Speaking in Tongues



I am Yi-Ling Liu, a writer based in Beijing, currently living in my home city of Hong Kong. I write mostly about the internet and the ways it is reshaping our everyday lives. 

I’ve often found that in the most powerful stories that I’ve read —regardless of how subtle her gaze, how muted his voice, or how objective their persona — we can feel the presence of the storyteller. As a nonfiction writer, I am constantly questioning my presence in a narrative. Who I am in the story? (the curious outsider? the implicated bystander? the translator?) What is my relationship to the subject? (voyeuristic? collaborative? symbiotic?)  How am I implicated and what are my stakes?

The question of persona becomes more confusing when it is conflicted, hyphenated — say, a Chinese storyteller telling stories for an English-speaking audience in a divided world. As a writer who has called Hong Kong, Beijing and New Haven home, I find myself often in the position of what Zadie Smith once called “speaking in tongues”: equivocating between the lens of the insider and the outsider, examining the places I call home with both the “objective,” parachuted gaze of the foreign correspondent, and the emotionally implicated and invested eye of the local storyteller. Increasingly, that has felt impossible. Sitting on the fault lines of two worlds, trying to weave together a kinder and more plural story with the messy threads of my own personal life, experience and biases, as two old dudes in suits — one with bright, orange hair and another jet black — threaten to rip the whole intricate stitching apart. 

On one hand, the straddler’s voice is torn — a mangled melody that cannot cohere. On her best day, she is praised for empathy and open-mindedness; on her worst, she is criticized for a lack of conviction and spinelessness. For those reasons, I often hesitate to insert myself in a story and seek to erase myself completely. The stakes are high and scary:  Are there immediate personal repercussions to publishing this story?  Will it enrich or detract from the story? Will it hurt when I reveal myself in this way?

On the other hand, the straddler’s voice — in all its complexity — can be rich, nuanced, and powerful.  Almost always, it can not be contained in a single tweet or a hot take. But the few times that I have chosen to insert myself in a narrative, to grapple with my biases, to do the work of thinking through my relationship with my subject, has been immensely empowering. Yes, I’ve come to realize that voice matters. When the loudest voices are the most rigid and uncompromising and polarized, the voice of the straddler, the equivocator, the grappling and still figuring things out, the speaker of tongues, is more urgent than ever before. 

For this week’s Rock the Boat, I ask: Who are you in your narrative? What is your relationship to your subject, and what authorial persona and voice do you assume in your stories? 

Yi-Ling Liu


Best work from our members.

🛂 Stuck in Visa Hell 
Zhaoyin Feng
and her colleagues chronicle the voices of international students at risk of deportation from the United States, for BBC News. Amy Zhang pens an Op-Ed for The New York Times about her challenge of gaining legal status in the U.S. Henry Ren and Xurui Tan report on the ways schools and faculties are trying to accommodate international students in the fall. For Washingtonian, Shuran Huang shot a self-portrait, visualizing her struggles as a photographer from China currently dealing with the long process of obtaining a visa to chase her dream in Trump’s America.

(Photo by Shuran Huang)

🎥 The Killing of Rayshard Brooks
How did a 41-minute routine police encounter suddenly turn fatal? Muyi Xiao and her colleagues at The New York Times examine official statements, police records and footage that captured the critical moments and missteps that led to the death of Rayshard Brooks. 

💊 Gifts from China 
As Covid-19 spread across borders, Beijing sent care packages with herbal medicine to Chinese students overseas. For The New York Times Sunday Review, Yangyang Cheng writes about making sense of the Chinese identity and its knotty dimensions amidst a pandemic and rising tensions between China and the U.S. 

🤐 Coronavirus Censorship
After a brief period of praising whistleblowers, Beijing is targeting medical staff and Covid-19 victims again. For Foreign Policy, Tracy Wen Liu writes about being intimidated and harassed while reporting.

👨‍🔬 Stuck In-between
For the South China Morning Post, Luz Ding tells the story of Li Xiao-Jiang, the Chinese American neuroscientist who was arrested by the FBI for his work in China. 

🏥  Preventing the Next Pandemic 
Understanding the interface of humankind and wildlife is essential to averting infectious disease outbreaks. For Outside Magazine, Wufei Yu talked to field researchers in Liberia and epidemiologists in the U.S.about what it means to prevent the next pandemic.

😠  “If you look Asian, they’ll pick on you.”
Asians and Asian Americans have faced a surge in harassment and hate attacks since the coronavirus pandemic began in China. As racial justice protests sweep across the U.S., Xinyan Yu interviews those who are speaking out against anti-Asian racism for BBC News.

(Douglas Kim is the owner of NYC Michelin-starred restaurant Jeju Noodles, which was vandalized with a racist graffiti that read "Stop eating dogs" in April. Photo by Isabelle Niu.)  

👩‍🍳 Quarantine Star
For Nikkei Asian Review, Shen Lu writes about cooking show host Sister Gao, Chinese people’s quarantine goodness, and what her recipes mean to the Chinese diaspora in the time of Covid-19.

👋 Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email hello@chinesestorytellers.com.


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

Who are you in your narrative? What is your relationship to your subject, and what authorial persona and voice do you assume in your stories? 

