrations at the beginning with almost everything I had to do with bureaucracy – with the university, with police, with immigration," said Dunham, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. "But I learned to be patient. I had to be patient. The same goes for studying Chinese. It's a very slow process, and eventually I learned what I would call survival Chinese.”
Dunham also got lost a lot, particularly in Beijing's hutong neighborhoods. But, as time passed, he learned by doing it. And so by the end of the first semester, he was able to get around without anxiety. Eventually, by the end of the first year, he achieved survival communication.
From journalist to professor
Although Dunham had never been a full time professor before, he found that he really enjoyed working with young journalists when giving lectures at American universities, supervising interns as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, and working as a journalism trainer for the National Press Club and the International Center for Journalists.
“As I became a bureau chief, I found that I enjoyed working with young reporters more than I enjoyed working with older reporters, because young reporters were much more eager to learn, much more flexible," he said. "I found myself more interested in using my skills to train the next generation of journalists than working as a boss in Washington."
However, there were challenges in joining the faculty of Tsinghua University, Dunham – the confident journalist – was admittedly a bit nervous at the beginning of his journalism school career, not only because it was his first time being a professor, but also because he knows he was going to be teaching students at China's top-rated university.
Faculty members at Tsinghua helped ease the transition. Dunham gives special credit to his Chinese co-director, Hang Min, and fellow professor Lee Miller, an editor-at-large for Bloomberg News who has taught in the Global Business Journalism program since its launch in 2007.
“Lee Miller was particularly helpful," Dunham said. "He said not to worry about it. He told me you get better and better as you do it for longer. He said that he wasn't at his best at the beginning, and he said it took him five semesters before he got to the point where he is now. So that made me feel a little bit better, that I didn't have to be perfect at the beginning."
Dunham said he was very impressed by the digital talents of some of the students – both Chinese and international – in his first course, Multimedia Business Reporting. (He has since written a textbook for the course. "Multimedia Reporting" was published by Springer in 2019.) With the help of Miller, Hang and other colleagues, Dunham quickly immersed himself in academic life.
"The transition was smoother than I had expected," he recalls now. "My nervousness went away, I think, after about a month."
From outsider to insider
Dunham arrived in China as an outsider, as a foreigner unschooled in Chinese culture and a neophyte professor inexperienced in classroom education. Ten years later, he is a pillar of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication and a mentor to a generation of Global Business Journalism graduates.
“Rick Dunham is a gentle person who has rich media research experience, like several decades of work experiences in international media, and he is also very experienced in providing training courses for students," said co-director Hang, a specialist in media management and media economics. "He is also very respected and loved by his students here at Tsinghua.”
Dunham is known for the extensive feedback he gives students, the individual attention he offers GBJ participants, and his caring attitude about their Tsinghua experience. His faculty colleagues share his students' enthusiasm for his work ethic and warm personality.
“We have been collaborating for many years, and that is very enjoyable,” Dr. Hang said.
Being a professor also brings Dunham experiences he might never have had if he chose to stay in the United States. During his first year in China, he lived along when his wife Pam was still working for The Washington Post. For his birthday, the professor's students threw him a surprise party and brought a birthday cake and paper birthday crown for him. Re-living this memory brought Professor Dunham a peaceful vibe.
“And at that moment, I just thought how special everyone in the GBJ program was, and that they had thought about that," he said. "I don't even know how they knew it was my birthday, but...” he said, smiling, his voice trailing off.
Another impressive moment for Professor Dunham was the journalism school's first commencement that featured a red carpet for the faculty and students. Professors and graduates got all dressed up for the 2015 event like it was the Academy Awards.
“Dr. Hang and I went down the red carpet together, and I just thought how lucky I am being here with these people," he recalled.
He was particularly proud of the students who were graduating – the first group of GBJ students he had taught from the beginning of their graduate school days.
"I knew them, and I was proud of them, and I was sorry that they were leaving," he said. "But I was so happy I got to know them. And I just felt, yeah, it a really special moment. It was a red carpet moment.”