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Soy Story and The China Caucuses... but first a more personal note

January 23 · Issue #55 · View online
Matt Sheehan's Newsletter
Hey there,
Just dropping you a note with a heads up about the latest two episodes of Heartland Mainland: The Iowa China Podcast. Here are links to those two episodes – The China Caucuses and Soy Story – and podcast subscription links for Apple, Spotify and Pocket Casts.
But first I wanted share a bit of a personal note, something I’ve been thinking about a lot while creating this project.
When I was living in China (2010-2016), I felt this almost desperate desire to help American and Chinese people “get” each other: to give people in both countries a glimpse into each others’ worlds, translate their daily lives and motivations across languages and cultures, and hopefully build a little bit of empathy in the process. That’s what drove so much of what I did over there, whether it was reporting from around China for American audiences, or my weirdo attempts to share ultimate frisbee culture with young Chinese people. I’ll never know whether all that running around made even the tiniest of dents in the problem, but at the very least I had fun doing it.
When I moved back to California in 2016, I thought I’d be coming back to a place and a time that felt a bit more balanced, a bit more stable. But I landed right in the midst of that furiously divisive presidential election, and a whole ocean of social currents that were enraging people on all sides. I joined in some of the protests, knocked on doors for candidates, witnessed full-on brawls at political rallies, and genuinely worried that my country was pulling itself apart at the seams.
I’m in no position to judge, or maybe even comment on, the substance of what’s being fought over. I’ve honestly never felt so ignorant about what’s really going on with people around me as I did when I first moved back. It’s been a huge learning process for me on so many dimensions, and one I’m really glad to still be going through.
But one thing that’s remained constant for me is this feeling that we need – like, really, desperately need – to work on building a foundation of understanding, and hopefully even empathy, across these divides.
I know that this sentiment is going out of style, both domestically in US politics and internationally too. It’s getting replaced by a sense that what we really need is a kind of militant cynicism, a take-no-prisoners approach that recognizes the other side is made up of bad actors with bad intentions.
And yea, if we’re looking for that in the other side (whatever that “other side” means to you), the last 4-5 years have given us plenty of confirmation of our worst fears in these departments. I won’t stand here and argue that those assessments are wrong, or say that we need to give the benefit of the doubt when anticipating what others will do. Just hoping other people will do what what you want them to do is a terrible strategy.
But whether you’re coming at it with a strictly strategic motivation, or a more human sensibility, it’s still vital to try to understand the actual people on the other side. Where are they coming from? What matters to them? And most importantly, Why does what they’re doing make perfect sense to them?
This was hands down my favorite part of co-creating Heartland Mainland: getting to talk to people in parts of the country that have been that “other” for me and people like me. I don’t want to overstate things here; my co-host Holly and I made 5 trips out to Iowa this past year, and had conversations with ~80 people there, mostly about how China has brushed up against their daily lives. That’s still just a tiny window into a very big world of experiences. But even that dip into Iowa felt really grounding and really refreshing on a personal level.
In the most recent episode of Heartland Mainland, Soy Story, you’ll hear from Rick Kimberley, a 5th generation Iowa farmer who stumbled into the role of de facto US-China agricultural ambassador after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited his farm in 2012. I really liked Rick, and his story was a fascinating window into Iowa-China ag ties during the trade war. But for me the best part for me was getting to talk to him off mic.
Once the recording stopped, we had a little while each visit to just ask each other questions. In those conversations, I quickly realized that we were both equally bewildered+interested in what was up with each others’ worlds. He wanted to know what is going on with California these days, and I wanted to know how he and his neighbors were taking in everything that’s happened in the last four years. I won’t share exactly what he said because those were personal conversations. But to me, just those few minutes of exchange each time taught me more than reading another hundred think pieces on this stuff.
This isn’t a reason you should listen to Heartland Mainland – it’s just a podcast we made, and it’s really not even trying to answer this specific set of questions. But in working on this episode, with the Iowa Caucuses around the corner and the 2020 election looming ahead, I did just want to share my two cents on why these kinds of connections matter. If you happen to be interested in this bigger project of building understanding and empathy across political divides, I’d recommend checking out a project called Make America Dinner Again. It’s a great organization that I stumbled across in doing research for my book, and I really admire what they’re up to.
Alright, I’ve gone on way longer than I intended to here. I’ve just had stuff like this on my mind for a very long time and wanted to share, in case it resonates with any of you.
Links to the podcast are below. If you enjoy it, please, please consider sharing or recommending it to others. Podcasts are all about personal recommendations, and it would mean a lot to get those from readers, colleagues and friends on here.
All the best,
The Chinafornia Newsletter is created by me, Matt Sheehan. I’m the author of The Transpacific Experiment: How China Collaborate and Compete for our Future. I’m a fellow at The Paulson Institute and write for the think tank’s site MacroPolo. I spent over five years in mainland China, including two as the first-ever China correspondent for The Huffington Post and The WorldPost.
You can read more of my work on my website, follow me on Twitter @mattsheehan88, and feel free to email me at

Heartland Mainland Episode 3: Soy Story
Heartland Mainland Episode 2: The China Caucuses
New Podcast "Heartland Mainland" Dives Into Iowa-China Relations On A Grassroots Level | Iowa Public Radio
Again, here are links to subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify and Pocket Casts. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoy the show, please don’t forget to share it!
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