by Alina Gonzalez '08
The year that Sarah Jackson Han '88 began her graduate dissertation at Cambridge University on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale was the same year that Tiananmen Square erupted in gunfire.
"I spent the whole of June 2nd to June 6th, 1989 hunched over my radio, glued to the BBC World Service as one of my Dartmouth professors, the journalist Jonathan Mirsky, was hauled off by Chinese PSB officers, beaten, and finally released, whereupon he recounted his story to the world," Sarah recalls.
Sarah suddenly knew where she belonged. The following week, she bought a one-way ticket to Asia, and stayed in Hong Kong with a Dartmouth friend she had met in the dorms.
After several frustrating months of job-searching, Sarah landed a position with Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, which was setting up a regional head office in Hong Kong at the time. She stayed with them for nine years doing much of what she had done as executive editor on the D: reporting, editing, and translating news from French to English.
"I loved it all," she says. During a visit home to Washington, D.C. in 1992, Sarah met her future husband at a dinner party hosted by her father, Thomas P. Jackson '58, and a stay that was supposed to have been brief quickly became permanent. She married Ed Han in 1993.
But even though Sarah relocated from Hong Kong to D.C., her interest in Asia - which began in 1970 when a journalist neighbor covered President Nixon's groundbreaking trip to Mao's China - continued to flourish. In the years following her marriage, Sarah went on to work for National Public Radio and then Radio Free Asia, where she is director of communications.
At RFA, she oversees English language news content for and about the closed countries of East Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, where freedom of expression is restricted and media are tightly controlled. RFA reporters cover news that government officials try to suppress. It is then aired on short- and medium-wave radio, published on the Web, and e-mailed around the world. Countless RFA stories have now been republished in major media worldwide, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and aired on the BBC and CNN.
Sarah's editorial interests include foreign policy, public health, arts, and media. This past year, she worked on a major series of stories about mental health in Asia, as well as a large-scale editorial project called "Women in their Own Words," which comprises first-person narratives from women in East Asia, who are underrepresented in the media except as vixens or victims.
The work that this busy mother-of-two does daily is a true extension of her greatest lifelong interests: media and culture. "I have always been fascinated by the power of language, images, sound, and other cultures," Sarah says. Her exposure to foreign cultures was extensive because of her upbringing in the nation's capital.
"Every year, new students from as far away as Australia or China or Spain would appear, transported by their parents' jobs, and I would grill them all relentlessly about what life was like in the countries they had left behind," she says.
At Dartmouth, Sarah majored in English, edited The Dartmouth, sang in the Decibelles, and continued to spend time on stage - just another manifestation of her love of language and expression. Today, she jokes about the hole she dug for herself by taking calculus as a freshman but says that most of what she studied stuck with her and that she is "terribly grateful" for her liberal arts education.
"I still re-read Emerson's 'Essay on Self-Reliance' and Donne's Holy Sonnets regularly," Sarah says.
Her junior year, Sarah discovered an unquenchable thirst for Renaissance literature and wrote her thesis on one of Shakespeare's late plays, Coriolanus. Her passion for Shakespeare is as strong as ever and now dovetails with her interest in Asian culture: She says she can't wait to take her children to a production of Hamlet in Beijing.
Recently, Sarah was thrilled to discover that a Beijing publisher had issued a new Complete Works of Shakespeare in simplified Chinese, and a first-ever Complete Works in Tibetan. Sarah has already taken her two daughters, Gillian and Genevieve, to productions of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew. "They loved it all," she says.
How does Sarah manage being a working mother with a lawyer husband who works seven days a week? "It's a constant challenge," she says, "but I learn so much from working with Burmese and Chinese and Uyghur colleagues that I can hardly imagine any other life." She also keeps a reduced schedule so that she can spend time with her two daughters, whom Sarah describes as "madly curious" about everything and who enjoy learning about her colleagues.
"This past week I watched my daughter's eyes grow wide as I described the sorts of choices parents in many developing countries face every day," Sarah says.
"For them, the daily decisions aren't what to make for dinner, or whether to buy a new water filter for the kitchen; it's which child gets to go to school this month, and whether it's safe to leave the older children alone at home while mum takes the baby out in search of clean water. We are so fortunate in so many ways, but so few of us truly appreciate it."
A daily reminder of the disparities between countries such as the United States and the developing countries Radio Free Asia covers flashes across her laptop screensaver in the words of her beloved Bard: "There is a world elsewhere." It's a line from Sarah's favorite Shakespeare play, and she jokes that it could be her epitaph.
"No matter where you are, who you are, or where you live, there is always, always, a world elsewhere, to be discovered, questioned, and experienced," she says. Her greatest fear is that the internet, television, and the advent of so many instant messaging devices "will turn everyone in the developed world into complacent couch-potatoes who don't even bother to read about new things, let alone visit new places."
Sarah Jackson Han and her family, players on the global stage, stand as inspiring testaments to all that can be accomplished when people do stop to realize that there are, indeed, worlds elsewhere.
Last Updated: 6/21/12