On the Fantasy of American Exceptionalism

No. 36

Hey there,

My name is Shuran Huang, and I am an independent photographer based in Washington, D.C.

Six years ago, I flew to the United States in the hope of receiving advanced education and to experience what American movies depicted as a shining beacon of democracy. Little did I know that I would go on to become a photojournalist and capture this country through my own lens.

On Jan. 6, 2021, as thousands of insurrectionists took over the Capitol, I received a call from a photo editor at National Geographic asking me whether I would be able to cover the violent siege. I was terrified. I didn’t have proper gear, so I called up a friend to borrow his bicycle helmet, meanwhile calling another photographer friend for safety tips. The fear for my personal safety overtook me in that moment. Over the past months, almost every time I covered Trump rallies, I was told to go back to my country. But as an immigrant woman in an industry dominated by white males, I felt compelled to grasp every opportunity. So I took the assignment.

(Credit: Shuran Huang for National Geographic)

I had never felt so powerless before. Standing amidst the angry mob, I felt my identity — an immigrant woman of color — was something to be fearful about. The instability and intolerance I’ve experienced in the short time I’ve spent in this country has made me doubt American exceptionalism. I have been working with my therapist to try to process the deeper emotional damage this experience has caused. But I am still here because I believe in the power of storytelling. I want to use my voice and my images to elevate the stories of so many others. 

In this week’s Rock the Boat, fellow Chinese storytellers reflect on their own experience covering political unrest in America.

Shuran Huang 黃舒然


MAKE A SPLASH 卧虎藏龙

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(Credit: Shuran Huang for National Geographic)

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ROCK THE BOAT 抛砖引玉

Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

Eric Lee, a D.C. based photojournalist reflects on how the U.S. Capitol, an impenetrable sign of American democracy for his immigrant grandparents, has been challenged on Jan.6.

On January 6, I was on assignment for Bloomberg News, covering former President Donald Trump speaking at the “Save America March.” This was my first, and last, official Trump rally, so I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of yelling and cursing that was about to happen. Soon, President Trump said that news organizations weren’t sharing “facts,” which led the crowd to jeer at us. He then continued his rhetoric of downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, again calling it the “China Virus,” which led me back to a familiar worry of my safety as a Chinese American photojournalist. 

Due to the number of people congregated, I hadn’t had cell service all morning, leaving me somewhat blind to the happenings beyond my line of sight. Once I walked out a couple blocks, I began hearing about the breach. I had to be there. It was too late to ask my partner to bring my safety equipment, a ballistic vest and gas mask, but I honestly didn’t think I would need it during the day. 

At the Capitol, I saw thousands of protesters marching and chanting. From the Sergeant-at-Arms parking lot, a small cloud of haze lifted from the steps of the Capitol. Stuck in the crowd, I decided to go around and climb a short wall. I knew I needed to get as close as possible to see what was happening. The closer I got, the faster my heart started to beat. I was nervous for what I could encounter, especially after the summer — getting caught between police or protesters ready to use deadly force is what I wanted to avoid. At the base of the Capitol, someone released a red smoke grenade. I’m not sure why they chose red. Maybe they chose it to represent the Republican party, or to represent the blood that would be spilled. 

There were people all around me, climbing scaffolding, running away with tearing eyes, and pushing me to get closer faster. I eventually made my way to the west side entrance by navigating the Inauguration Day scaffolding. People had out batons, ice picks, and whatever they could find to hit police with; they even brought a ladder and sledge hammer to help them get inside. During a clash, rioters captured a police officer and beat and tased him. Standing on a ledge, I watched the officer gasp for air, drowning in the waves. Just behind him was a “Thin Blue Line” flag, a tapestry in support of law enforcement. Even in the chaos, the irony was not lost.

The clashes worsened as police and rioters traded volleys of mace and pepper spray. The cold air filled with stinging smoke, as the wind blew irritants everywhere. Eventually, police deployed tear gas into the crowd. The white haze covered the view of the Capitol like snow in a winter storm. Wearing a KN95 mask and armed only with two cameras, I was very aware of how obviously I looked to be a member of the media. My National Press Photographers Association badge was out over my jacket to let people know that I wasn’t “fake news,” whatever that means to them. I began to worry as people began to chant about the “CCP,” the Chinese Communist Party. Others began to yell about the “China Virus” again. I no longer worried about the pepper spray and tear gas, but that I could be mobbed. Just earlier, another police officer was attacked, captured, and held captive by the group. They yelled to take his gun and kill him with it for not protecting “the people.” As I tried to remain inconspicuous while capturing the scene, a question kept running through my mind: Could I be next?

Last summer, I asked my mother for the old box of slide film that was sitting in her cabinet. I’ve never looked at them before. I eagerly dug through them, finding my father’s old architecture projects, trips, and street scenes. One of the last boxes I opened was of my grandparents visiting Washington, D.C. It was like stepping into a time machine opening that box of Kodachrome from 1975, my father and grandparents looking so different, but yet, so familiar. In one slide, my grandparents were sitting in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, the same place where a noose hung during the insurrection. In another photo, my grandparents walked down the staircase, smiling as they held onto the railing. That’s the same place I was forced to leave due to the flashbangs and tear gas. 

(Photo courtesy of Eric Lee)

After I left the riot, assured friends and family I was safe, and filed my photos, I remembered these photos and the new meaning they now held for me. I believe the Capitol was a special symbol to my grandparents. As new immigrants from nearly a decade earlier, the Capitol was an impenetrable sign of American democracy. They are now in their 80s and have watched demonstrations erupt in their old home of Hong Kong and current home of the U.S. They know that their only grandson is in the thick of everything, bearing witness to the threats on democracy and liberty. I’m proud to be photographing the world and its struggles and its successes. I hope to continue photographing more moments like my grandparents walking the Capitol, so my grandchildren can see what they saw at the white dome, hope.

