A Tale of Three Countries

My name is Siyu Lei. When I was asked to introduce myself, I thought about the three countries where I was fortunate to spend the past six years, and how three of them together helped define who I am today. Here goes.

In 2012, I left my hometown Zhengzhou, China for my first trans-Pacific flight. After some thirty hours of flying, and within minutes of arriving at the unfamiliar university campus, I settled into my dormitory lounge and turned on the TV.

It did not take long before I muttered the question, one that stuck with me during the rest of my college days as a journalism student in the United States: “where is the international news in American television?”

I flew half way across the world to study journalism in the United States, for one belief that there existed something more open and honest, something with more compassion. Better yet, there shall exist the comfort of having doubts and complexions of understanding. My first impression of American news was a mild disappointment.

What puzzled me then, and now, is if the rest of the world is looking at the U.S., how is it enough that the U.S. is only looking at itself?

Siyu Lei at Kuthodaw Pagoda, in the northern Myanmar city of Mandalay, in May 2018

I grew up in an overpopulated province in Central China, a place and time where the path upward seemed squeamishly narrow. Despite being raised by parents who provided the best that they could, my homogenous upbringing presented a single version of the success story, one that I shied away, out of a relentless pursuit of knowledge and broader perspectives.

The truth is: until the past two years of living in Myanmar, I never quite understood that living in the U.S. forced a sense of duality in my quest of learning. Yet it’s not until Myanmar, an unexpected destination in life, where I obtained a tertiary perspective – a prism that exists beyond the binary U.S.-China scope, within which I’ve learned to view the world.

Until some time after I moved to Myanmar, my perspective of the once isolated Southeast Asian country was formed upon how the U.S. and Chinese media portrayed it. The New York Times published a dozen or so Myanmar stories during my first four months of living here. All of them could be summed up into three themes: sanctions, earthquake and the plight of the Rohingya. While reading one of these stories, a switch flipped on as I found myself inspecting the single narrative that the newspaper of record adopted to portray the country that I now call home.

This narrative revolves around Myanmar’s long-lasting civil war and its lack of economic development, a perspective widely shared between the media in both China and the U.S. and what helped form my sole impression of a country I never visited.

But the first four months I spent here made me see the many things this narrative does not include: the revitalization of a newly opened-up city, an ambitious attempt at education reform and how people are excited, and ready for change.

These days, I find myself pausing longer before making a point. What previously existed as a binary narrative of a story becomes increasingly multifaceted. I juggle to put together a puzzle with growing number of pieces, and with that comes the growing thrill of how the image in front of me may include and portray more stories.

Some may interpret this as confusion, but not being sure what the right argument is does not weaken me. Understanding of nuance and willingness to accept ambiguity can aid us in the pursuit of alignment and cooperation. In a world with rapidly constricting filter bubbles, and an increasing degree of polarization, the ability to seek differences and to be agile in how we formulate opinions can help us understand and communicate diverse and complicated viewpoints.

I have been and will be a storyteller, because I believe listening, delivering and curating voices becomes increasingly crucial in the world we live in now. Nothing fulfills me more to be part of that effort.

Siyu - China

Author: Siyu - China

Siyu Lei has worked for the past two years in the development and digital communication sectors in Yangon, Myanmar. This experience has propelled her to focus on the emerging countries and find out how they can be better off by being more informed and connected. With an academic background in journalism and economics, she has found herself working for established media outlets like NPR and Dow Jones, with what she sees and does daily in Southeast Asia and beyond. Any free time she has is spent on the Mandarin feminism podcast she founded, which has mounted more than 10 000 subscribers and 500 000 downloads.

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