Originally published in fall 2014 FAIS Magazine
Years attended FAIS: 1990-1997
High School: Catlin Gabel School
College: Princeton University
College Major/Minor: East Asian Studies
Employer: The Huffington Post
Job Title: Executive Tech Editor
How did early immersion in French at FAIS shape your interests and your academic pursuits?
It taught me that immersion in a language is the key to immersing yourself in a culture. When you read a story in translation, or try to bumble your way through a conversation with translators, crucial nuances can get lost. Studying French from a young age, I quickly figured out the power of fluency in a foreign tongue to open up new experiences and avenues of understanding, which in turn instilled a love of languages. I think being thrust into such an international place at FAIS — part American system, part français — also made me totally at home in different environments. It was like a study abroad program, only fifteen minutes from our house.
Did you continue with language in middle and high school?
Definitely! I learned Spanish at Catlin, and the foundation I got from my French teachers at FAIS made it that much easier to learn a third language. They instilled a confidence and discipline that helped me tackle not only a new language, but other subjects, as well. During high school, I continued studying Spanish while also taking French courses at PSU. The summer after graduating from Catlin I also picked up some elementary Italian.
And how did this love of language continue at Princeton?
At Princeton, I started learning Chinese (at last — a language with no genders or verb tenses!). Having had the opportunity to travel through Asia before and during college, I was fascinated by the region and knew that to even attempt to understand China, I’d need to pick up the language. I spent the summer of my sophomore year doing an immersion program in Beijing, and the following year completed a Wall Street Journal fellowship in Hong Kong with the Far Eastern Economic Review. In 2004 I graduated from Princeton with a BA in East Asian Studies.
Describe your trajectory from linguaphile and student to journalist and author.
The same year I worked in Hong Kong, I traveled to the Mainland to do research for my senior thesis. After graduating, I decided to expand the topic into a book, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, which is the first definitive account of China’s “duplitecture” — the massive, copycat communities that replicate American and European towns. These two writing projects would have been impossible unless I’d been able to read, write and speak Chinese. I worked briefly as a management consultant after college, but wanted to return to journalism and joined The Huffington Post. I was fortunate to join a very creative and un-hierarchical news startup that was willing to give a 22-year-old an opportunity to launch an entirely new section. It was sink or swim, and I appreciated HuffPost’s fearlessness and willingness to experiment. In 2009, I co-launched the tech section, and now I’m a columnist and feature writer for HuffPost focusing on social media, artificial intelligence, and the intersection of tech and culture. I think learning foreign languages has helped me be more daring in my writing by expanding the range of stories I can tackle.
What are some of your memories of FAIS?
I have such fond memories of my terrific teachers, who were inspiring, but also candid and demanded a lot from us. There was the expectation that nothing was beyond us. Looking back at it, I remember feeling that we were in no way babied; they just assumed we could handle the feedback, both good and bad. As teachers they were very committed to helping everyone to be great, and showing us what we were capable of accomplishing with enough effort. Because our classes were so small, our experience as students at FAIS was heavy on the elements of classic education, while we also had numerous opportunities to be immersed in hands-on learning in creative, unusual ways. The fifth grade exchange with France added a whole new, deeper level to our understanding of French culture. I remember doing science experiments in local rivers, and learning about biology on field trips all over Oregon. The arts weeks every fall and spring were also phenomenal—Pink Martini would come and play in our gymnasium! I also remember that someone at FAIS was always putting a book in my hands. There was a real emphasis on always learning and an unqualified enthusiasm for the process.
What’s next on the horizon? Another book?
Yes! I’m writing a new book that will be a first-person account of a philistine’s
wine-fueled quest to train her tongue and explore the extremes of taste. (The philistine in question is me.) I’ve long been fascinated by how we can sharpen our senses, and when I stumbled on the world of hyper-sensing competitive sommeliers, I was intrigued by (and envious of) their far-out feats of flavor detection. How do they do it? What are the rest of us missing? How do we stop missing essential experiences that life serves up? The book will chronicle my journey to the outer limits of our senses and how any of us can learn to savor all that life has to offer.