My grandparents walked down the Capitol steps in 1975. (Photo courtesy of Eric Lee)

Wufei Yu, a journalist covering underrepresented communities in the American West for High Country News in New Mexico, says recent events do not exist in a vacuum. The mob’s dangerous ideologies and rhetorics are deeply rooted in America’s past and present. 

Two days into my new job, I started to bury myself in researching right-wing extremism in New Mexico. After the D.C. riot, Couy Griffin, the leader of “Cowboys for Trump” and an elected official in southeast New Mexico, threatened bloodshed on Inauguration Day and, to topple even Trump himself, if he were to call for a concession. 

His violence-inducing expressions and the pro-Trump far right mob’s evolution show striking parallels with the history of the American Southwest: the region’s earliest settlers followed Manifest Destiny, committed genocide against Native Americans and thought their usage of land — mainly, ranching — would be unchecked by federal laws. Back then, the gun-toting, mostly white ranchers saw the regulations as D.C. infringing on their inherited rights. Mantras like “whatever it takes” to defend “their land” trended widely. Minor clashes blew up to militia standoffs and bomb-planting plots against federal agencies. 

During the anti-regulation Trump years, right-wing extremist ideologies shifted into the mainstream; elected officials in the Southwest were not shying away from dangerous rhetorics; local and regional law enforcement rubbed shoulders with vigilantism. “Cowboys for Trump” expanded and gained support by fighting against a Mexican grey wolf reintroduction program and has eerily similar twists to historical anti-government movements in the region. 

Anti-Indigenous systemic racism and armed anti-environmentalism has turned into domestic terrorism in the Southwest, and the bigotry sweeps all across the U.S. in different ways. But after the rioters stormed the Capitol, American media, from left to right, compared what happened to Baghdad, Kabul, Venezuela and Syria. Anchors presented obsolete exceptionalism, the “this-is-not-who-we-are” myth, and shared it with millions of anxious Americans. Yet domestic terrorism is an American symptom that requires an American approach to grasp and tackle. Recognizing that this has always been an American problem is a much better starting point. 

Qinling Li, a freelance video journalist who saw a different side of the Capitol events, shared her concerns of polarization and reflections on media bias. 

When the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, I was out filming a priest’s journey to the largely peaceful rally that happened earlier on the day. We arrived at the National Monument at sunrise, and the queue was surprisingly long. People came from all over the nation, greeting each other warmly. Few wore masks or practiced social distancing. I was more afraid of catching COVID-19 than of being attacked by Trump supporters. Most people I encountered were friendly to me. Not everybody who went to D.C. that day is a lunatic white supremacist. I saw Iranian-American teenagers passionately express their love for Trump and Chinese American groups marching with American flags and pro-Trump signs. For most, coming to D.C. was their act of “patriotism,” their version of the “French Revolution.”

I was also shocked by the huge turnout at the rally. Would the end of the Trump era wind down these Trump fanatics? I strongly doubt it. If the government and the mainstream media fail to understand them, the divide will only become wider. But  I am doubting even more for true bipartisanship after living through the past four years. People care more about winning than making a compromise in the two-party democracy. When the election becomes about who can deliver a sicker burn against your opponent rather than about the merit of policy, democracy becomes political theatre. The media, shaped and fueled by polarizing politics, is only making things worse: audience-driven content traps citizens in their own bubbles. 

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RAISE A GLASS 拍个马屁

We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

🏆  Shen Lu and Zeyi Yang joined Protocol | China as reporters covering China and tech. 

📺 Dolly Li (Plum Radio), Ang Li (Loud Slurp), Yi Chen (First Vote) and Hao Wu (76 Days) made it onto AAJA’s End of Year Top 10 Lists.  

🎉 Meiying Wu’s podcast episode from April on San Francisco Chinatown’s Covid-19 response made it onto this list for Standout solutions journalism of 2020.

🎙️ Rui Zhong speaks with BBC World about the outlook of the U.S.-China Relations under Biden.

📷 Shuran Huang has been selected as one of the 2021 Women Photograph 2021 mentees.

📣 Muyi Xiao is officially joining Visual Investigations as a video journalist at the New York Times

🍻 Henry Gufeng Ren joins Bloomberg as a reporter covering consumer brands. 

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


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Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc.

Magnum Foundation’s Spring 2021 fellowship is open for applications. Deadline is Feb. 25, 2021. APPLY.

AFP is looking for an English-language editor to join its fact check team. APPLY

The Financial Times has a vacancy for a China Correspondent, based in Beijing. APPLY

IWMF is funding women and non-binary journalists for a year-long program to become safety advisors and trainers. Application for IWMF’s 2021 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship is open for application. APPLY by Feb. 25 and MESSAGEJin Ding with questions.

故事 FM is hiring for four positions. APPLY

YLE News, Finland’s public broadcaster,  is looking for a Chinese-speaking news assistant in Beijing. Please send a CV and cover letter. EMAIL

The Telegraph is seeking a news assistant to join its Beijing bureau. MESSAGE Xinyan Yu if interested.

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant is looking for a news assistant in Beijing. EMAIL with resume and introduction. 

Due Diligence from Blackpeak is looking for Chinese-language research ASAP. Mention you learned about this via Chinese Storytellers. EMAIL

👀 Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.


Writer: Shuran Huang; Editor: Isabelle Niu; Copy Editor: Shen Lu

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.