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Reporting on Asia.

National Correspondent for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof and Times Foreign Correspondent Sheryl Wudunn. The two won a Pulitzer prize for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square. They’ve collaborated on the new book, “Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia” (Knopf)

17:04

Other segments from the episode on October 12, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 12, 2000: Interview with Timothy Wright and Richard Wright; Interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Transcript

DATE October 12, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Brothers Timothy and Richard Wright discuss the road to
recovery from a severe brain injury Timothy suffered in 1995
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tim Wright is a former Fulbright scholar who suffered a traumatic brain
injury, and for an extended period of time lost his cognitive abilities.
Here's what happened. Wright had been doing research in Bolivia, studying
what it means to be gay there. From 1993 to '95, he worked in Santa Cruz,
Bolivia, as the regional gay men's outreach coordinator for HIV-AIDS
prevention.

One night in 1995 during Mardi Gras--or Carnival as it's known in
Bolivia--Wright was brutally attacked and beaten. He was left in a coma, and
nearly died. Wright has no memory of the incident, but he knows that he had
been partying and drinking and suspects that he may have picked up a man who
brutalized him. He doubts he'll ever know for sure. It took years of therapy
for him to overcome his brain injury. Wright's mother has written a memoir
about his slow recovery called "Someone Stole Yesterday."

Joining us is Tim Wright and his brother, Richard Wright, a professor of
criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. He worked with Tim
during his recovery. I asked Tim to describe the cognitive and physical
abilities he lost after he was beaten.

Mr. TIMOTHY WRIGHT (AIDS Researcher): The most--perhaps maybe two things or
three things that were the most critical--for one thing is life without a
short-term memory is very, very difficult. I could get lost in my parents'
house. I wasn't raised in that house. They retired and moved to a house I
didn't grow up in. But nevertheless, how hard is it to find your way around a
house. I could go to one room and then not remember where I'd just been. I
could try to brush my teeth, but after I got the toothbrush out, I couldn't
remember what the next step was. Or if I had already--if I did finally
remember, I couldn't remember, `Did I put the toothpaste on already or not?'
I had no memory. So that was really hard.

Another thing was that I could only pay attention to one thing at a time. And
I could often pay very intense attention to one thing at a time. But for
example, one day I was trying to listen to a conversation and I was trying
very hard to listen to my mom talk to me. And we're sitting in a position
where I could look out the window and she couldn't. Well, outside, my dad was
barbecuing hamburgers and he caught on fire.

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. WRIGHT: His whole--his whole upper arm was burning. And I sat there and
didn't see it. I saw it with my eyes, but I continued the conversation
because all I could do was listen. That's all I could do. When he finally
put the fire out on himself, he had to run, get a hose, put the fire out. He
came running in, you know, frantic. He said, `What's going on here? Here I
am burning and you don't even come and help me.' And then I got out of the
mode of listening to the conversation that my mother had been telling me--or
the conversation--the words my mother had been speaking, and I said, `Oh! Oh,
my God! You were on fire.' Suddenly, I realized I had seen the whole thing.
I had known the whole thing, but I couldn't react. I couldn't--I wasn't doing
that then. It's pretty bad.

And the third thing, I think, was the emotional swings. It was a very
spontaneous life and a very uncontrolled life. If I was angry, you would know
it. If I was happy, my laughter might be actually very inappropriate and very
long and very loud and really not very nice to look at. But I had no control
over the flow of emotions, the flow in and out of emotions. And those three
things were pretty hard.

GROSS: Tim, you had been a Fulbright scholar. And so--I mean, you had the
goods. You were a smart guy. And you had lost a lot of your intellectual
ability during this period after the beating. Did you miss it, and did you
realize what you had lost?

Mr. WRIGHT: I have to say, I had two--I passed between two extremes. On the
one hand, to a large extent, I really enjoyed my brain injury in the early
phase. I wasn't able to contemplate the long-term changes that might take
place in my life. That was not what it was about. It was a time when I
really paid a lot of attention to these one things as I mentioned before. But
I don't think that anyone can really know how powerful I could see a yellow or
a green or a red. Eating was just so great because the taste of a food would
just overwhelm my entire body, the entire--there was nothing else in the
entire universe. I think a lot of people would love to have that experience.

