July 5, 2020

LIU | Who Tells Your Story?

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I joined The Sun in fall 2017 for reasons I no longer remember, but I was certain that I would not last a semester. I had never done any journalism in my life, and before college, I had never written anything in English more than 300 words. Somehow, I stuck around and even made it to editorship, but every single day I was down at The Sun’s red brick office in the Commons, I questioned if I was qualified to be there. When I had to call the shots on something, I wondered if the swarm of talented people in the newsroom was actually convinced by my reasonings, or if they were just being nice.

I’ve been hyper-aware of who I am since the very beginning of my time in this country, when a customs officer at John F. Kennedy airport commented on how well I speak English “for a Chinese student” as he stamped my passport. Throughout college, I have repeatedly been told that my accent and knowledge about America could fool anyone into thinking that I’ve lived here forever.

Having a disguise like this did make my life easier in many ways, but it also brought me tremendous guilt, as if I had selfishly escaped the collective fate of being one-dimensionalized by the politics of our home country and assigned to the labels of “spoiled,” “isolated,” “indifferent” and “brainwashed,” even though international students too are people with distinct backgrounds, interests and personalities. There’s no way I can know for sure, but as I proudly told everyone that I’m from the beautiful city of Shanghai, I imagined the thought of “Why should I trust her to run this newsroom/lead this group/spearhead this project?” had at least crossed someone’s mind at some point.

So after joining The Sun, I had one goal: I wanted to prove that I could be a good reporter despite growing up without any notion of the free press, for which I have no defense to provide. But then it quickly became something more. As I scoured the campus for stories, I found that neither the uniqueness that comes with my identity or the animosity against it has been given the attention it deserves. I found people habitually staying silent because they thought their story didn’t matter. I found that although The Sun is already much more diverse than many professional newsrooms out there, our focus is still disproportionately set on the select few already bathing in spotlight, all the while underrepresented minority faculty are fighting against racial bias, the history of LGBTQ activism at Cornell is getting dusty on the shelf and the college experience shared by almost one-fifth of this community has never been made aware to the other 80 percent.

Their stories are not being told because there’s no one listening to them. There’s no one who connects with them or understands what they are going through. Then I decided I want to be that person. I wanted to bring these unheard stories to the front page, not to make any accusations but simply to show that maybe what you know isn’t everything. Sure, you’ve seen some international students don Canada Gooses, but there are also many of us who routinely sleep on airport benches to save money. Some of us look like we don’t want to “assimilate” — whatever that means — but not everyone is as privileged as yours truly to have had a protective disguise at their disposal, forged in years of top-class English education and unlimited exposure to Western pop culture.

In some ways, journalism became my first taste at activism. I’m a woman, Asian, Chinese, international student — each of these defines me and none works in my favor. So when there’s no politician or administrator willing to speak up for me and those like me, I have to for my own sake. I wouldn’t dare say that I’ve been any good at it, but if the stories I helped tell made even just one reader pause and examine their inherent biases as I did many, many times, then I’m proud to have tried.

Of course, there’s no way I could’ve navigated this journey alone. So to end this column, here’s a clichéd thank-you section to those who have tolerated, accompanied and inspired me in the past three and a half years:

Mom and Dad: Not sure if you’ll even get to this part, and I don’t think I’ll ever let you know just how much I prioritized The Sun over school (so you wouldn’t freak out), but thank you for always believing in me and letting me pursue what I love.

Andrea: Thanks for all the cakes and cookies, the knowing winks about Hamilton and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the late-night conversations and for being the best roommate and friend anyone could ask for.

Anu and Sarah, and the 136th News Board: Meeting you was the best thing that happened to me at Cornell. The caffeine-and-Shortstop-sandwich-charged nights at 139 W State St. will forever be my fondest memories of college.

And finally, Prof. Kaylin O’Dell, English, Suffolk University: Thank you for the kindness and encouragement that you generously showed to the awkward, terrified kid in your FWS class. It meant the world to me, and I probably wouldn’t have joined The Sun and be who I am today without it.

Meredith Liu is graduating from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She was the Assistant Managing Editor on The Sun’s 137th Editorial Board, and an Assistant News Editor on the 136th Editorial Board.