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Student Q&A: Li Wanmei seeks to understand other cultures, become a media entrepreneur in Africa

“I do not like being restricted in what I do. I want to decide what is best for me and go ahead and do it."

Li Wanmei: "You must understand that studying at Tsinghua is every Chinese student’s dream."

By KABALAN FARAH

Global Business Journalism reporter


t doesn’t take too long to realize that the woman who hails from the Jiangxi province in southeastern China is a trailblazer.


From her brief WeChat messages, I could sense the pulsating bursts of energy. I must concede, it took someone with enough courage and curiosity to answer my challenge for an interview, she took up the gauntlet without hesitation.


As soon as we started talking, I sensed our time together was going to be a smooth undertaking, she was completely at ease and very relaxed. Li Wanmei (李莞梅), or just Wanmei, as she likes to be called, is 27. She is a graduate in international relations from Renmin University in Beijing and is currently studying for an M.A. in Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.


Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

A: I come from Ji'an, near Jinggangshan, in Jiangxi province, in the southeast of China. I have lived there until I was 18, then I moved to Beijing when I was accepted at Renmin University.

Q: What can you tell us about your hometown?

A: Well, the area there is known for its nice weather, unlike the heat you experience in the rest of the South. Chinese tourists usually come here (to Jinggangshan or Jingang Mountain) to enjoy the cool climate and the beautiful scenery. Jiangxi has also the largest freshwater lake in China, Poyang Lake (鄱陽湖). I should also mention the famous Huangyangjie hills (黄洋界), an important landmark in the history of the revolution where many heroes gave up their lives.


Jinggang Mountain Scenic Spot near Wanmei's hometown of Ji'an.

Q: Why did you pick international relations?

A: I was always interested in politics, culture and society so it was natural for me to gravitate towards this subject. Even though my parents were not in the field, they always encouraged me to follow my dreams and supported me in all my endeavors. I also felt that by studying international relations I can develop a global perspective of the world through learning about other countries and cultures. In hindsight, I am convinced more than ever about my choice, my days at Renmin were really enlightening.


Q: How would you describe your days there?

A: Well, at Renmin the undergraduate program ran for four years, and there, I was surrounded by like-minded people, by students looking to become better, by students with similar dreams, similar ideals and most importantly by students who respected the “other.” While we were all encouraged to speak our mind and to debate ideas, we always did it with mutual respect.


At the subway stop for Renmin University

Q: What was your favorite class/topic?

A: The class I remember the most and that deeply marked me is the “International Negotiations” course, not because I got a full mark [she laughs], but because it taught me how to appreciate the different perspectives and how to account for the diverse cultural backgrounds.

I still remember that at one point, we had to conduct a specific experiment or simulation. The objective was to carry out some form of high stakes negotiations, posing as a Japanese, an American and as other foreign nationals. The success of the simulation hung on a genuine and authentic performance, meaning a lot of preparation went into the exercise. Ultimately, his experience had a big influence on me, it helped me better understand the cultural baggage each of us carry. I realized all interactions, always, are complex and dynamic; we should never take things at their face value.

Q: What were your plans before graduation and what happened next?

A: Throughout the program, I was aiming to find a job in the diplomatic corps, to serve my country, but I soon realized it was going to be near to impossible to get in. China asks for draconian requirements for such positions; competition is very stiff.

Q: What was your next course of action?

A: When I realized I did not stand a chance, I came up with a different plan, this is when I thought of journalism. I felt it will allow me to continue exploring the areas that interested me.

Q: What happened after Renmin?

A: After graduation in 2017, I received several job offers, all in Beijing. The one that called for me was a position with the PLA Daily [published by the People's Liberation Army], working as a reporter. I realized if I couldn’t serve my country in the diplomatic corps then working with the army was the best alternative.

Q: Can you describe your duties at the PLA Daily?

A: When I started, my job required me to write reports about China's relationship with other countries, friends or rivals. Initially, I didn’t enjoy writing these technical and dry articles, but after some time, I found my own rhythm and worked tirelessly to improve. In 2019, I won a national prize in journalism – “China’s Journalism Prize” – for a series of articles covering the perspectives of foreign countries towards China and its recent development.