But then there would be times when I would realize what I had lost. Most
concretely, I lost my home in Bolivia. I'd lived there--three and a half
years is a long time. And the friendships I had there meant a lot and mean a
lot to me. And where were my friends? I really regained full consciousness
with, `Tim, you experienced this accident, and you were MedEvac. You're not
in Bolivia, you're now in the United States.' It took a long time to get
there, but when I got there, I felt really a terrible sense of loss.

It took me a long time to get realistic. You asked me about, `Oh, your
Fulbright--you must have really--you were bright. Did you, you know, sense
the loss of--maybe having lost your intelligence?' It took me a long time to
even think about that. And I was quite unrealistic, also. I announced I was
going to do really quite grandiose things quite early on. My long-term memory
was perfect. I could engage in a bright, interesting conversation early on
even while I couldn't do very basic skills to get through life. And I
couldn't sort out--I couldn't sort that out.

GROSS: Richard, when your brother was going through this period when he had
no short-term memory and when a lot of things weren't quite adding up, did it
give you any comfort to know that he was spending a lot of time living in the
moment and really enjoying the color yellow and really enjoying eating to its
fullest? I mean, did that make it any easier to watch him go through this or
did it just look really sad to you?

Professor RICHARD WRIGHT (University of Missouri at St. Louis): Well,
sometimes when I was with him, it was clear that he was really enjoying
himself, and the intensity of his experiences were really awesome in the true
sense of that term. But I was also just kind of devastated by how alone he
seemed inside his own head. I mean, I just felt like he's experiencing things
that I can't touch or feel or know anything about. And it was very obvious
that that was the case. You could see him thinking. You could see him in
this isolate--I mean, maybe this was--he was actually maybe enjoying himself.
But I saw it as a prison or as something in which he was trapped.

And I think it's really only as he recovered and started telling me how
really, in many ways, enjoyable this experience was or at least enlightening
this experience was that I began to feel better. But I have to say I spent
many years--probably two years--almost never looking to my right or never
looking to my left in regards to my brother's recovery. I had very tall walls
on both sides of me, and I looked forward because I would be just terrible to
either think about what had happened or to sort of think about what could be
if this hadn't occurred. And so I really just spent all my time looking
forward and just refused to think back.

GROSS: Richard, what did you do to help Tim in the process of recovery?

Prof. WRIGHT: Well, Tim and I worked together on an article that really
tried to make sense of the work that he was doing in Bolivia at the time that
he was injured. He was quite lucky, really. I mean, some of these things
seem almost miraculous. I was at a--I had gone to a conference very shortly
after Tim was injured in Great Britain. And my fo--one of my former mentors,
my PhD supervisor, cornered me and said, `You have a brother who works in
Bolivia. And I'm doing a book on sort of the sociological control of
homosexuality around the world, and would your brother be willing to write an
article?' And it was an amazing request because, first of all, this guy is a
psychiatrist and I had just told him that my brother had suffered this brain
injury. This is only a few months afterwards. And although it seemed like
it'd be difficult on the one hand, I decided, `Well, I'll raise it with Tim,
and we'll see what we can do.'

And so we began--and Tim readily agreed to do it. Now this was a long-term
project, and it involved a lot of organizing. And so we worked on this
project for several months, communicating every day back and forth via--mostly
via the phone, sometimes over e-mail. And he would come up and visit me on
occasions, and we worked for many months to put together an article that began
to make sense of some of the work that he had been doing.

GROSS: And, Tim, you were able to keep up with this intellectually because
you still had your long-term memory.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. I think that in terms of the story I had to tell, based on
the years of experience I had had in Bolivia, yeah, I knew the story very
well. I knew the story very well and the outline that Richard and I made
together was much tighter than I would normally need to have an outline be.
It was, `Do this, then do this and don't deviate. Don't think about something
else. Just stick with this.' On the one hand, the brain injury was quite
useful because I was able to disappear into one topic and really only think
about this one topic and suddenly this skill, this quality of having a brain
injury turned into an advantage and I was able to concentrate well.