Yan Cong, an independent photographer in Beijing, writes that the role of the objective observer is often unattainable:

When I work on assignments for news publications, my job is to capture what happens in front of me, like a fly on the wall. No directing or staging is allowed unless it’s a portrait shoot,but it’s impossible to be an objective observer. I spend time with people I intend to photograph before taking out my camera to build trust and make them feel comfortable with my presence. I tell them about myself so that they open up to me. By the time I take the photographs, there’s already a connection, which enables me to represent them correctly and fairly, rather than just looking for perfect light and composition. 

I’m also aware that there’s always a power dynamic — I am usually the one who gets to decide how to frame a photograph and when to click the shutter to freeze a moment in their life to be seen by the public. When a story permits it, say, when I’m taking portraits of a minority group, I would usually ask my subjects how they want to be seen in the photographs, so that they feel empowered in the process.

April Zhu, a freelance writer based in Nairobi, discusses the paradox of getting the “native point of view” as a nonfiction writer: 

In her book, “The Vulnerable Observer,” anthropologist Ruth Behar articulates the paradox at the foundation of her field: to get the “native point of view” without actually “going native.” This too is demanded of foreign journalists, though what is more slippery — especially in long-form nonfiction where narrative and voice matter — is that we often don’t even recognize this as a paradox. We believe that it is possible to resist a kind of Schrödinger effect, where our presence as a foreign, classed, professional observer necessarily affects the observed. We consider only our invisible, observing eye, and forget our visible, participating body.

I recognized this paradox, but only because I didn’t have a choice. As a Chinese-American reporting in Kenya — where a racially charged backdrop of Chinese neocolonialism conscripts me into all sorts of identity politics, I don’t want to participate in — I do not have the luxury of ignoring my Schrödinger effect. My Chinese face is something I must always defuse or at least address. In the process of level-setting with interviewees, acknowledging myself in ways that I honestly don’t even know if journalists are really even supposed to do, like explaining what I do and don’t believe, where I’m “from” and why I’m here, what I know about this country, Kenya. I, the observer,  constantly entangle myself with the observed in ways that I imagine other “foreign-neutral,” white, Western journalists might assume they can choose not to. 

So what do we do about this? I don’t have answers. But for a start, I think we journalists could learn from other “professional observers.” Ethnopsychiatrist George Devereux suggests that what happens within the observer — the observer’s subjectivity — must be made known, if we are to understand what has been observed. In other words, only when I disclose and meditate on the effects observed onto me, and me them, will the work I produce approach the truth of “what really happened.” Simply omitting subjectivities and calling it “objectivity” does not result in truth.

Mengwen Cao, an independent documentary photographer and visual artist based in New York, says storytellers are always present in their stories.   

I think storytellers are always present. Speaking from my own experience, the moment I look through the lens of my camera, I’m showing my perspective. When I present my work, I am inviting viewers to look through my filter. The content I choose to leave in the frame and the context I leave out tells where I stand, literally and figuratively. The lighting choice, soft or hard, direct or indirect, straightforward or convoluted, also indicates how I see the world.    

My presence varies depending on projects. I believe there are three partakers in a story —author, character, reader. Together, they give stories meaning. I consider participants active collaborators instead of passive subjects. I have worked on stories about myself, my immediate community, as well as people with whom I might not cross paths otherwise. In any case, I always try to empathize non-judgmentally and pass the mic to amplify the voices needed to be heard the most. 

Amy Zhang, a producer for the Netflix series “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” writes: 

As the pandemic rolls on, I find myself, as a person who grew up in China and Hong Kong who now lives in New York, increasingly impacted by the news on all sides. So it is very difficult to separate myself from the pieces I write, which is why I’m currently gravitating towards op-eds and personal essays. For example, my personal experience waiting for U.S. citizenship anchors this Op-Ed, which then branches out to explore the increasingly weaponized USCIS bureaucracy experienced by all immigrants applying for status in this country. In this climate, it’s powerful to express how the regulations that may be feel abstract to many actually impact your own livelihood.

🤔 Tag @CNstorytellers on Twitter to keep the conversation going.


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

🏆 Haiyun Jiang won an inaugural Getty Image Inclusion Scholarship, which she will use to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Scripps College and School of Visual Communication at Ohio University. 

🎉 Kaidi “Ruby” Yuan was nominated as a finalist for the Los Angeles Press Club SoCal Journalism Awards for his work at Annenberg Media, in the category of crime reporting, online crime reporting, news writing and features writing. 

🎙️ Isabelle Niu talked to Cindy Gao in a NüVoices podcast episode about her journey from China to the U.S., her media projects and her evolving sense of identity and belongingness in her adopted home.

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


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc. 

Professor Maria Repnikova is looking for a student specializing in Chinese studies/international affairs for a paid RA opportunity over the end of summer/fall on a project on Chinese Soft Power. Mandarin fluency required. MESSAGE her for details. 

Global Groove is inviting young journalists from all over the world to participate in a workshop program on electronic music journalism with the aim of developing a written in-depth feature on their respective local scene. APPLY 

The Washington Post is hiring for several new positions in design and graphics. Job postings with more details coming soon. MESSAGE Chiqui Esteban for details. 

VICE is in search of a managing editor to head the digital editorial newsroom across the APAC region. The position is based in Hong Kong or another city in Southeast Asia. APPLY

The Digital Earth Fellowship is welcoming 8 artists from around the world, who throughout the period of 9 months will receive a  €13.500 stipend, sessions with acclaimed artists and scholars, and collective research groups and participation in partner events and exhibitions. The application deadline is July 17, 2020. APPLY

👀 Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writer: Yi-Ling Liu; Editor: Shen Lu; Copy Editor: Isabelle Niu

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