After this success, I was given more responsibilities, and I was entrusted, on top of my routine work, to interview foreign military officers. Again, I had to bring my skills up to par, so I read several books on the subject and sought the advice of other experienced journalists.

“In 2019, I won a national prize in journalism – “China’s Journalism Prize” – for a series of articles covering the perspectives of foreign countries towards China and its recent development."

Q: Why did you decide to pursue higher education?

A: Well, where I come from, education is very important. People expected you to study not only for a master's but for a Ph.D. Furthermore, I was working at a traditional and conservative outfit, I always wondered if that was it, the full extent of what I am going to learn. I just wanted to improve and increase my exposure. I figured, the way the world was progressing, I had to learn more about multimedia, about AR/VR and other topical technological mediums and applications that were pervading the communication and media industry. It dawned on me I wasn’t going to get that here [at PLA Daily], so the most logical conclusion was to apply for a master’s program.

Wanmei's home province of Jiangxi in southeastern China

Q: Why Tsinghua?

A: You must understand that studying at Tsinghua is every Chinese student’s dream. Again, this was the most natural thing for me. As well, I did not want to go to Peking University. It offered the same kind of education as the one I got at Renmin. I wanted a change. Tsinghua is known for its scientific excellence, and I wanted to learn more about the new scientific breakthroughs.

Here, I have friends studying sciences, they look at the world under a different light. They bring a different perspective to the conversation.


Q: Can you tell us about your daily routine?


A: I am a late riser, and a late sleeper, what you can call a “night owl.” Weekdays, I am usually at work and when I finish at 7 p.m., I come back home, catch up with friends and family and work on my different assignments.


Q: Are you able to combine between work and studies?

A: Not really. At work, they have high expectations of me, and at Tsinghua I have high expectations for myself. I end up juggling too many things at the same time. It is exhausting, but I always repeat to myself, "it is an opportunity, and I must take advantage of it.” Q: What are your plans after Tsinghua?

A: First, I am planning to get a Ph.D. My current research is about Africa, and I would like to expand on that. I would like to go there and develop an understanding of the society, of the culture and of the people. My aim as well is to represent China in the best way possible, make sure people know who China is and what she is capable of, and debunk the many fake news and misrepresentations being circulated out there. After the doctorate studies, maybe I will start my own company in communications and media."


Relaxing with friends

Q: Favorite Movie? Favorite book? And why?

A: My favorite movie is “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk,” by Ang Lee. It portrays the Iraqi war from a different angle. Gadfly: it is important to be a change agent. Favorite book: Les Misérables. I understood the meaning of suffering, and how less fortunate people struggle in their daily lives. I also advise everyone to read Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves.

Q: Hobbies?

A: I like writing, I have written several “unfinished” novels, science fiction novels, horror novels, and some about life at the university. I always found it was easier to start one than to finish it. The characters’ evolution is the hardest part.

Q: What are your biggest pet peeves? About society?


A: Restrictions and limits. I do not like being restricted in what I do, I want to decide what is best for me and go ahead and do it.


Q: About people?


A: Ignorance, and their ignorance about their ignorance.


Q: About yourself:?


A: Lazy. I am not as diligent as I would have liked to be. Sometimes I waste time on games or movies when I know I should be working or studying.

 

Kabalan Farah

If it weren’t for our previous engagements, the conversation would have dragged on for another two hours. We both enjoyed reading science fiction books. Between Liu Cixin and Isaac Asimov, time would have proven once more to be a relative concept.


For a young girl to ask to be given a dictionary at the age of 5, nothing should have seemed impossible. And for this woman of 27, nothing is or will ever be. Wanmei will graduate from this master’s program and will go on to get her Ph.D. She will live in Africa, and she will certainly start her own company, but my bet is she won’t stop there. Her curiosity and drive will keep fueling her desire to go further and further and to shatter all kinds of boundaries.

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