I have to say it was an act of--it was a tremendous risk on my brother
Richard's part because how did he really know, how could he be sure if what I
was saying was based on any sort of reason? He took a lot of risk at that
time and I think--I mean, I look at it now, years later. I've had it read by
a few--most of my friends don't speak English but I found a few Bolivian
friends who do read English. I've had them read it and the one criticism I've
gotten is that it's really mostly about Santa Cruz, not about all of Bolivia,
and yet it claims to be about all of Bolivia. That's the one criticism I
think that really stands as valid but basically it's right. We did it.

GROSS: My guests are Timothy Wright and his brother Richard Wright. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Timothy Wright and his brother Richard Wright. We're
talking about Tim's slow recovery from the traumatic brain injury that he
sustained after being attacked and beaten in 1995.

Tim, tell me more about the therapy that you had to help you get back
everything that you had before physically and cognitively and if you feel that
working on this paper with your brother kind of fit in as part of the therapy.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it fit in beautifully. The most important part of the
therapy was just the support I got from my family, which became quite concrete
in helping me eat, helping me get dressed, helping me get to places. For
example, this article that Richard and I wrote together, my parents woke me up
every day with breakfast in bed and drove me--I couldn't drive back then--to
the library because that's where I wrote this by hand with a pen. And I slept
at that time around 14, 16 hours a day, so my days were very short. And they
would drop me off and pick me up and, you know, more than anything, they
believed.

And beyond the family, I would give the most credit to my speech therapist.
She was a person that came over to my house about twice a week and not only
did she help me speak--my speech was very blurred for a long time--but she
also helped me cope with such things as ordering in a restaurant. I would get
a menu and it was just an ocean of words and just so many. I would start
reading on the upper left-hand corner and just going down with no sense at all
of captions or, `Well, why am I reading the soup category if I know I want a
salad, not a soup?' I didn't have that figured out yet. And she would just
bring a menu and put it down and help me think about how to think about
looking at a menu. She helped me get skills like, `If you know what place
you're going to go to eat, get the menu before you go, so you won't be
stressed out thinking about not being able to get through the ordering off a
menu experience.' She did so many things like that.

At the same time, I had a neuropsychologist who my dad refers to as the
`princess of darkness,' because she was the one to put the brake on. She was
the one who said--I announced long ago, `I'm going to go get a PhD.' Well,
that was very far from reality. And she would say to me, after, you know,
working on her a long time, `If you think you want to go that direction, it is
possible. It's possible that it's possible. But you have to take steps along
the way to see if you can get there.' And it was a great thing because it
made me see quite clearly that, yes, it was realistic but it was going to take
its own time.

GROSS: How much of your recovery is a function of time, healing, and how much
of it is the function of the things that you did with the help of your
therapist and the help of your family to push things along and regain your
skills?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, I don't know for sure. They say that how well your brain
recovers depends on how good it was to begin with and also how your overall
health is and, third, how much support you've got. Well, you can see that I
used my brain a lot before. I'm in good health overall and I had a healing
situation, a support network of people who were just working on this all the
time in a situation that most people just don't get. You know, I kept getting
asked a lot if I was going to commit suicide. I never thought about it once.
I never thought about it once. But psychologists have to ask that, I guess,
nowadays and doctors and who knows who all. And I had never even thought of
it. But it made me think to myself, `What? Am I supposed to think about
this? Is it really supposed to be that bad? Why, I'm enjoying so many things
in my life. I'm enjoying life every bit as much now as I had before. Why
would I think about that?'

But people kept wondering if I wouldn't commit suicide, maybe I'd give up.
Well, the thing is, what do you do when you give up? What does it mean to
give up? What do you do the day after you give up? You get up. It's time
for breakfast and you've given up, so what do you do all day long? It didn't
occur--I couldn't figure it out. You know, does that mean I can't read a
book? I'm learning how to read again. I'm enjoying that. I'm having a good
time. Is that OK? I want to go to the gym. I can't do that. I shouldn't do
that. Many things--I just have no idea what they're talking about. To me, I
just got going again. It was very frustrating as I got--you know, we're
talking months down the road now. I did begin to notice more clearly the
problems I have and that was probably harder in the beginning, the early
stages, and then I really was really depressed. There was kind of a `I'll
just stay in bed depressed all day long.' But I just am too curious about
life. There's too many things you want to go and check out.

GROSS: Now because so much about you had changed, you know, cognitively and
physically, I'm wondering if any of your tastes changed, too. Did you enjoy
different books, different music, different movies than you did before? I
mean, even--we're wondering about, like, your sexual feelings, if your sexual
orientation is as gay as it was before, if your sexual drive is as intact as
it was before?

