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When Anne Frank is Your Talisman
Episode 328th October 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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A pivotal moment on her Fulbright exchange and a realization about Anne Frank shifted the course of Stephanie Zhong's life, leading her to find her true calling. On the next Voices of Exchange, Stephanie talks about drawing on her Chinese American background in Hong Kong, soul searching and setbacks, and the power of storytelling. 

As an ExchangeAlumni of the Fulbright Scholarship program, Stephanie is part of a network of millions of ExchangeAlumni worldwide. Learn more about ExchangeAlumni at alumni.state.gov.

Transcripts

Stephanie Zhong:

So I was in graduate school at the time, I was at UCLA, I was on the track to be a professor, that was my dream job and I'm sitting in a class and, um, my professor said something that just literally lit up this idea in me of I gotta go to Hong Kong.

I have to chronicle these stories of what's happening culturally there and then when I met up with my professor at office hours and I told her my kooky idea, she said, you need affy- apply for a Fulbright. And so that's basically what I did, you know, I'd heard about Fulbrights before and the truth was I thought to myself I'm not qualified (laughs) for, I'm not qualified, I know that I was looking at some statistics, uh, that they were showing of many applications per country, per territory and I thought, well everyone's gonna go to Hong Kong this year.

So I almost didn't apply, but, you know, I went for it and they chose me and then next thing you know, I'm on an 18 hour flight to Hong Kong for the first time in my life.

So to put it in context, I am 26 years old, it's my s- it's my third time abroad, um, I had gone on exchange for a month in high school to the UK and then at 22 I had a Joy Luck Club moment where I- I was thinking I need to understand who my parents are and where I come from so I spent two years living in Taipei trying to discover myself.

Okay and then- and then now I'm grad school and now I'm on- on this research study project and I'm going to Hong Kong. And you're really, like, since this was 23 years ago, I had to really think about what were those first (laughs) 72 hours like, they were bustling and hectic and, um, it felt like mission impossible. Why? Because I only had three days to find a place to live, that was the first thing before I actually had to go on a family trip to Taiwan and, um, and Hong Kong, if you've been to Hong Kong, at least back then for sure and I'm sure it's still true now, the real estate market is a lot like New York or San Francisco.

It's really, really tough to find an affordable apartment of any size bigger than a bathroom (laughs). So, here I was, you know, I got- I got plopped down in a city that is, you know, lit up in lights, it's open 24 hours, I don't know the place, I, um, can barely read some of the signs, um, you know, that are up. I don't know what neighborhoods are around there, everything is by subway, I've got all my gear, you know, packed up on my back and there's so many people. It's just so densely packed and, you know, even the subways it's, you know, it- it's sort of like your sardine that's getting squeezed into the train and you hope when your stop lands, you'll be able to get out (laughs) out of there.

beforehand, this is- this is:

This is really, like, go get the newspaper, take out a magic market, circle the ones you can afford of which there's only two out of maybe 38 postings that I can afford on my grant, you know, as a student. Go to those place, you're hiking up a hill that was, like, three miles long, you had no idea you were gonna hop, you know, hike up and it's 98 degrees and 90 degrees- 90 percent humidity.

And, um, I was- I was house hunting with, um, the other two Fulbrighters and every place was a no go, um, an- until we landed on a place, it was at a top of a hill, this was the big hike. Basically the first two days was nothing but house hunting and maybe getting a little bit of food and getting to know the other two Fulbrighters that I was house hunting with. On the third day, I called, um, a woman who was looking for a roommate and she had promised it to someone else. Um, but the two of us on the call, we had this kind of connection and she said why don't you come see the place anyway and if for some reason the other, um, girl doesn't show up, you can have the place.

Three months in, um, we're a surrogate family doing a lot of things together and I'm learning a lot about communist China from my roommate Dawn while we're in Hong Kong (laughs) with a count- with a territory being returned back to China and she had left China. You know, so I think one of the things I- I really appreciate about the international experience is, like, I was there for academic research and I can share a little bit about the stories that came out of there as well too and the opportunities I got because of the international exchange.

