A cursory reflection of 2020 in December may reveal that nobody's bucket list was fulfilled. The year has spun far out of anyone’s control due to COVID-19. But are you really letting the pandemic define your 2020?
This year, despite visa debacles, canceled trips and stingier clients, I delivered two stories that I feel proud of: a long-form narrative about China’s rock climbing and an investigation into a cannabis scam on the Navajo Nation that duped thousands of Chinese immigrants. As a rookie outdoorsman, I finished my first 5.12 (for novices, this is a hardcore rock climbing route), and started ascending crags outside and solo backpacking in the backcountry. More than ever, I realized that logging off and taking a break are not laziness or weakness, but self-care and a chance to recharge.
A silver lining always reclines somewhere. My fellow Chinese Storytellers share how they’d like their 2020s to be remembered.
2020 taught me to love myself. As a society, we’ve learned to value mental health more and give each other grace in the workplace and at home. I started therapy in January, not knowing how necessary it would become in the following months. I prioritized myself and I’m proud of that — something I wouldn’t have been able to say a year earlier.
I took the time and space to unpack deep-rooted beliefs about myself, build boundaries in difficult relationships, and tune into my emotions. As healers and somatics teachers Prentis Hemphill and Adrienne Maree Brown taught me, boundaries are loving myself enough to stand in my fullness so that I can extend care and love to my community. I used to view boundaries as limits, but am realizing how liberating they can be instead.
Jingnan Peng, multimedia producer at The Christian Science Monitor, Massachusetts, United States
George Floyd’s death prompted my newsroom’s first all-staff meeting on diversity, where I spoke up about discriminatory editorial decisions on disability, a topic I care about deeply. An outpour of support from my colleagues pushed managing editors to promise not to make the mistakes I pointed out again.
Over the past six months, I’ve had much more support from my newsroom for covering the disability community (mind you, it's America's largest minority group). I produced my best work since I joined my outlet in 2017. Joe Biden quoted Floyd's daughter, Gianna, in a campaign speech: "Daddy changed the world." George Floyd has certainly changed mine.
Shuran Huang, independent photographer, Washington, D.C., United States
My work year didn’t start until August 15, the day my work visa was approved. It was a gnarly wait, but I learned to trust the process and cultivated my patience. After the visa approval, I shot many dream assignments like a long-form photo series about Asian American voters. I was thrilled to become one of the 24 mentees, out of over 1,000 applicants, for the 2021 Women Photograph mentorship class. In 2020, I realized my identity as an Asian woman and started to appreciate my Asian power. I will carry this power into all my current and future photojournalism work and use it as armor to elevate Asian voices.
Being so far away from my parents, especially my father, a frontline healthcare worker, I am blessed that they are well and safe. The pandemic has brought us closer. I hope to bring my resilience and perseverance into the new year.
April Zhu, freelance journalist, Nairobi, Kenya
2020 radicalized a lot of people. Cascading crises—climate change, racial injustice, and the pandemic—have forced all these large-scale, connected problems—and how they relate to power—right into our sightline. Sitting at home and watching the world burn for almost a full year has made many more of us storytellers wonder whether it is possible at all to be "neutral." Or, if it is, then if neutral is something we should even strive to be.
I followed this line of self-inquiry throughout 2020. I began to question who gets to define what is "impartial" and "balanced" enough for journalism. I examined for whom my work exists, and for whom else it could be. I looked at the structural violence that I cover in my stories and challenged myself to decide if I could possibly be neutral here, or if neutrality was simply complicity. I started 2020 applying for a staff writing job at a mainstream outlet. I will close 2020 launching a podcast about Pio Gama Pinto, one of Kenya's freedom fighters, a socialist, and the political assassination after independence. The podcast is in Sheng', the street vernacular spoken in Nairobi's ghettoes, and its project is just as much political education as it is historical biography. The distance between these two points is the arc of my evolution this year.
Hui Tong, documentary filmmaker, Beijing, China
When the pandemic hit New York in March, I knew the documentary festivals that would run my film would get delayed. I sat at my desk and tried to convince myself: Okay, I have no other choice but to switch from Premiere to Word, from camera to pen, for a while.
The tweak changed me so much. Trump’s “Chinese Virus” comment sparked my book idea about Asian and Chinese identity. Before 2020, I had never considered writing one. Luckily, months of lockdown provided a long window of tranquility for intense reading, organizing my thoughts, and reflecting on my six years in the United States. Putting pen to paper felt vastly different from documentary filmmaking. But the excitement of storytelling persists. Now I’m back in China for new stories and picking up my camera again. Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s for an exciting 2021 to tell.
