Documentary Investigates Lives of Chinese Journalism Students in America

MOSAIC (Multicultural Organization of Students: An International Community), the Chinese Student Association, and the Colorado College Journalism Program joined forces to bring Chinese-American documentarian and journalist Xiaoran Liu to campus on Monday. Liu first spoke about the differences in the Chinese and American media landscapes and later screened her documentary, “Crossroads of Journalism Dreams.”

Xiaoran Liu is a Chinese multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Beijing and New York City, graduated from Tsinghua University and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Xiaoran Liu.

The documentary follows five Chinese students at Columbia University School of Journalism as they navigate life as international students, discovering the contrast in media censorship, educational philosophy, and employment opportunities between the U.S. and China.

Liu, also a graduate of the School of Journalism, filmed the documentary about her classmates from 2012 to 2015. It begins during their education at Columbia, where there are only six Chinese international students in the journalism school.

The students seem to share a sentiment that they came to America for Columbia. “I didn’t think that much about coming to America… more about coming to Columbia,” said Liu.

But the differences between Chinese journalism school and American journalism school are striking. One student noted that in China she was taught mostly by academics, while at Columbia most of her professors had experience as journalists and much more of the work was focused on producing stories.

The emphasis on production of stories results in an intense program in which, in addition to class, students are required to churn out material, creating a high stress environment. The featured students spoke of depression and an uncertainty of whether they made the correct decision to pursue journalism in America. These concerns were exacerbated when they some-times met resistance from community members to speak to Chinese international journalism students about a story.

One student said she couldn’t call her parents because “they will sense my depression.” A different student summed up the ordeal by saying he was attempting to find his “direction under pressure.” While this sentiment is felt by many international and non-international students alike, his status as an international student isolated him at times.

Documentary of Crossroads of Journalism Dream. Photo courtesy of Xiaoran Liu

Chinese media censorship permeated many issues both in Liu’s speech and in the documentary. Liu and her producers had to “talk about whether to step out of boundary or stay in it,” when they “don’t exactly know the boundaries.” Senior Michael Wu, a co-chair of Chinese Student Association, said, “in a lot of cases you cannot do things freely [in China].”

One strategy to avoid trouble is to use individual stories to shed light on systematic issues rather than to address the systematic issue head on. But there is no surefire way to avoid problems, and Liu recalled a story in which one of her pieces drew ire, resulting in losing pay for her work.

Perhaps the best indicator of the level of censorship is the fact that Liu has not released the documentary online because “some things said [in it] cannot be said in China.” She only shows the film in person-al screenings.

The U.S. provides a place where “there is no fear of doing journalism,” one of the students said. However, that is not to say that media in the U.S. does not have other issues. One student who went on to work for an investigative news organization in the U.S. said, “there is less censor-ship but still bias.” The same student also spoke of the potentially worrying attitudes of American treatment towards whistle blowers.

Notwithstanding the possible bias in American media, the freedom of press in the U.S. is appealing. One student said that even though there are more jobs in China, such opportunities do not matter if a journalist knows the truth but cannot say the facts.

Another theme that surfaced, especially towards the latter parts of the movie, was the difficulty international students have with employment visas. Educational visas are relatively easy to obtain when compared with work visas, specifically H-1B visas.

Photo Courtesy of Xiaoran Liu.

For an H-1B, the employer must sponsor an employee, pay part of the visa fee, and, most importantly, prove to the government that the job cannot be filled by an American citizen. It is a litany of tasks that many news organizations are unwilling to do, which precludes hiring of international students.

One student told the story of an interview with the United Nations Media Director, who asked two questions. First, are you a U.S. citizen? Second, do you have a green card? When the student responded no to both, the director had no more questions.

CC international students face similar problems. “You need a green card or residency to get into medical school,” said first-year Peiheng Zhang. Despite these immigration status challenges, some of the students were able to obtain H-1Bs and now work for news organizations in the U.S. Other students featured in the documentary have returned to China to either pursue journalism or enter entirely different disciplines.

The combination of issues unique to Chinese international students, such as media censorship, visa limitations, and discussions of topics that are a part of young adult life, is the crux of Liu’s documentary work. It is this combination that drives Liu’s mission as she “tries to work as a bridge between the U.S. and China.

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