Mr. WRIGHT: Right.

GROSS: And if that's too personal, please, don't answer it.

Mr. WRIGHT: No. I mean, on that issue, I woke up gay. It was a curious
thing for me because sex is not as important as other things like breathing
air and eating food and taking care of your basic bodily functions. And when
you're reduced the level where you can't do anything but just take care of the
basics, sex really was so unimportant, I didn't think about it for a long time
at all. And during that time, I contemplated what it means to be gay when you
have basically no sex life. I realized I am gay and I'm not sure what gay
means anymore, because what does it mean when you're gay, when you're
confident--I'm sure that I'm gay. I know that I'm gay. That is a part of my
brain that's just alive and well and intact. But I'm not very interested in
sex. I'm not really attracted to men sexually right now. So I went through
that.

You asked about taste, in general, about preferences overall. And, yeah,
there were a lot of changes. I used to be a natural leader type personality.
That was largely based on the assumption that I knew everything--my assumption
I knew everything. I don't know how I pulled that off, but I always was sure
I knew everything. And now I'm quite sure that I don't know much. And I'm a
follower more. I notice that all the time in my life. When somebody else
takes a leadership position and they're going to organize the group, I'm happy
they're doing it and I'm willing to say, `Yes, I will do this. Yes, I will do
that,' to cooperate and get along and be useful with the crowd, but I'm--no
longer am I the person who wants to organize everything. In discussions about
issues, I find all sorts of points of view interesting and possible. I'll sit
there and think to myself, `Well, that could be.'

GROSS: Tim and Richard Wright will be back in the second half of the show.
Their mother has written a memoir about Tim's slow recovery from traumatic
brain injury. It's called "Someone Stole Yesterday."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tim and Richard Wright.
We're talking about Tim's slow recovery from a traumatic brain injury. In
1995, when he was in Bolivia doing AIDS outreach work, he was beaten, left in
a coma and nearly died. With the help of extensive therapy, he slowly
recovered his cognitive and physical abilities. When he was at the point
where he could think about his work again, his brother, Richard, a criminology
professor, helped him write a paper about the work Tim had been doing in
Bolivia on homosexuality and AIDS. Richard and Tim's mother, Helene Wright,
has written a memoir about Tim's recovery called "Someone Stole Tomorrow."

I asked him if his brain injury affected his religious feelings.

Mr. WRIGHT: Obviously, that was going to be the next directions I had to go. I
I find it curious that it's easier to say I'm gay than it is to say I'm
religious. I don't know what that means about the place we're at in the
world or what it means. But, yeah, I mean, it was the profound spiritual
experience of my life. I was not raised particularly religiously, but I woke
up quite confident that life's just great, and beyond it is love and warmth
and something good and that's where we're going.

I woke up in a very good mood about the spiritual state of humanity, in light
of all the crises I see. I was not in a state where I could choose what
religion to be; that was all too confusing, too complicated. And I was not
raised--we were not raised particularly religiously. I think our parents were
very interested in morality, but I might have been drug into a church a few
times as a child. I barely remember it. I was never baptized.

And, suddenly, because I couldn't contemplate what religion to be and I hadn't
been raised religiously, I had to make a choice. And I went to an
Episcopalian church and I've never left. It's kind of a gay thing to do.
It's got a reputation of being kind of a gay sort of a church. And yet it
takes care of my spiritual needs quite nicely. I'm really, really happy I'm
there.

GROSS: Richard, you're a professor of criminology, and your brother was the
victim of an attack. As a criminologist, how does your work as a
criminologist affect the way you see the attack on your brother, and how does
this attack affect what you're interested in as a criminologist?

Prof. WRIGHT: Well, not only am I a criminologist, but at the time that Tim
was injured, I was actually studying active armed robberies on the streets
here in St. Louis, Missouri. And Tim's injury really caused me to think a lot
about what I was doing, and I have to say that I left the field and stopped
that project. I continued to write about it, but stopped actually doing field
work for that project on the day that I received that phone call. I still do
studies of active offenders, but it has caused me to think a lot more about
what I do.

