‘Yes, my real name is Clay Baldo. It’s Italian. I don’t give my real name very often. I'm nervous now – just joking.
I grew up in a small state called Connecticut (Ridgefield) and I lived very close to New York City. I had a very typical suburban white American upbringing, which is sort of like you worry about the prom, you worry about the girl not liking you… that’s what my town is like. Nothing bad ever happened there, but boring.
I had this one teacher who told me about the Terracotta Warriors in ninth grade. I didn’t care about necessarily going to China at that point. I didn’t care about learning Chinese. But I remember being like "I have got to see the Terracotta Warriors" for whatever reason.
I studied Chinese in Bates College in Maine, where I had a radio show. I didn’t take it seriously when I started but there’s one thing I did that set me on my way; I started inviting people into the studio to do freestyle rap. It was lucky because my spot was midnight till 2am. That was after "safe harbour hours", meaning you can curse on the radio. Oh man, it always felt like a party.
I moved to Beijing for a year in 2011 when I was a junior, and then after college I moved to Zhangjiagang in 2014 – that's when I started taking radio really seriously. I started recording life occurrences and then after five years I moved to Shanghai in 2019 and launched my podcast Strangers in China.
The first person I interviewed for it was Lily. It was my fourth day living in Shanghai. I went to this meet-up event called Tunesday. I met this woman who kept coming and talking to me because I was standing there alone and there was this guy who kept following her around and waiting there awkwardly in the background. Later I found out that she was on a blind date with the guy and she didn’t like him at all and was trying to avoid him. I ended up talking with her for episode one about “leftover women”.
I'm always looking for somebody who is different in some kind of way, who sees the world through a lens that would not be considered “the norm”. There’s a façade of the world, how things normally should be, and I am always fascinated by people who don’t fit that mould.
I’ve definitely gotten some criticism about being a white guy telling Chinese people's stories and stories about China, but I’d like to think I always strive to let someone tell their story and take myself out of it as much as possible. If I can be totally honest, I didn’t want to be the host of the show. I don’t think I am the right person to host the show necessarily. I don’t like the way I sound. I hate recording myself. I am so nervous about it and I don’t want to do it. It’d be really great if I could be in the background of all this.
A couple of months ago I was worried that I wasn’t going to get my visa renewed and I'd have to leave China. The thing that made me sad was that I kept thinking "Am I going to be missing on all the transformation in China – especially Shanghai?" It just feels like things in China are not solidified and formed and no one knows what the new, modern China is going to look like. It's a process that feels really cool and amazing.
[For season two of Strangers in China,] I speak to a gorgeous queer model and influencer whom I met literally on the street and was like "I have to talk to him" and we look at the voguing scene in Shanghai. There’ll be a whole episode on rap in China, and, ohhh, we are going to crack that cultural mystery of the 2007 hit "God is a Girl" which was never really popular anywhere else but in China (we actually interviewed the people who made the song).
I mean, none of my interviewees are changing the world but in a way, they are. They are part of something that’s bigger than themselves. It’s such an honour to talk to people who actually feel like they are part of something.'
Strangers in China is one of SupChina’s podcasts on modern China. You can listen to the first season online at supchina.com; the first episode of season two is slated for release next Friday (February 6).
As told to Yu Zhiming