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Alumni profile: Zhang Liwen said GBJ helped her "find a path" to explore her Canadian and Chinese identities

Zhang Liwen is an honors graduate of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University.
Zhang Liwen (center right), with a green balloon, celebrates with supervisor Zhou Qing'an and other Tsinghua journalism students he supervises. It’s a custom for them to take pictures every autumn, but she could only participate in 2018, 2019 and 2023 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Global Business Journalism reporter


Dressed in a long blue shirt, Zhang Liwen wore a chill smile, a kind of "beauty of being abroad" smile. This popular phrase is used to describe “abroad Chinese” who seem relaxed and confident to their mainland counterparts.


Zhang Liwen’s life switched between China and Canada time and time again. If defined by nationality, she is unquestionably a Canadian citizen. But her Asian face and Western education have made her, at times, feel somewhat unconventional and uncomfortable in both cultural environments.


For long stretches of time in her life, she was confused about her identity. “Who am I?” she asked herself.


It was through her studies at Tsinghua University – first in the Global Business Journalism master’s program and then pursuing a Ph.D. – that Zhang began to find answers to the fundamental questions she had been asking herself for years. She discovered, were many of the answers through her academic research on cross-cultural communication.

A "third culture" kid

Zhang Liwen is an honors graduate of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Liwen (right) with her friend Catherine in 2011.

Liwen immigrated emigrated from China to Canada at age 12. At that time, the girl from Jiangxi province knew little about her “new motherland,” which is 12,000 kilometers from China. Her impression of Canada was shaped by its lingering portrayal in television shows, with images of hamburgers, maple trees and people with fair skin and blonde hair.


Bidding farewell to friends in elementary school in Shenzhen had made the young girl heartbroken. Fear of an uncertain future enveloped her. “Can I adopt to the new environment?” she wondered. “Are Canadians friendly?”


Luckily for her, the Zhang family moved to Toronto, the city with the second largest Chinese population in Canada. There were hundreds of young kids like her, the new immigrant, struggling to adapt to the new environment.


“At that time, I was just beginning to define who I am,” Zhang said.


Journey back to China

Zhang spent 10 years in Canada before returning to China at age 23. Although it was less than half of her life, the decade in North America was much more far reaching in shaping her values and identity. Educated in the Canadian system, she totally accepted the values of the Western world such as individualism and freedom.


Zhang never thought about stepping out of her comfort zone and to return to China before finishing her undergraduate study on media research at the University of Toronto. After graduation, she landed a job as an administrative assistant at a private school in Toronto. The job duties were straightforward, and the salary was generous.


Graduation, working, earning a decent salary, cooking with family members on weekends... It seemed like a practical and ideal life path for a young immigrant. But Zhang could not find the passion of life in such unchallengeable and repetitive work.


At that time, her friend Yidi Wang, who is also a Chinese-born Canadian, came to Beijing for graduate study at Tsinghua University. Learning about Zhang’s feelings of unease, she recommended that her friend come with her, continuing her studies on media.


“The opportunity just came and I caught it,” Zhang said.


Unease and cultural changes in China

But the decision was not made easily. Zhang had her doubts. Having been away from China for a decade, she knew little about the changes, cultural and political, that had taken place there and she was uncertain if she could adapt.


“People said, ‘China is fast-paced’ and ‘Chinese people face immense pressure,’” she recalled.


Her ignorance about contemporary China mirrored her lack of knowledge of Canada a decade earlier. Relying on social media to refresh her knowledge of China, Zhang vacillated between two programs – a program at the School of New Media at Peking University and the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. It was difficult for her to distinguish between the top two universities in China, and the course systems of them were also similar.


In the end, the internationalized student composition of the GBJ program drove her to make the decision. Zhang concluded that the diverse international community of GBJ could work as a buffer area, minimizing the potential culture shock.


A world of diversity in Global Business Journalism

Time proved that she made the right decision. Living and studying with classmates from all over the world, Zhang did not feel that she was the odd one out. She was treated as a new member, an outside observer of China. She was made to feel at home by classmates and teachers alike.

Zhang Liwen is an honors graduate of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University.
Zhang Liwen visited the Palace Museum in 2019, before her return to Canada for Christmas.