But, of course, criminologists do more than just study active offenders. I
mean, we also study the justice system. And probably the thing that I've been
most affected by through Tim's injury is that I've realized that it's just no
good seeking vengeance. I just don't see that as a worthwhile part of the
justice system. I think that we have other things that we need to be doing,
and it just isn't any good to seek--to use the justice system to get even with
people.

GROSS: Well, in this case, you don't even know who the criminal was.

Prof. WRIGHT: We don't, but I have to say, honestly, that I never wasted a
minute trying to think about who did it or what should happen to them. That
has never caused me a moment's worry. I think--and part of it, you just don't
have the energy to do it. You've got other things to be thinking about.

GROSS: It might have been, too, that the perp was in a different country. I
mean, you were physically so far away from that.

Prof. WRIGHT: It's true, I was removed from it, and I think also the fact
that Tim had survived may make a difference.

GROSS: Right.

Prof. WRIGHT: Had he died, you could have been maybe consumed with the idea
of vengeance. I have to say, honestly, in this situation, I wanted to devote
every bit of energy I had to my brother's recovery, and I just didn't have any
emotional energy to devote to seeking vengeance. But I have to say, honestly,
that I always wondered how crime victims thought about things. And I was not
a direct victim, but this was pretty darn close for me, and anger is not one
of the things that I ever felt.

GROSS: Tim, what kind of work are you doing now? Are you following up on any
of the research that you were doing in Bolivia before you were attacked,
research on gay men in Bolivia and on HIV in Bolivia?

Mr. WRIGHT: I am working now on a PhD in anthropology at UCLA...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WRIGHT: ...focusing on gay identity in Bolivia, very specifically.

GROSS: And that's interesting that you're still connecting to that interest
and the work that you did before the attack. So there isn't this big divide
of `what I was interested in before and what I'm interested in now.'

Mr. WRIGHT: You know, I have to say something. I loved Bolivia. I was very
happy living there, and Bolivia was very good to me. Yes, I had a bad day, a
real bad day in Bolivia, but the country was good to me. And the way same-sex
lives are organized, people who like to have sex with their own sex--the way
that is organized in Bolivia is so different than anywhere else I've been and,
certainly, the United States that it just drives me. It's so interesting I
have to know more about it all the time.

GROSS: Give me a small example of what you mean.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, in Bolivia, for example, it's very likely that when two men
have sex together, one is seen as a homosexual while the other is understood
to not be a homosexual. That's just one example.

GROSS: Right, because one is the, quote, "male role," so, therefore, he's
not...

Mr. WRIGHT: Right.

GROSS: ...a homosexual?

Mr. WRIGHT: The classic--that model exists, I know, in lots of parts of the
world and especially in Latin America. I think it exists to varying degrees
in different places, and it changes as countries grow larger cities and have
more complex economies. But in a country like Bolivia, where people really
rely on their families for their social support all the way through their
lives, there can be no separation from the family.

And this is a model that's set up that makes it possible for people to stay
within the overall working of the systems of Bolivia and carry on with their
lives, get some sexual satisfaction and work within the system. And, you
know, as I say, it can be argued for and it can be argued against.
Nevertheless, it is what is, to a large extent, and is changing only very
slowly, and as it changes, new opportunities open up and new problems arise.

GROSS: Tim, your mother wrote a book about your brain injury after you were
beaten and the impact that that had on the family, and the book is called
"Someone Stole Yesterday." What's it been like for you to read your story
from her point of view? Because she might have seen certain things
differently than you saw it or might have interpreted your actions differently
than you intended.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I have to say that when I read it--I've read it several
times now, and when I read it, I realized that we really are alone, to a large
extent, in life. By that, I mean I had my brain injury experience all by
myself. The times that I was just in a state of exhilaration and tremendous
joy, they were agonizing over the fact that I couldn't function. Yet,
meanwhile, they're also very alone. `They,' my parents--both of my parents
I'm thinking of right now--were also very alone because, you know, how good
can it look when you see your son drooling while staring at a flower for 30
minutes, unable to handle any bills, any telephone calls, any interactions
with the Social Security department, with all the insurance companies, etc. I
couldn't do any of that. In fact, I didn't even know what was happening. So
they're off on their world together with each other.