Jane Li, tech reporter at Quartz, Hong Kong
What didn’t suck in 2020 is that I spent more time hanging out with people whose political views I didn’t agree with. For me, the disruptions brought by the pandemic, including being unable to travel, has crystallized the importance of having solid relationships offline with real people.
Yes, I sometimes argue with friends whose opinions on issues like Hong Kong I don’t agree with, but I also appreciate the time I spent with them just talking about random things and making silly jokes. Listening to views opposite to mine helped me understand better how such opinions were formed and why I disagreed with them. At the end of the day, we are all just ordinary humans who need support and love. As long as one is not actively engaging in or promoting the atrocities, they deserve to be heard as much as the more liberal bunch do.
Yingjie Wang, investigative journalist, Hebei, China
It’s hard to talk about achievements as someone who lost her job and left America with her investigative series unfinished. But complaining doesn’t help much, and fretting over things you cannot change will only narrow your imagination of the future.
As the coronavirus shattered the U.S., I shifted the focus of my reporting from topics I’m familiar with to something more urgent - the pandemic and underprivileged communities. It was a valuable lesson for me: being in this profession requires open-mindedness and flexibility. I also hunkered down and learned new skills like data processing and D3 chart-making.
I want to wrap this special year with a few words I sent to my source before I left America: I don’t know what the future is holding for me, but not knowing is what makes life exciting.
Henry Gufeng Ren, reporter at Bloomberg News, Illinois, United States
For me, 2020 has been a year of breakthrough. I became a full-time reporter after a virtual graduation from journalism school. I joined Bloomberg News, an organization that I’ve looked up to since a school trip to Bloomberg’s Beijing newsroom in 2017.
This crazy year gave birth to countless dramatic stories. In July, my classmate and I made a 48-hour dash to report the impact of Trump ’s immigration policy on Chinese students. The story, my newspaper debut, appeared on USA Today’s print edition the day I turned 23. After graduation, I took a 12-week remote internship with Bloomberg’s U.S. economy team. I reported on young Americans’ job struggles, household finances and Amazon’s Prime Day. All the hard work paid off—the internship materialized into a full-time position at Bloomberg. To all Chinese j-schoolers who are reading this, you can make it, too. With passion, curiosity and toughness, we can be the ones to tell China stories for an international audience.
Qinling Li, independent filmmaker, Washington, D.C., United States
After the U.S. election week, I decided to reward myself with a two-month vacation after the progress I made in 2020: In January, I edited a political series about “blue wall” states for Politico. In March, I produced a short documentary about the controversy over the “Tim Tebow Bill”. In June, I filmed parts of Mike Shum’s COVID-19 PBS documentary in Richmond, Virginia and published a mini documentary about how Chinese folk dancers practice during quarantine. In August, TRT’s World Showcase broadcasted my video on Nüshu. In October, I published my best short documentary of the year on black gun-rights activists.
In 2020, I also renewed my O1-B visa, started a production company, Dec8 Productions LLC, with my partner, and doubled my savings. My life before 2020 was filled with confusion and self-doubt, as I was never satisfied with my job in the newsroom. Now, I am confident to say that a project-based career is what I look forward to next year.
Qin Chen, multimedia journalist at South China Morning Post, Beijing, China
At the end of this rollercoaster year, I find myself ruminating on those mundane personal moments that happened in the margins of my reporting job. I remember the warm fuzzy feelings after sharing a simple Spring Festival meal with a friend after we were stuck in Beijing as Wuhan went under lockdown. I remember the electrifying joy after scoring my first jump shot after courts reopened following months of quarantine. It felt like Christmas. I remember driving my parents to the countryside, sitting in the green rice paddies and listening to the humming of insects. After that trip, I’d always close my eyes and allow my mind to wander back to the time in those rice paddy fields when I felt stressed covering deaths, illnesses and people being oppressed.
Meiying Wu, video intern at the Los Angeles Times, California, United States
A year full of uncertainties is a year full of unexpected growth. In June, I wrote about early actions that San Francisco’s Chinatown took against the coronavirus for The New York Times. Never had I imagined to have such an opportunity, as I primarily focus on visual storytelling. I’m thankful that my internship with the Los Angeles Times wasn’t canceled, and that my boyfriend, a fellow Chinese Storyteller, has found a new job and moved to L.A., to live with me after a year in a long-distance relationship. We also started an Instagram account to document our cat’s daily routine of eating, sleeping, and catching-toys-like-a-dog. The three of us already look forward to an even more fulfilling year: 2021 it will be.
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