She extensively explored the most original and unique Chinese things that she had long neglected and forgotten. To investigate the educational condition of migrant workers' children in Beijing, Zhang and her classmates visited the outskirts of Beijing, interviewing teachers and children there and produced a series of in-depth reports. She was part of the top team in her multimedia reporting course, producing a group project on “third culture kids” who were raised in countries different than their ethnic heritage.


In the heterogeneous GBJ community, she gradually accepted herself as a complex cultural entity after a long struggle.


“We don’t need to find who we are but to find the path,” Zhang said.


It was the most essential lesson she learned at GBJ, she added.


But there were still challenges. She worried that Chinese people would attribute her acceptance to the prestigious university to her identity as a foreigner rather than her diligence as a student, her accomplishments and her intelligence. The implicit view that Chinese classmates were academically superior caused her some dissatisfaction and unease.

Most Chinese students were friendly, but she knew there were negative voices. She was convinced that some were thinking things like: “Her parents are so astute that planned an easier way for her” or “She got everything from her identity...”


Yidi Wang could relate to that sentiment. During her initial months at Tsinghua, she often engaged in lively conversations with her friend from Canada, discovering that they both felt a considerable amount of peer pressure.


The negative words were always indirect, but sometimes reached their ears. Zhang didn’t mind the derogatory opinions from the minority, and took them as research material for her academic studies about cross-cultural communication. 


Zhang Liwen discovers a love of academic life

GBJ was where she found her interest in academics. In Toronto, she never thought of pursuing a Ph.D. degree and becoming a professor. Her friend Wang left the campus after three years of graduate life, having been one of the top students in the program, but Zhang kept exploring the academy.


Her GBJ education attached importance to empirical evidence, data and text. Interviews were highly valued. Whether writing news stories or to conducting research, students were asked to collect “real evidence” to support their argument.


“It’s an ideal model to cultivate research,” Zhang said.


Here, a part of her “Chinese personality” emerged again. Compared to other international classmates, “she was shy, but extremely hardworking,” said Rick Dunham, co-director of the GBJ program.


Though not so good in mathematics and statistics, the introverted girl didn’t feel stuck. There was a brand world for her to explore freely.


“I am not a competent economics student,” she said. “The numbers always give me a headache. However, this program provided me with a great deal of freedom to explore and pursue my own interests.”


After two years of extensively exploring, Zhang got her master’s degree with honors in 2018 and continued to pursue a doctoral degree in communication at Tsinghua University. The cross-cultural background stimulated her interest in political communication, cross-cultural communication and comparative journalism. How do people recognize their identity in a cross-cultural context? How do the cultural gaps affect political interaction globally? Her research questions were close to her personal experience, coming from her life and instructed her life.

Pandemic disruptions


But good times didn't last long. The insouciant days in China were ephemeral. When she was enjoying the 2019 Christmas holiday in Canada, she was cut off from China once again, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.


Like everyone else, she believed that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon come to an end, and she would be able to return to China to continue her doctoral studies. Everyday, she woke up at about 7 a.m., drank a cup of coffee, and sat at the desk and sighed at the computer. Her movement was constrained, while progress on academic research was stuck.  


Her supervisor, Professor Zhou Qing’an, was also an introverted person like Zhang. In the past he was often too busy to reply students’ messages quickly, let alone connecting with students proactively. But during the pandemic, he tried his best to care for this overseas student, helping to ease her anxiety. Zhou sent her optimistic messages periodically saying, "It should be easing up soon!" However, day after day passed, and she remained isolated in her small room in Canada. The hope of returning to campus gradually dimmed.


The COVID-19 pandemic divided students on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, with Zoom and Tencent meeting as bridges. Zhang and her collaborators felt it was hard to discuss academic topics in virtual meetings. It seemed like old friends having fun together, but it did not feel like a place for academic research.


“I felt myself being isolated from the world,” Zhang said. “After months of confusion and depression, I realized that I had to plan by myself without a community.”


The pandemic turned Zhang into a J-type person, which means “judger” in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the type who prefers structure and organization. MBTI is a test of people’s character, which is very popular among the young generation around the world.