I'm glad she wrote this book. I think it's a wonderful book, especially for
people taking care of somebody with a brain injury. And it really made me--it
taught me a lot of what they--and now I know what they were going through.
And I'm really proud of my mom for having done it. But as I say, someday
maybe--I'm not really planning it concretely, but maybe someday I might write
a book of my own experience of it, and it would be a complementary book, but
it would be quite different.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Richard, Tim,
thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Prof. WRIGHT: It's been great.

GROSS: Tim and Richard Wright are brothers. Their mother, Helene Wright's,
memoir about Tim's slow recovery is called "Someone Stole Yesterday."

Coming up, Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn of The New York Times talk
about their reporting from Asia. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn discuss their
reporting in Asia and their new book, "Thunder from the East:
Portrait of a Rising Asia"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Sixty percent of the world's population lives in Asia; 5 percent lives in
North America. So what happens in Asia inevitably affects the rest of the
world. My guests, Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn, covered Asia for The
New York Times for 14 years based in Beijing and Tokyo. They're married and
shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of Tiananmen Square and the
suppression of the Chinese democracy movement. They've collaborated on a new
book called "Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia." Now that
they're back in the States, Wudunn is working on the business side of The New
York Times; Kristoff has been writing a series of biographical pieces about
George W. Bush for The Times.

Part of their new book is about how the Asian economic crisis that began in
Thailand in 1997 has changed the lives of people in Asian countries. They
have an unusual view of the Asian economic crisis. Kristoff and Wudunn think
that, in some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened to Asia. I
asked why.

Ms. CHERYL WUDUNN (The New York Times): Certainly, a lot of people lost
money; foreign investors lost a lot. And so it was a terrible fiasco for some
of them. However, the real reason we think that it's the best thing that
happened to Asia is because Asia was--yes, it was on a roll, but it was also
getting much more arrogant. It was sort of exceeding itself. It was just
filled with pride. It was just too proud. It didn't think that anything was
worth learning from from the West. They wanted the money, and they just let
us do things our way. But that was wrong.

And what the Asian financial crisis taught people was that you need the rule
of law; you need discipline; you need to do things a little bit more in an
international context. You need to listen to investors, and you're going to
have to meet deadlines, you're going to have to meet clarity of your
accounting rules and transparency and the way you do things. And you're going
to have to build better banking systems. Now it's going to take a long time
for these countries to get there, but there was a wake-up call and the
beginning of recognition that they have to start rebuilding their systems.

GROSS: Nick, you went to a brothel in Cambodia as part of your reporting from
Asia, and you interviewed a 13-year-old prostitute. Why did you go to this
brothel in the first place?

Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOFF (The New York Times): I had heard that Cambodia, in
particular, still had slaves in the sense that 19th century America had
slaves. These were kids who were sold, and if they tried to escape the
brothels, they were arrested by the police, they were locked up and imprisoned
in the brothels. And it turned out to be, indeed, very easy to find these
kids. And there's one girl in particular, Sri(ph), who, as you say, was 13,
who left a deep impression on me. She was very charming, very vivacious, very
outgoing, and she had been sold by her mother and stepfather two years earlier
when she was just 11 years old.

GROSS: Yeah, she seemed pretty enthusiastic about her work as a prostitute in
this brothel, and she seemed pretty fearless in terms of sexually transmitted
diseases. She was very uninformed and thought that she was too young to get
any diseases. But it sounds like her mood really changed when you asked her
about how she ended up at the brothel. What story did she tell you about why
her parents sold her?

Mr. KRISTOFF: She said that her father had died and her mother had remarried
and that her stepfather didn't like her, beat her, resented her. And then her
mother became sick, some kind of a lung disease, it seemed, and the parents
agreed, under pressure from the stepfather, to sell her for cash--for
money--to treat the mother. And there's no way of verifying that, but that
was what she said. And she was filled, on the one hand, with, you know, love
for her mother; she didn't want to criticize her mother. And on the other
hand, she, obviously, realized that she'd been trapped in this terrible,
terrible situation and she resented it. And for a 13-year-old girl to pore
through all this in her mind was real agony for her.

GROSS: So you said you found it impossible to imagine how parents can sell a
child into slavery. Did you have any experiences that helped you understand
it a little better?

