By Joel Warner
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Justin Mitchell's life in newspapering has taken more twists than Chubby Checker. His curriculum vitae includes a lengthy run as pop-music critic for the Rocky Mountain News and a briefer one spent impersonating fictional columnist Ed Anger, the bizarro conscience of the extraterrestrial-friendly Weekly World News. Yet his current gig as a copy editor at the Shenzhen Daily, which advertises itself as "South China's only English language newspaper," may be his oddest to date -- and perhaps the most satisfying. Working at the Daily and living as a Colorado Yankee in Chinese president Hu Jintao's court for the past several months has clearly revitalized Mitchell, and he pours all of his excitement into a Web log accessible at http://zenshenzhen.blogspot.com that features what is arguably the finest writing of his career.
"I enjoy waking up and not having the slightest idea what the day or night will bring in terms of a new adventure or encounter or learning curve," he notes by e-mail. "It's sometimes frustrating, but rarely ever boring. It's a feeling I haven't had in many years, maybe since I was a young child. I love it."
Asia has long held an allure for Mitchell. As a boy, he spent a year in Bangkok in the company of his father, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado who'd won a Fulbright Scholarship. The excursion "impressed me deeply," Mitchell stresses. Equally memorable were a childhood visit to Japan and an Army stint in Korea, where he met and married the mother of his son, Julian. He's always dreamed of returning to the region, and he got his chance this past summer when he was hired to teach at a three-week English-language camp sponsored by the Daily. As a bonus, Julian, eighteen, was also engaged to teach there; in the wake of the SARS scare that greatly affected China, the camp had difficulty finding veteran instructors. "He and I are quite close, and I saw this as a sort of last hurrah for both of us before he left home," Mitchell acknowledges.
At first, Julian was a bit lukewarm about the prospect. "After much discussion, and being told that I could stay for three weeks instead of five, I signed on," he e-mails from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, which he began attending shortly after his Shenzhen escapade concluded. "The main draw was a free trip to China. I mean, how many eighteen-year-olds get to go to China?"
The decision was a good one -- Julian calls the excursion "a once-in-a-lifetime experience" -- but the chores he had to perform weren't easy. He had a difficult time getting through to his students, ages eleven to thirteen, whether the subject was English or English-language pop. "We had American Music Night, where I played them everything from Michael Jackson to Nirvana to Serious Bob [Bob Dylan]," Julian discloses. "They didn't seem into any of it. They really hated Serious Bob."
As for the senior Mitchell, he was so intrigued by China that he began looking for ways to stick around. When he heard that the Daily had an opening for a copy editor, he applied and was accepted, signing a one-year contract. "I wasn't really shocked when Dad told me he was moving there," maintains Julian, who's studying journalism at Drake. "I knew he had a good time and really liked it. Better than I do, at least. I like it here just fine."
Justin, though, found the journalism options across the Pacific to be more inviting than those available to him in the land of his birth -- an unfortunate change from his days as a Rocky critic. That position had been ideal for him, since he was, and remains, a music aficionado. (He favors blog titles that reference acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and in one section, he writes affectionately about a Shenzhen bar he began to frequent after hearing a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson wafting through its outdoor speakers.) However, things went sour a few years into the '90s, when he was accused of what then-editor Jay Ambrose reportedly characterized as multiple instances of plagiarism -- the same type of charge that recently led to the resignation of Denver Post music critic G. Brown ("Looking Glass," November 20).
Rather than quit, Mitchell, supported by the Denver Newspaper Guild, fought the plagiarism complaint. He was eventually cleared, and the Rocky was contractually obligated to rehire him. Ambrose's enthusiasm for doing so is indicated by his subsequent move to bring Mitchell aboard as a copy editor. "I could have challenged that, but I was too burned out by the struggle, as was the guild, to fight anymore at the time," Mitchell asserts. A couple of years later, in 1997, Mitchell was canned by the Rocky for breaking workplace rules against using the paper's phones and electronic systems in non-work-related ways -- a crime that, if strictly enforced, would result in the wholesale dismissal of every reporter on the face of the earth. Even so, Mitchell admits that the quality of his copy editing at the Rocky wasn't as high toward the end of his run as it is now at the Daily.