Embedded at Home

There’s a great piece in the January 9 issue of the New Yorker by Columbia native Peter Hessler, who last September was awarded a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship (the award which grants its recipients a no-strings-attached $500,000 and a lifetime of “genius” jokes at their expense). The story, “All Due Respect” (not available full-text online) profiles another COMO native, Jake Adelstein. After a year at Mizzou, Adelstein went to Japan to study abroad, never to return; he stayed on to work as a police reporter for the Yomiuri, a prestigious Tokyo newspaper, and eventually became, Hessler writes, “one of the foremost experts on Japanese organized crime.” He now lives under police protection in central Tokyo.

Adelstein is a colorful character—he wears a porkpie hat, chain-smokes Indonesian clove cigarettes, and sometimes sleeps with his sources—and the Yakuza, with its mobsters who cut off their own pinkies, brag about their liver failure, and are experts at making murder look like suicide, make for a great story. But readers of the COMO Collective may be just as fascinated by the mid-Missourian details Hessler includes by way of background on Adelstein: the elevator shaft he fell down when he worked as a teenager at a Columbia bookstore, or the six-sided Japanese-style pagoda on Adelstein’s father’s farm in southern Boone county, built for his daughter-in-law after she left Japan with their children to escape death threats from the Yakuza. It’s clear that Hessler, who is best-known for his immersive reporting from China, finds a kindred spirit in Adelstein: they’re both writers who, after leaving Columbia, moved to Asia to compose dispatches of a depth and complexity that a casual, visiting reporter could never hope to achieve.

As a recent transplant to Columbia (five months and counting), I feel a little self-conscious about my excitement at seeing the phrase “mid-Missouri” in the pages of the New Yorker. Why should I care? Perhaps since I’m not a sports fan, home-town writers are my substitute. I can’t say I’ve found a reason to care about MU’s transfer to the Southeastern Conference, but when I found out that Hessler grew up in Columbia and had won a genius grant, I lay down the newspaper with care and alerted my wife, who generously pretended she was as interested as I was. Even though I’m hardly a local, I feel the need to think of Columbia as my home town now, and so I’m collecting local heroes. (It’s time to re-read John Williams’s Stoner.)

Late in his profile, after relating the story of Adelstein’s father, who helped expose a (still-unresolved) cover-up involving more than forty deaths at Columbia’s V.A. hospital, Hessler makes a connection between Adelstein’s upbringing and his current life in Japan:

Beneath all the exoticism, it was actually the normalcy of crime that was most disturbing. Whether you’re in Missouri or Tokyo, things aren’t always what they seem—the nurse might be a murderer, and the gangster might run a hedge fund.

I’d argue that this sentiment extends beyond crime and violence: Hessler’s profile is a reminder that when approached with the honesty, attention, and care of a writer who’s embedded and immersed themselves in a place, any city or village becomes worthy of investigation and attention, and any community will eventually open itself up to welcome you as an insider. Please be my friend!!!

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