Mr. KRISTOFF: Then just a few months later, I was walking through the jungle
in Cambodia, and I came across a man named Yok Yorn(ph), whose son had just
died of malaria that morning, and he was wailing and clutching the body of his
son. And we talked for a while. He had seven children. This boy, Kyset(ph),
was the second son to die of malaria. And we were talking about this. He was
just--he felt terrible for having betrayed Kyset, for having allowed Kyset to
die. He was terribly worried that the rest of his children would also get
malaria and also die. And this was all, in a sense, for want of about $5 to
buy a mosquito net that could protect them.

And so I must say that as he was talking about this, worrying about the rest
of his kids dying, you know, I could imagine somebody like him selling his
daughter--he had a 19-year-old daughter--selling her and getting the money to
get mosquito nets to save the rest of the children. And, I mean, I felt
terrible for even letting that thought flash through my mind, but that clearly
is the kind of choice that a lot of people have to make in these places.

GROSS: And I want to ask you about another thing that you found. You went to
a trash dump--a huge, several-mile trash dump that people live near and go in
to pick for things. Where was the trash dump?

Mr. KRISTOFF: This was in Jakarta, Indonesia, and there were hundreds or
probably thousands of people who make a living going through the dump picking
up things that they can sell for recycling. And in particular, there was a
mother named Trati Wun(ph) and her small son, whom I interviewed. And what
struck me about it was that Trati Wun's real aspiration for her son was that
he would grow up and be able to work in a sweatshop. And it just seemed so
strange to hear somebody talk about that. And, I mean, she in a sense doubted
that he would be lucky enough or educated enough to get a sweatshop job, which
he kind of regarded as a dream job because then he would be off the dump and
in a building and have much less exposure to disease and things. But it
reflected, I think, different attitudes toward sweatshops among people who are
at the very bottom of the Third World.

GROSS: Yeah, because in America, a lot of consumers are trying to punish
businesses that set up sweatshops in Asia. You're saying for the people
there, it might be better than the other alternatives.

Ms. WUDUNN: In many ways, actually, we do believe that. I have to admit that
when I first got out to Asia, I didn't think that was the case. I remember
going through some--in the south of China and seeing these women work in
terrible, terrible conditions. One time I was in a textile mill, and I was in
this room with hundreds of women at machines. Their fingers were flying. And
I was thinking, `My God, I could never--my fingers could never work that
fast.' But the one thing that was striking me was the fact that my ears were
hurting because of the beating sound and the machines. It was just rumbling
in my ears, and it was really hurting my ears. And they had to work in this
kind of conditions day in and day out. And the factory managers weren't
caring about it. So this--obviously, it's a terrible situation.

However, I started talking to the people, and I realized these are--the
alternatives that they have are also very grim. My family--my distant
relatives, actually, are in Guandong province. And when I went to visit them,
you know, it's a small stone hut off the side of a rice paddy, and some of
them--they go out and they trek out into the rice paddies, and they take off
their shoes so they don't get muddied. And they go out barefoot, you know,
I'm thinking, exposed to all sorts of diseases. My goodness, I don't even
want to think about it. But they're doing back-breaking labor all day out in
the sun, and then they come home. But when a shop, a factory opens up nearby,
everybody streams to those jobs because they're wonderful compared to what
they have to do out in the sun.

It's funny, here in the States, we look at them as sweatshops, but out in Asia
a lot of people are curious, `Why do they call them sweatshops?' When you're
out in the rice paddies, you sweat. When you're on the construction site--and
believe me, the labor laws are much looser out there--you sweat there. When
you're a rickshaw driver or you're driving a lorry, you sweat. But you don't
sweat inside a factory. An interpreter once told us that, you know, she
couldn't understand why the word `sweat' was used in that manner. And I think
it's because, for Asians, sweatshops are really the road to prosperity. It's
the way that the son or the daughter, or even the husband or the wife, can
earn a steady paycheck and build a skill. I mean, skills, skilled labor is
really a new phenomenon there. And that's how the sweatshops--that's how
industrialization takes place in a country.

I mean, it sounds awful, but in many ways, that's--you know, who are the
people who are making the toys in China, who are making the--stitching the
shoes, who are, you know, making the leather jackets? It's the women in those
sweatshops.

GROSS: No, but what you're saying kind of gives justification to corporations
who move to other countries because they know they can pay the labor there
next to nothing and get away with it.

