One of my favorite occurrences at Princeton is when I discover that one of my friends has done something ridiculously unique and impressive that I never knew about.
It is something that actually happens to me quite a lot. While I do think my friends are particularly awesome, and most likely better than yours, I don’t think my experience is especially rare around here; so many seemingly normal people have done so many abnormal things.
When I took on the task of interviewing Princeton’s four recently selected Rhodes scholars (and by “recently” I mean over two months ago), I was put in an unprecedented position. Rather than getting to know these people on the way to uncovering their amazing secrets, I was going to meet them knowing how incredible they were already…at least on paper. My job was to find out whether there was anything interesting about them besides the whole “Rhodes” thing.
The first thing I learned: Rhodes scholars are terrible at responding to e-mails. A week after requesting interviews from all of them, none had responded. I was ready to write a scathing article about how they are all just pretentious assholes until I got a response from Astrid Stuth. We scheduled an interview for the next day. Now I only think the other three are assholes.
This is what I knew going in: Astrid is interested in U.S.-China relations and she is working toward a career in diplomacy by studying international relations at Oxford. The chair of the East Asian Studies department Benjamin Elman has said, “she is arguably the best undergraduate student I have worked with since coming to Princeton in 2002.”
I have been interviewed plenty of times but I have never been the one asking the questions. A Rhodes scholar is a pretty intimidating person to start with. I’ll have to try my best not to think about it. Later, when I ask her what she would ask if she were interviewing a Rhodes scholar, she responds, “something that would get to the core of their character.” So, the point of this interview is to get deeper than the crap I can find in the Prince (no offense Prince) and meet the real Astrid. I want to see how she responds to a combination of pointed and perverted questions that she might not normally be asked.
This is how it went down: I show up to Frist at 2:46, fourteen minutes before our scheduled meeting, in Café Viv. It is surprisingly packed for a Friday afternoon, not that I really know anything about regular Friday traffic patterns at Café Viv. A table opens up against the front wall of Viv, fairly wide, easily accessible power outlet, quiet. Relieved, I plop down and organize myself.
A few minutes later she walks in wearing a funky, multicolored scarf and nothing else — except for a shirt, pants, shoes, socks, jewelry and (presumably) underwear. We shake hands. She has a decently firm grip – probably the correct amount of firmness. She looks me in the eyes while she shakes. She smiles. She sits down. I sit down, apple juice on my right, notebook in hand, pen behind ear, and laptop on my left, opened to a prepared list of questions and a blank Word document.
All she has brought with her is a pink Vitamin Water, on which she is resting her chin. The flavor: Focus. A sign of weakness perhaps? Why the need for extra focus? Could she be as nervous about messing up the interview as I am?
As I would later find out, Astrid doesn’t believe the flavors of Vitamin Water actually provide you the reaction they promise. She only drinks Focus (and Power-C sometimes) because she likes the taste best. Or so she claims…
My opening strategy is simple: start with some serious questions to get her comfortable and gain her trust, abruptly take an unexpected turn to catch her off guard, and pounce.
We finish introductions and take sips of our respective drinks as the smooth jazz selections of Café Viv gently fade into the background…
And we’re off!!
(NOTE: This conversation ranges from slightly to heavily paraphrased. If anything seems overtly inappropriate, I take full responsibility.)
ME: What first got you interested in China?
Astrid Stuth: I went to high school in Hong Kong where I started taking Chinese, but I wasn’t planning on doing it when I got to Princeton. I intended on being pre-med, but I decided physics was boring and I didn’t want to do it so I dropped the whole pre-med track.
One question in and we already have something in common! No offense physics but I agree; you do kind of suck. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all. Let’s continue,
ME: What is the biggest difference between Chinese people and Americans?
AS: 1) People in China have no concept of personal space.
2) Traffic is terrible and everybody is always honking. (She still gets very annoyed by honking even now that she’s back in America.)
3) Chinese people say “maybe” when they mean “absolutely yes” or “absolutely no.”
Example (provided by Astrid):
AS: “What did you do today?”
Chinese Person: “Maybe I watched a movie.”
AS: “Well did you or didn’t you?!”
4) People are willing to ask you anything because you’re white. They have no tact.
Whoa, whoa, Astrid. I just wanted to know the differences, not all of the things that are wrong with Chinese people. Two questions in and I’ve already discovered she’s a racist?
The Devious Journalist in me wants to dig deeper. The Sane Person in me chuckles at her mildly humorous observations, knowing she is absolutely not a racist and she most likely wouldn’t appreciate being called one. So he moves to the next question on the list.
ME: What is the best thing about being a Rhodes Scholar?
AS: Knowing what I’m doing next year.
ME: The worst?
AS: I fluctuate between feelings of “wow I’m this is awesome” and “wow I’m so undeserving.”
Not everyone gets to fluctuate between “wows” all the time you know.
ME: Where’d you get that horse?
AS: What horse?
ME: That high horse you’ve been sitting on ever since you got here! (I fling my arms out to the side and call out to my invisible homies, “Hold me back! Hold me back!”)
As I hope you’ve guessed, that horse part didn’t really happen. I would have liked her to be incredibly arrogant, but I have to admit she was just genuinely humble. When a Rhodes interviewer asked her what was the worst thing people say about her behind her back, she said “probably that I’m too nice.” And as fake as that would normally sound, coming from her, I somehow buy it.
