Growing up in East Haddam, Connecticut, Richard Bernstein always dreamed of seeing the world, and after he finished college he figured a great way to do that would be to become a newspaper reporter. So he became a foreign correspondent for TIME MAGAZINE and then the NEW YORK TIMES, which sent him—all expenses paid!—to lots of countries, including Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, France, Germany, Poland, South Africa, Mozambique, and about 20 others. A GIRL NAMED FAITHFUL PLUM is his first book for young readers, but he's sure it won't be his last. Richard lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Zhongmei (who is Faithful Plum!), his son, Elias, and their cat, Lucky.
A GIRL NAMED FAITHFUL PLUM details the challenging path a young girl from an impoverished, rural village in China takes to become an internationally renowned dancer. What would you identify as the special element or trait that enabled a young girl to have such resolute determination?
Mainly it was will power, tremendous will power. Zhongmei came from a poor place where it was expected that people would have to "eat bitterness," as the Chinese put it, in order to survive, so she never expected things to be easy. Her natural tenacity, her deep desire to succeed, enabled her to overcome obstacles that would have defeated somebody without her special brand of determination. But there was something else as well. When Zhongmei got into the Beijing Dance Academy there was tremendous excitement about it in her home town. She became a kind of celebrity, and she felt it would have been just too humiliating for her to go back a failure and to disappoint the people who had put their faith in her. This intensified her desire to succeed, her determination to do whatever she possibly could to overcome the obstacles that were put in her path.
We often focus on teachers as the facilitators of big dreams, but Zhongmei is faced with a cruel and discouraging ballet instructor. What can young people learn from her ability to overcome this obstacle in the form of an adult authority figure?
That's a very tough question because, of course, it's extremely difficult for a young person to defy adult authority. But the lesson to be drawn from Zhongmei's experience is to never allow somebody else to determine the way you view yourself. Listen to your inner voice, and listen also to the people who believe in you. Fortunately for Zhongmei, she was able to find another teacher who saw her talent and her determination, and with the essential love and encouragement she got from that good teacher, she was able to prevent the bad one from defining her.
In the final chapter of A GIRL NAMED FAITHFUL PLUM, you re-emphasize the struggle and adversity Zhongmei experienced. Why did you decide to revisit the struggle at the end?
Because I was telling a true story, and in the end, when she graduated, Zhongmei herself revisited her tribulations of the past. She really did make that speech, and I thought that her plea to the school to give everybody a fair chance no matter where they come from was not only a good message but a universal one as well.
As a foreign correspondent, you’re experienced in writing about places and events far from your home. But Zhongmei is your wife, so this book focuses on a person very close to you. What were the challenges of writing about someone so familiar?
Let me talk about the advantages first, rather than the challenges. The book became a constant conversation between Zhongmei and me. I was always asking her questions and her answers enabled me to deepen my understanding of this person that I am married to. The challenge was that it was sometimes very painful for Zhongmei to have to relive a time in her life when she was very unhappy and when terrible things were done to her. My job was to write something good enough to justify dragging her through all that bad stuff from her childhood.
Aside from authoring this biography, you’ve also had a fascinating career as a foreign correspondent, book critic, and culture reporter for TIME and the NEW YORK TIMES. What has been your path and when did you first dream of being a reporter?
I was always fascinated by foreign places, strange places, different places. Perhaps it was from growing up in a small town where nothing much exciting ever happened. When I was in college, one of my professors suggested that I learn about Asia because so little really was known about it. And once I started learning about Asia, of course I wanted to go there, and what better way to go than to work for a newspaper? You can learn about things and turn what you learn into articles—and get paid for it to boot! So after college, I did some traveling, mostly in India at that time. I wrote some freelance articles and sent them to newspapers and magazines, and when some of them were published I was able to build up a portfolio, and that led to my being hired as a foreign correspondent by TIME MAGAZINE, my first big step into the world of journalism.
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