Mr. KRISTOFF: Yeah. I must say that we thought that the activists in this
country were much more well-meaning than a lot of the corporate titans, and we
respected the altruism of the activists more, but we also felt that they
risked hurting the people that they were trying to help and that--I mean, what
a country like Cambodia needs, in a sense, is more sweatshops, more factories
where people can work and get the money for mosquito nets so that people don't
die of malaria. And it--in a sense, almost however grim the sweatshops are,
they're going to be better than a lot of the existing alternatives that people
have.

GROSS: My guests are Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn of The New York
Times. Their new book is called "Thunder from the East." More after our
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn of The New York
Times. They've collaborated on a new book based on their reporting from Asia.
It's called "Thunder from the East."

When we left off, we'd been talking about whether sweatshops were better than
the other grim alternatives for poor people in Asia.

Ms. WUDUNN: It's a very tough issue. And, you know, I have to say that there
are times when we don't want to feel as though we're siding with the big
corporations because there is some exploitation that takes place there. On
the other hand, there is, you know, somewhat of a market because when the next
joint venture comes into town, if they want to steal skilled workers, they
need to pay a little bit more. And so wages are bid up, and so people start
demanding better conditions when there's, you know, a--when the next joint
venture comes into town, the workers will only leave their current job if
there is either better pay or better conditions. So slowly the conditions are
getting better.

GROSS: Now you write in the book that this helps you understand the
ruthlessness of Asian capitalism. What do you mean?

Mr. KRISTOFF: I think capitalism in a lot of countries was terribly ruthless.
I mean, you think about Dickensian capitalism in Britain or what went on in
19th century America. But, in some ways, I think one can make the case that
Asian capitalism particularly, so--at least the kids in 19th century Britain
got Sundays off. Traditionally in a lot of countries in Asia, they did not
get any day off at all. And, in fact, Cheryl and I talked to young people
working in factories in Guandong, and they would go for months and months on
12-hour days without a single day off.

And, likewise, it's not just the working conditions, in a sense, but we
thought that often the sweatshop activists, for example, missed the worst
aspect of sweatshops, which wasn't the labor conditions, but which was the
environmental impact and the people that they killed in the area around
because of the effluent that they produced. And so we think the
industrialization of Asia is a tremendous thing for Asia, but that it also has
some pretty awful consequences, and that it's a balance that is worth making
and is overall positive, but I don't want to deny at all that it's a very,
very grim and ruthless process.

GROSS: Your book is a mix of various specific stories that you reported on,
individuals who you met, sweatshops you saw. But you also include in the book
a lot of larger thoughts about the political, economic and social situations
in Asian countries. And you write that you think Asia is likely to wrench
economic, diplomatic and military power from the West over the coming decades.
In what way do you think that they'll be doing that?

Mr. KRISTOFF: Over the last few hundred years, power--the center of the
world, if you want to call it that, moved from the Mediterranean countries on
up to England, and then about a hundred years ago the US took it from England.
And now we think that this process of industrialization is coming to Asia, and
in particular, it's beginning with economic growth; that soon most of the
world's economic output will be coming--most of the world's GDP will be coming
from Asia, and that countries are out pumping their money into military
budgets, they're developing, well, better sports teams as we saw in the
Olympics. In almost every aspect of human endeavor, you see Asia becoming
more important, and we think that reflects a sense in which the center of the
world is shifting gradually two steps forward, one step backward, toward Asia.

GROSS: You also say that, in many ways, Asia today resembles Europe a century
ago when rising incomes and education and urbanization spurred nationalism and
antagonisms that provoked two world wars. What are the similarities you see?

Mr. KRISTOFF: The oldest problem in international relations is how you
accommodate a rising power, and that was the central problem that 19th century
Europe had, how to fit in a richer and more powerful Germany into the concert
of nations. And they did not succeed, and the result was World War I and then
World War II. And now Asia has to figure out a way of letting China and,
later on, India find some place, find some way of accommodating their greater
sense of power, their aspirations for a place at the table without upsetting
the order and international security that had been established in the area.
And I think there is some risk that Asia's future will look a little like
Europe's past.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

Mr. KRISTOFF: Thank you.

Ms. WUDUNN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn collaborated on the new book
"Thunder from the East" based on their reporting from Asia for The New York
Times.

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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