Headline act

10 January 2014

From making the front-page of 'The New York Times' to finding her ancestral home, SUE-LIN WONG'S two years studying in China taught her things you couldn't learn from a textbook.

"I went to work in the morning and came back to a flattened house.

"With absolutely no warning and in the span of less than one day, my home was completely demolished. All I was left with were the clothes that I wore to work that day."

These are the words of Wei Yihua, who was huddled with me and four other locals one spring evening in her new, makeshift shack just outside Tianjin, one of China's largest cities.

They echoed like the empty streets of her destroyed town, which had been demolished as part of China's race to urbanise.

I was interviewing Wei for an article that would be published on the front page of The New York Times; part of a series examining the largest migration in human history - the creation of China's new super cities.

Two years ago, I could not have imagined that my Prime Minister's Australia Asia Award would lead me to far flung reaches of China listening to farmers, migrant workers, government officials and urban Chinese share their experiences about this massive change taking place in one of the world's fastest developing countries.

I traversed the country for this series of articles - from the manufacturing hub of coastal Zhejiang province to the heart of China's farmland in Anhui and Henan provinces and up to large, rural cooperatives in Shanxi province.

In August 2011, I started my scholarship journey by embarking on the most intense year of academic study in my life at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

There I took four hours of intensive Chinese language class per day in classes with no more than three students.

I studied ancient Chinese poetry waxing lyrical about the importance of hard work, debated the difference between sex-related slang in Chinese and English and memorised thousands of new words.

I joined the Rural Advocacy Society on campus where I met young Chinese students who came from rural areas across China. They shared stories of schools with no electricity, their memories of using a computer for the first time when they arrived at university, and mental illness in their regions.

We sold fruit every Saturday on campus to raise money for migrant children, volunteered weekly at the local migrant school, and travelled to the outskirts of Beijing and to neighboring provinces, helping professors with research on rural China.

After a year of language study, I began a year of internships at The New York Times - a week after the paper's Chinese language website was launched.  To date, I have written 12 articles in both English and Chinese and I have contributed research to another 20.

I was part of stories that took me to enormous dog markets, non-arable wasteland that was converted into world's largest eco-city, and through Beijing's ancient alleyways.

I trawled through state media for stories about the China-India border conflict, devastating factory fires and policy changes related to military license plates. I learnt how to use Chinese social media, compiling hundreds of posts about land grabs that were transformed into an interactive feature for a lead story.

While most foreign news bureaus in China consist of one or two correspondents, I have had the privilege of working in an office with over 70 staff including some of the best Chinese and non-Chinese journalists, editors, researchers and photographers in the world.

But it wasn't all study and hard work.

One of my university professors said that if he were to give me a single piece of advice about how to make the most of my scholarship, it would be "ride as many overnight Chinese trains as you can, up and down and across China."

So I crisscrossed this vast nation, sometimes at high speed, sometimes at a rattle.

I travelled with a Chinese tour group to see the famous terracotta warriors in Xi'an, froze with friends visiting from Australia in -20 degree Celsius temperatures at the ice-festival in Harbin, and gorged myself on seafood and famous local beer in Qingdao.

One of the most meaningful experiences was finding my grandparents' ancestral villages in Fujian and Guangdong provinces. In the 1930s, my paternal grandfather left his village in China for Malaysia in search of a better life. He planned to earn enough money in Malaysia to return home a few years later. History dictated a different end to that dream.

Over the course of my scholarship, I visited my father's side of the family three times and my mother's side two times. I met hundreds of relatives in my ancestral village, where 40,000 of us share the same surname. I stood, awestruck, in our clan temple and was told that I'm the 40th generation of a family that stretches as far back as 885AD.

Every single day I was humbled by the Chinese language and realised that learning Chinese will be a lifelong endeavor. I learnt more than I ever thought I would about topics as diverse as Chinese language, culture and society, journalism and life. Most of what I learnt came from making hilarious, often mortifying, mistakes.

But one aspect of my time in China has stood out, towering above everything else.

It was the people I met and the friends I made who shaped most of my favourite memories.

Late night chats with my Chinese housemate about the realities of being a gay man in China. Sleepovers with my closest Chinese girlfriends where I would try and explain what it means to me to be an overseas Chinese in China.

Debates with my great Chinese teacher who became an even better friend about the connection between happiness and having choices. Dancing on sofas at karaoke until the early hours of the morning with friends.

Extended lunches and dinners with my colleagues in the basements of Beijing's seemingly endless choice of malls. Auditing Marxism and Leninism classes in the Tsinghua Art Department with my friends form the Rural Advocacy Society on campus. Hanging out with my second cousins in our ancestral village and eating food that reminded me of home.

It is these deep, human connections that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Sue-Lin Wong has just returned from China where she was based as a Prime Minister's Australia Asia Award scholar from 2011 to 2013. She is studying Asia Pacific studies and law at ANU.  

For information on study programs on Asia and the Pacific visit asiapacific.anu.edu.au/students.