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Thursday, July 23, 2015, 09:10

The other side of cool

By Evelyn Yu

Women would kill for a date with John K. Yasuda. But the Japanese-American reality show celebrity is more interested in leveraging his star power to address humanitarian issues. Evelyn Yu writes.

The other side of cool
Yasuda (third from left) learned to communicate with farmers on the Chinese mainland in their local dialects. (Provided to China Daily)

John K. Yasuda has a remarkable story to tell about the years he spent on a personal crusade to clean up what he described as the appalling state of food safety on the Chinese mainland. Perhaps, his new book, expected for publication next year, will explain what motivated the 32-year-old Japanese-American to slog through backfields and pigsties to draw attention to food safety issues on the mainland.

Yasuda grew up in Hong Kong, and believes those years had a lot to do with shaping his personal values and, ultimately, determined the path he chose. He tends to create a stir wherever he goes. Some time back he was an object of adoration for more than 20,000 young Chinese women. They all want a date with him.

He is someone who stands out in a crowd. He was noticed on the sets of China’s hottest dating program, If You are the One. Tall, slender and cheerful, Yasuda impressed the ladies with his “stress-relieving, tap-tap dance”. And then he leapt up and punched a kick in the air. The audience simply did not know what to make of him. Meng Fei, the program host, wondered at one point whether the young man who had a flair for comedy was a “genius or a nut case”.

The television audience soon learned that Yasuda was also an eminent scholar. A post-doctoral fellow of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, he holds a BA in government from Harvard University; an MPhil in comparative government from Oxford University and a PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.

Dirt on his hands

His determination to sacrifice his personal ambition to try and make the world a better place endeared him to the television audience, and to the young women on the program.

Yasuda had turned down the chance to work for a major financial house. When the Sanlu tainted milk scandal in 2008 drew the world’s attention, he decided to pack up and fly to China, to become a crusading social activist.

He wanted to take a close look at the cultivated fields in Sichuan. The farmers were suspicious and hesitated to talk to him. Government officials would not see him. They did not have time for a foreigner who wanted to discuss the ultra-sensitive topic of food safety.

Food safety norms, Yasuda found, were indeed being flouted without a care. He avoided eating vegetables high in water content like cucumber and tomato, having seen for himself how farmers apply heavy pesticides to them. He saw pig farmers adding growth hormones and other illegal additives to the animals’ feed.

Yasuda argues that the problem really emerges from China’s massive production system, its unwieldy bureaucracy and geographic dimensions. He recalled an animal husbandry bureau official telling him when the central government issued an order banning the food additive, ractopamine, in pork, it demanded each farm with more than 50 pigs be tested for traces of the additive. The bureau had only 30-odd staff members to examine pigs at the cost of bringing everything else to a halt.

Instead of offering a clear framework and baseline, central authorities often issue arbitrary directives, disregarding local conditions, exacerbating food safety problems, Yasuda pointed out.

In the end, he became frustrated, seeing that bureaucracy was a beast that could be moved only very slowly.

He hopes his research into mainland food safety will serve as a guide to help producers improve their food supply management.

Yasuda cut short his appearances on the dating show. To the last two contestants left on the show Yasuda asked a hypothetical question — what would you do, if you were handed $10 million?

One contestant answered she wanted her life unchanged. The other said she would go on trip round the world with her mother.

Neither impressed Yasuda. He quit. “If one day you have $1 million, you can buy yourself a car, but when you have $10 million, it’s a big sum, you have to think about others.” Yasuda said on the stage.

For him the desire to “serve people” and make the world a better place, to be able to look beyond one’s narrow, self-centered goals was of vital importance. He couldn’t possibly like anyone who wasn’t that way inclined.

Yasuda’s remarks set off a debate on online forums, in micro blogs as well as the mainstream media. Many argued that Yasuda’s comments exposed a flaw in the mainland’s education system, which encouraged students to get good grades and ultimately a well-paying career at the cost of neglecting social responsibility and social consciousness.

The other side of cool
Yasuda found pesticide and other additives were heavily used during his field studies on food safety in China.

Committed to humanity

Yasuda was born in San Francisco. When he was 2, he moved with his family to Hong Kong, where his father had accepted a position with a local law firm. The family lived in an apartment at the Peak, Central.

He was a natural mimic, copying his dad reading the newspaper every morning. He once impersonated a high-school history teacher at school, only to discover the teacher had been watching his performance.

Even while he was quite young Yasuda would get involved in humanitarian activities. He volunteered to help at an orphanage in Foshan, Guangdong province, where he fed the infants, changed their diapers and kept them entertained.

Yasuda believes those early experiences shaped his values as they are now. He remained in Hong Kong until he was 18. Then, in 2001, he returned to the US for higher studies.

His Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score did not really match his high ambitions. He got through largely because of his varied life experiences, living in Hong Kong and traveling all over Asia, experiencing the many cultures. The volunteer work helped him get a place in some of the world’s best universities.

Soon Yasuda will join Colorado College as an assistant professor, a position he has earned beating hundreds of fellow applicants. He is still single. His book about his experiences in China is scheduled for publication next year. He remains committed to his “down to earth work” to make the world a better place.

Contact the writer at evelyn@chinadailyhk.com

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