Woman with camera who believes that politics is people
I strive to illuminate the two-way street between everyday people and political power through videography, photography, writing and graphic design. I am drawn to complex characters and stories that pose hard questions about the ways humans relate to each other and our environment.
THE ELEVATOR PITCH
I graduated with honors from Wellesley College with a B.A. in Political Science, with an emphasis on Political Theory and International Relations. I also studied one semester at Oxford University (politics and philosophy), two semesters at MIT (anthropology and history), and one semester at Beijing Language and Culture University (literature and business in Mandarin).
I have told multimedia stories about youth advocating for legislation to address mass incarceration, Asian Americans grappling with diaspora through poetry, my grandparents' experience in the Chinese hospital system, the philosophy behind the martial art of wushu and more. I think constantly about the gears of change, the ethics of resource distribution in the world, the relation between art and life, and how collective memory exerts an incredible force on the present.
I have received jobs, awards and fellowships for my writing, photography, videography and designs. Nevertheless, I recognize the gap between my practice and my potential and humbly heed Ira Glass's advice to keep sweating.
WHAT TRULY MADE ME WHO I AM
I have learned that the world hurts. I have learned that violence is not always a crime of passion. Laws starve and maim the body; bureaucracies can enact genocides. This I learned from history, from listening intently to the stories of family, friends, elders, children and strangers, and what I've seen with my own eyes. I have learned that telling stories is a way to transform despair into righteous anger, chaos into collective action, and individuals into movements. May our hearts break so that they never close to the world again.
Age 10: We got Internet at home when I was in the fourth grade. The first website I frequented was Defenders of Wildlife, where I memorized the diets, habitats and populations of dozens of endangered animals. My first taste of organizing could be my 10th birthday, when I told friends to bring spare change instead of presents for my birthday to make a collective $25 donation to "adopt a wolf." In exchange, Defenders sent me a stuffed animal wolf that I would sit next to me as I wrote speeches that I imagined to the UN about environmental degradation.
Age 13: I didn't yet know that humans were often treated far worse than dogs at the local animal shelter. Once I entered high school, my mind shifted toward human rights when I joined my school's Amnesty International club, where we spent lunches and after school hours learning about human rights abuses around the world -- "prisoners of conscience" including journalists in Turkey, intellectuals in China, gay people in Uganda, and activists in Mexico. Every year, some friends and I baked a cake for the "birthday" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and brought it to school.
Age 14: I got my first point-and-shoot camera for my birthday, and I began photographing local activism on weekends: LGBTQ rights activists at Disneyland, the OC Walk to End Genocide for Darfur, a rally at the Chinese Consulate in LA to not deport North Korean refugees, and so on. I learned that the photograph of the protest often reached a wider audience than the protest itself. So grew my obsession with photojournalism and documentation.
Age 12-18: I felt more viscerally the extent of global inequality and poverty as well as the forces of economic development during childhood summers spent in China. My mother brought my brother and I back every chance we could over the summers, as my grandparents were getting old. Every time I returned to Beijing, it felt as if the city had changed--now women were wearing heels, now street beggars were removed from the streets, now there were five more subway lines.
We visited my grandfather's hometown, a rural town in Jiangsu Province where my father spent some of his childhood. Even as we sat and chatted with old neighbors and friends, women's hands were busy doing piecework for nearby factories twisting small plastic parts out of plastic frames and throwing them into a heap in the living room. From then on, whenever I saw a "Made in China" sticker, I'd see those restless hands. The people in my grandfather's village lived on dirt floors, but felt hopeful that their children's lives were improving within their lifetimes.
When we returned to Beijing, I called up a state institute for mute and deaf children and began volunteering there as an English teacher. The next summer, I volunteered 10-hour shifts in an orphanage for children with genetic conditions. I worked alongside the other caretakers, young women from rural China. I found out that many parents weren't actually orphans, but parents abandoned their children perhaps because they could not afford the extensive medical operations to give the child a normal life. One child, Mingyuan, 4 years old, could remember the day his parents took him to see a movie, bought him an ice cream, and then disappeared.
When I returned to high school in the fall, I ran a short campaign at school to collect 100 toys from classmates and them back the next summer. However, this convinced me that I wanted to spend my life addressing the (policy, public health, cultural, economic) conditions in which parents abandoned their disabled children, before any toy needs to be given as cheap consolation. I realized that I wanted to work on curing social ills rather than alleviate the symptoms.
Age 16: I worked for a public health research team going door-to-door to the elderly in rural towns collecting medical and social data in Anhui, one of the poorer provinces. Many of the subjects had never gone to school and couldn't write their own name, so they signed with their fingerprints. The local clinic was still plastered in Mao posters. Despite their incomes, which I knew from the questionnaires, they left my partner and I with lotus seeds from their land. I started wonder what human dignity really meant. How much of it depended on the material, and how much on the immaterial? What are the economic and cultural environments out of which freedom and dignity flourish?
Age 16: I first moved to tears by the power of collective action when Occupy LA sprung up on the lawn of City Hall. Many weekends I'd take the train to downtown LA to take photos and talk to people. I watched somebody cry as they told me about being evicted from their home. One of the most memorable experiences was taking part in Occupy University, where ten of us whose backgrounds (age, race, class, gender, culture, etc) varied as much as the city itself gathered to discuss the political roots of our problems.
