On a Thursday afternoon in mid-November, I met author Mara Hvistendahl at Tea House on University Avenue. We were instructed to sign in via a wall-mounted iPad, even though the restaurant stood largely empty.
“Overcomplication through technology is very authentically Chinese,” noted Hvistendahl as we stood unattended by the host stand, waiting for something to happen.
“Mara!” announced a host loudly and briskly, which was odd as we remained the only people waiting for a table. But we got a terrific booth: back in the corner, screened by carved wood, further obscured by ceiling-height curtains of gray silk.
Hvistendahl looks like a writer as played by a movie star on screen: She has a wide mouth, gray-blue eyes, and a chic blond ponytail with bangs. In a blink of her copper-shadowed eyes, our vegetables arrived and I found myself riveted—eyes watching, mind thoroughly uncomprehending—as Hvistendahl and the waiter traded a volley of fast, low Mandarin on the topic of greens.
We had ordered pea tips, you see, but received water spinach. And after going around in a circle, Hvistendahl finally settled the argument with an exasperated widening of her eyes and a dismissing bob of her chin. The message, which transcended language? I’m not going down this rabbit hole because I don’t have time, not because you’ve won.
With that, the server bowed away with a masked expression that suggested equal parts cheer and puzzlement, presumably at finding a looker of a blond lady who knew Mandarin well enough to argue about water spinach in his corner booth in an otherwise ordinary lunch service. Soon enough, he returned with the shengjian bao, the Shanghai pork buns that had drawn us to this university-area restaurant owned by a company based in China.
“They’re grease bombs, but so good,” Hvistendahl had told me when she was selecting a spot for our lunch. Hvistendahl lifted a plump ivory bundle with her chopsticks. “Watch out, there’s a bit of soup in there that can get messy.” Hvistendahl managed to not get any on her chic sweater set, and, thankfully, I was wearing black.
With that, we became silent in our private booth in the back of Tea House for a few delicious shengjian bao moments, curtained behind the great swaths of silver silk.
The silk seemed fitting, as I had just learned through a recent story of Hvistendahl’s, in the journal Foreign Policy, that silk dominated Chinese industrial espionage in the year 550 A.D., when Emperor Justinian sent monks from Constantinople to steal silkworm eggs. The more things change?
We’d met to talk about Hvistendahl’s new book on current Chinese industrial espionage, The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage (Riverhead). It opens with an Iowa farmer and sheriffs discovering a Chinese national wandering in a cornfield, and then spotting two more in a car. Suddenly, we’re smack-dab in the middle of a global story about intellectual property theft, corn, and discrimination against Asian American scientists, set right here in the corn-filled Midwest. That this scenario is literally front-page news doesn’t stop it from feeling a little like a spy movie—which is why you can read an excerpt in Vanity Fair Hive.
The Scientist and the Spy is the third in what we might call Hvistendahl’s Chinese trilogy, which started with Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (from 2011, and a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize) and continued with And The City Swallowed Them (2014), about the seedy underbelly of Chinese high-fashion modeling, where young women from rural villages meet the dangerous new city.
Hvistendahl, who grew up in Hopkins, spent almost a decade, on and off, reporting and writing from China before moving back to Minnesota in 2014. The return came unexpectedly: She experienced complications while pregnant with her second child. After flying home with her two-year-old and her mother, Hvistendahl spent 10 weeks at HCMC on bed rest, watching the new Vikings stadium rise out the window while she sketched a proposal for her new book.
“It was a very weird experience,” she said of her restrictions. “I felt fine, but couldn’t go anywhere; I was just the vessel.”
Everything worked out all right in the end, and now Hvistendahl, 39, arranges her days around kids and writing for a host of magazines including The Atlantic, Popular Science, and Wired. (Look for her true-crime story about an attempted Bitcoin murder-for-hire in Cottage Grove, which ran in Wired last May, if you never want to trust anyone again. She’s heard it may be adapted for a Black Mirror–style show.)
During a break from the stream of food, I peppered Hvistendahl with questions about how her China career began. Her recent work, she explained, comes after generations of Minnesotans fascinated with China. Her grandfather served as a missionary in Taiwan, and her mother lived there for part of high school. When Hvistendahl’s parents divorced, her mother, an immigration attorney, ended up house sharing with a Chinese mother and her son. Young Hvistendahl soon found herself doing most of her school projects on China, taking Chinese language courses at Hopkins High School, and carrying the interest forward to study Chinese at college.
At Columbia University for J-school, she discovered she had the pluck and gumption of a modern-day Brenda Starr. When she heard the Republican National Convention would come to New York City in 2004, she took a waitressing job at Scores, a strip club then a fixture of the Howard Stern Show. And she turned her nightly observations into an anonymously credited series for The Village Voice, which became a viral sensation.
I told Hvistendahl I’d have a hard time recognizing midlevel Republican operatives in the dark. “They tell you!” she laughed. “‘Don’t you know who I am?’ The whole thing made me a little paranoid. I’d be in the bathroom scribbling notes and stuffing them in my bra. I thought they’d figure out who was writing it all and I’d get fired. But it turned out reading The Village Voice was not Scores management’s priority.”
When the stunt ended, her Village Voice editor suggested Hvistendahl take her Chinese language skills to China, where she discovered her current passion. “I’m interested in the intersection of technology and what was there before. How technology comes in and reveals what was hidden.” For instance, in her newest book, corn seed agribusiness becomes a proxy battleground between the world’s two economic superpowers.
Suddenly, the biggest platter of beef I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant arrived at the table. The meat lay beneath discs of serrano peppers on top of something I initially took for noodles, but later learned to be crunchy bean sprouts. “I should go out for Chinese food more,” Hvistendahl said, scanning the platter fit for six. “But I’m so busy with kid dinners, and you know how it is.”
I do know how it is: Daycare pick-ups and interesting dinners across town tend to be mortal enemies. Hvistendahl’s children are now 4 and 6, and learn Dutch from their dad at home, and one learns Chinese all day at school. Her life of international letters factors little in her day to day. “I’d say three-quarters of the people I interact with on a daily basis have no idea I write—or any of this.”
At “this,” Hvistendahl gestured at Tea House, and by extension all the world outside of daycare pickups, reaching all the way to China.