“No one else scheduled for me, so I made a detailed timetable to organize my daily routine and phased goals.” Zhang said, “Pursuing a doctoral degree is such an arduous journey. Dividing a big goal into small and accessible missions, I can get positive feedback by finishing periodic tasks, which is critical for me to keep going.” 


What challenged Zhang the most was overcoming her shyness and networking with other scholars. Searching for scholars focus on communication and culture study online, writing emails to them and asking for collaboration, she had to actively break the spatial obstacles to connection. 


Inspiration in England

Unable to return to China, Zhang went to Leeds University in September 2022 as a visiting scholar. The academic requirements of Ph.D. candidates varied between Toronto and Beijing. In Britain, there was no bottom line of papers’ publication for Ph.D. candidates to get their degrees but rather a strict standard for a graduation project, which provided students more time to polish their final work.


Her tutor at Leeds University, Dr. Lone N. Sorensen, provided a spark in Zhang’s British life.  Sorensen was particularly meticulous in giving guidance on papers, reviewing the papers word by word and sentence by sentence to make revisions for her.


“She was not only a teacher but also a friend,” Zhang said.

Zhang fondly recalls the nights that she drank with Sorensen in an English bar. Their conversations meandered from academic research to topics of friendship, love and life.


The British days not only relieved Zhang’s anxiety, but also provided her a precious opportunity to escape from the pressure of publication and take time to reevaluate her research. She kept a regular pace of work and also retrieved a work-life balance.

Zhang Liwen is an honors graduate of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Zhang Liwen’s office table at Leeds University. She posted a schedule on the wall.


In March 2023, Zhang finally returned to the Tsinghua campus after more than three years of roving. China had closed its border for so long that some international students got their degrees totally online. There were only 18 months left for her to enjoy the time as a student on campus. While she was gone, many things had changed. Professor Zhou, her supervisor, became the Dean of the Journalism and Communication School, and almost all of her old friends had graduated.


She had become a newcomer again.   


But this time, she was neither confused nor worrying. There were too many things for her to do, writing papers, finishing her graduation project, completing an internship, seeking a job, and, of course, hanging out with new friends.


“I was so glad to meet Liwen again on campus,” Zhou Qing’an said. Unlike Zhang, he has studied and worked 18 years at Tsinghua University. So for him, Zhang was home again.

Zhang has built a reputation as a stellar scholar and co-author of numerous articles with eminent academics from China, the United States and other countries. Shi Lin, an assistant professor at Beijing Normal University and a Ph.D. recipient from Tsinghua University, co-authored a research project with Zhang about Chinese and American media coverage of the American-Chinese Olympic skier Eileen Gu. She lauds Zhang's media studies work and her co-author's passion in exploring intercultural mobility and visibility.

"I believe these themes resonate with Liwen's personal journey as she navigates and integrates various cultural, academic, and personal identities into her academic writing," Professor Shi said. "This integration will also make her research more organic, in return."

GBJ co-director Dunham said he has watched his former student blossom from someone with great potential into an accomplished researcher and a sophisticated analyst.

"Liwen already is internationally recognized as an expert in media studies on intercultural identity and cross-cultural issues," he said. "Eminent academics are eager to team up with her because of her perceptive analysis and rigorous methodological research."


Zhang rarely has made long-term plans, perhaps due to her constantly changing locations or the more recent uncertainty brought about by COVID-19.


In the near future, what she most wants to do is to visit Fujian Province before starting her position as a lecturer at Tongji University in Shanghai. Pageant of Immortals, Yingge dance, and dragon dance... Fujian carries abundant Chinese traditions and customs, which are hardly to be seen in other parts of China.  

Zhang Liwen is an honors graduate of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The Pageant of Immortals in Fujian province. Annually, there are ancient folk dramas in Fujian, during which performers wear costumes and masks to worship dogs and ancestors.


Though not originally from Fujian, the young scholar finds herself deeply captivated by the region's primitive beliefs and rich local culture. Immersing herself in the vibrant traditional ceremonies not only provides her with solace but also serves as a profound journey to rediscover her roots in the vast land of China, her birthplace. Her new home.


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