It is quickly apparent that my original tactics are not going to work. She is too normal, and smart, and cooperative. Either way, these questions have been too easy. I decide I’ll move on to the fun stuff.
ME: What is the worst nickname you’ve ever gotten?
AS: Ass Turd.
AS: That one never stuck though. In kindergarten people started calling me Ostrich and that one stuck.
ME: Ok, Ass Turd, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
AS: Well … every superpower has a downside. But I guess mind-reading, even though I know it sounds really manipulative.
ME: How many roads are there in Rhode Island?
AS: I have no idea … Did you actually count them?
ME: No, I just figured you’d know.
ME: Is there life on other planets?
ME: What are they like?
AS: Hopefully not like us.
What, we aren’t good enough for you?! Sorry, I need to stop doing that.
ME: What would be the one thing you would ask if a UFO landed at Princeton tomorrow?
AS: I would want to know their creation myth, like how they think the cosmos came to be and why they think they exist.
Great answer. Next time I get abducted, I’m totally asking that.
ME: Who assassinated JFK?
AS: I might end up working for the CIA, so I don’t want to say anything bad about them. Let’s just say I’m suspicious …
ME: Will LeBron ever be as good as MJ?
AS: All I know about basketball is that there is a player called Yao Ming and a player called LeBron James. But I like it more than soccer because it moves fast. My dad and brother like soccer, but the games are so long and you can watch a whole game and nobody scores.
Didn’t answer the question whatsoever.
ME: Do you think I’m doing a good job interviewing you?
AS: I am actually taking a journalism class right now for the first time. It’s hard! I’m not good at confronting people and asking hard questions face to face.
Me neither! Sounds like my cue to start asking some hard, probably uncomfortable, questions to your face.
ME: Ok. Imagine there are two trains. One has 100 Chinese people in it. The other has 98 Americans. You can only save one, which do you choose?
AS: I have no idea.
ME: Answer the question!
AS: Well I guess the utilitarian perspective would say save the Chinese.
ME: Fine. Imagine two trains again. One has 100 Chinese people on it. The other has 50 Americans. But your brother is on the American train. Which do you save?
AS: I would have to save the American train. My brother is on it!
I thought she was a utilitarian. I don’t know what to believe anymore.
ME: So you would kill 50 Chinese people for your brother?
AS: It doesn’t matter that they’re Chinese. I would kill any 50 people for my brother.
Now I’m getting scared. I’m sitting across from a cold-blooded murderer!
It’s starting to make sense why she wants to work for the CIA. I urge anyone still reading this to stay on her brother’s good side.
ME: Ok. I just want to remind you, you don’t have to answer anything that you don’t want to. Do you know how to play fuck, marry, kill?
AS: Oh God. Yes…
ME: Good. Ok, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.
AS: Hmm, I don’t know. I would definitely kill the Easter Bunny. I think he is creepy.
ME: What about the other two?
AS: I guess I would marry Santa Claus. He would only have to be gone one night a year, and I would get unlimited presents. So I guess I would ‘fuck’ the Tooth Fairy by default.
Superb Santa reasoning. Lesbianism over bestiality any day. Well played.
That was fun, let’s try another.
ME: Mohit Agarwal, Elizabeth Buttersworth, Miriam Rosenbaum. (The other three Rhodes Scholars.)
AS: I’ll pass on that one.
ME: I understand.
ME: Why do you think the other three Rhodes Scholars did not want to be interviewed?
AS: They were probably worried about how they would be portrayed.
I can’t imagine why!
On that note, I’ll end the interview portion of this article. I think we learned some important things today—about Astrid, about me, and most of all, about friendship.
If there is anything I want you to take away from my first foray into interviews, it is that Astrid is a great person. If you don’t know her, I’d highly recommend introducing yourself, or if you’re too shy or intimidated, maybe just follow her around for a while behind a newspaper. She was incredibly accommodating and somehow remained dignified and diplomatic with all of her answers, despite my best and most awkward efforts.
If there is anything else you should take away from this it is that I am probably not mature enough to conduct a serious interview. But why would anyone conduct a serious interview?
From what I understand, the point of an interview is to get to know your subject. You get to know people by spending time with them, not by interrogating them. As I said at the beginning, you have to be friends with someone before you can know the truth about what makes them incredible. I may have heard about Astrid’s accomplishments going in, but I couldn’t understand how cool they really were until I got to know the actual person behind them.
At Princeton, we often segregate ourselves into academically “normal” people and an understood genius upper class. We are all smart and we all have impressive backgrounds, but when we get here, our priorities often rearrange. Some people somehow manage to maintain 4.0 GPAs while also working on a bunch of other things they care about. And other people follow their passions at the expense of those grades, because not everyone can balance everything at once like some circus dolphin flipping bowling pins on its nose.
This genius breed can easily stir up feelings of inadequacy among people who considered themselves the best and the brightest their whole lives, only to show up at Princeton to realize that some people are just a little bit brighter, and bester. But those people are still people like everyone else. And if a Rhodes Scholar is like all people, then by the transitive property, all people must be like Rhodes Scholars, in their own special way. 🙂
Go learn something new about one of your friends today. Or better yet, go hug a stranger. You won’t regret it. Unless that stranger has been following you around, hidden behind a newspaper. Use your discretion, and hug someone.