I learned more about democracy and civics on this patch of grass than in the AP Government class I was taking in school. When Mayor Villaraigosa announced that the occupation was being evicted by threat of police force at midnight, I stood in a circle around LA City Hall linked arms with hundreds of people with the phone number of a pro-bono lawyer scribbled on our arms. Standing face-to-face with police in riot gear as the clock struck midnight, I felt nothing but the power of those with whom my body was literally connected to. It was my first taste of civil disobedience.
Age 17: I first felt that filmmaking could speak truth to power when conservative activists protested the Muslim Student Association at my high school, accusing them of being connected to terrorist groups and "brainwashing the youth" when mostly they fundraised for orphanages in Pakistan. My friend, who was also President of the MSA, called me and asked how we should respond (as I had leadership positions in the school newspaper, broadcast, and literary magazine). We shot a video featuring Muslim students proclaiming pride in their faith, the world religions teacher highlighting the factual inaccuracies in the flyers (the whole page was yellow), the school principal's message of community solidarity in the face of hateful messages. When the community at the local mosque welcomed me with open arms to shoot the video and friends came up to me afterward expressing how much the video meant to them, I felt the power to challenge dominant narratives.
Age 17: I entertained the idea of writing more seriously when an essay I wrote about the role of social media in the Arab Spring won the $1,500 first prize in a national youth essay competition by Amnesty International. They also paid for me to travel to a conference where I met human rights activists from around the world (I was most moved by two women civic leaders and journalists from Zimbabwe and Bahrain) and felt inspired by the fierce sense of justice each of them pursued across nation and culture.
Age 18: As I graduated high school a year young, I deferred my college acceptance and lived, studied, worked and traveled in China and spent every afternoon sitting by my grandfather's bedside learning my family history. I learned about modern Chinese history through the lens of my family:
How my grandparents met in the underground communist forces. How my grandmother was captured and tortured by the Japanese at age 19 and snuck away one night by stealing somebody else's clothes and walking many days in the cover of night. How seeing piles of dead bodies in her youth causes my grandmother to empathize with Palestinians she hears on the news who embark on suicide missions.
My grandfather's happiest memory (in rough translation): "Those nights we sat around the campfire after working in the free countryside medical clinics, heatedly discussing Marxist texts, feeling so hopeful about our country's future." My grandfather's biggest regret: "That the revolution that we fought for became this government."
How my grandfather started working at age 15, skipped high school entirely and self-studied his way into a top spot in the national college entrance exams, making him the first from his entire village to go to university. How my grandmother, eldest of four daughters, woke up at the crack of dawn every morning in the room her entire family slept in, in order to bring the pot of her family's shit down four flights of stairs in Shanghai to dump. If she can literally deal with all of that shit, there is nothing I can't deal with.
Traveled extensively in China (made $30/hr tutoring English to young children, more than enough to travel on), climbing mountains, sleeping on abandoned parts of the Great Wall, biking 220 miles on rural highways in 2.5 days, getting lifts from freight truck drivers, exploring half-demolished old neighborhoods, and so on. I had never made more friends or felt more alive. Gained the confidence that I could find friendship anywhere in the world, and opened my eyes to the number of paths one can take through life.
Age 18: My first year of college I became involved in climate justice organizing, inspired greatly in part by a classmate who was from a small community in Appalachia. Her 'backyard' was essentially a huge, black mountain of coal waste left by fossil fuel companies. We campaigned for our school to divest its $1.8 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, meeting with Wellesley College's Board of Trustees. In the spring, we took our actions from hyperlocal to national as we were arrested at the White House for civil disobedience alongside 397 students for tying our own wrists to the White House fence to display our opposition to the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
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Age 18: Headfirst dive into the social sciences with growing frustrations in the philosophical predefinitions of "justice" (in political science) and "welfare" (in economics).
Age 19: Returned to China in the summer to work in Shanghai and Beijing with an education start-up. Worked as a teaching assistant for an international relations professor from Pomona College.
Age 20: Discovered EMW Bookstore. Summer torn between economics research and arts and cultural organizing.
Age 20: Studying abroad at Oxford, which peculiarly turned me off academia (especially after having a couple beers with the Philosophy PhDs).
Age 20: Met Sam, an man who came to London as an unaccompanied child refugee, which challenged all of my assumptions. Received $3,500 fellowship to pursue documentary. Decided that I am called toward journalism and not toward policy research.
Age 21: Videography for I Have A Future
Age 22: Seriously entertained the idea of pursuing film when I won the $20,000 first prize in the NESN Next Producer student film competition for my spot feature of the Chinese martial art of wushu and my 60-second commercial for the Red Sox.
Tom Werner of the Television Hall of Fame and Executive Producer of The Cosby Show, Roseanne and That 70's Show shocked me with his feedback: “I’ve seen a hundred million dollar movies that didn’t have a shot like that ... You’ve got a big future ahead of you.”
Age 22: In my final semester of college, I applied for annual departmental writing prizes and was surprised to receive first place writing prizes in two different departments. The Political Science Department awarded me the political theory prize for my 20-paged essay on decolonizing feminist epistemology; the English Department awarded me the creative nonfiction prize for my art essay "The voices that will not be drowned: Oceans, fathers, and lovers teach British painter Maggi Hambling how to die."
Age 22: Epiphany in the rain after Stories From My Parents.