And the same thing that happens when as, um, you know, as somebody who's living abroad, like, where you choose to live and who you choose to live with also, um, helps you determine, like, how deep of an experience you're gonna have, you know. We were exchanging a lot of stories. I was hearing a lot of firsthand stories of what it was like to be a young girl growing up in the cultural revolution firsthand from my roommate.

And she was telling me stories about, we were sharing stories about how we both fell in love with books and she, I still remember this, like, she was telling a story to me and her daughter at the same time and her daughter grew up in New Zealand. She has no concept of communist China whatsoever, she had never heard these stories from her own mother. So, Dawn was telling us about how she was maybe 13 years old and she had fallen in love with reading, but there was a lot of censorship going on and so what was happening was, you know, a lot of books were getting confiscated.

And her job in her home was she was the one that took out the garbage. And all the garbage would end up in, you know, these houses would be in a square, like a quadrant of four houses with a courtyard in the middle and everyone would dump their trash, you know, in the center. Um, so there was, like, rotten lettuce and this what she would talk, I still remember this, like, she talked about how she found one of their neighbors had been someone who had a library of- of books.

And, um, I wanna say it was- it was actually an American novel that was written in Chinese, but it was, like, shoved into the rotten lettuce. And she dug in there and every time she took out the trash, she would, like, read a chapter when no-one was looking and then shove it back, you know what I mean. Like, so that was how she was reading books and I'm thinking about my experience (laughs) as an American and here I am going to the public library with stacks and stacks of books, my mother's a librarian, um, we have TV, all these other things, you know.

And she's talking about the- the literal stakes that she has to take just to read and her daughter is rolling around on the floor laughing uncontrollably. She, like, totally can't handle the story that her mother's telling her, you know, because she grew up in New Zealand. And I was just watching them, you know, like, she's hearing this stuff for the first time about her mom, she's never seen her mom in her communist life.

And so th- these were the kinds of stories we were having every single night and then we would go out together, you know. And so on the one hand, so part of my international experience was the surrogate family and what we're learning and talking about in real time about how we're each affected by our governments, how we're each affected by our cultures and then what was happening in- in Hong Kong and what we were seeing.

She was someone who, she was a young doctor in, um, 199, is it 2, when Tiananmen Square happened, she was in Beijing when it happened working in a hospital and guess what, she didn't even know the massacre happened. You know when she found out about it? Four years later when she immigrates to New Zealand and everyone finds out she's from Beijing and they ask her, oh my gosh, what was that like and she's like, what are you talking about? And it was in her same city.

So on the one hand at home, I- I was getting this exposure and then out on my project, I was meeting writers and filmmakers and, um, artists and photographers who were of Chinese descent who are Hong Kong Chinese, but English is really their language and they- they write and create art in English. And I had never been part of a writers community before, I had never seen myself, I had, you know, here I am, the closet writer like I said, right, like, I was always writing in secret like Emily Dickinson, like, nobody knows I'm writing anything (laughs).

meet a professor, [Alex Quow:

He was somebody who was part of the renaissance of Asian American literature in the '70s and here he is on his grant and we meet, um, at one of these events and then I start working with him to organize the first literary fis- festival of Hong Kong Chinese writers writing in English. It was the first literary festival of Hong Kong Chinese writing written in English by Hong Kong Chinese writers, still a mouthful.

I went and pretty sure I was gonna be a professor and live a Dead Poets Society kind of life, that was where I was at, right? And I had my lane of research that I wanted to bring to the table and, you know, so Alex Quow, the professor I worked with, I was- I was- I was honestly struggling in academia personally. There was something I was resisting and I couldn't figure out what it was and one day, you know, we're in the middle of doing all the festival activities and Alex who is a pr- he's a professor, right, he's a tenured professor and he looks at me and he says, "Stephanie, I don't think you should be a professor, you don't wanna be an academic."

And we ha- it was the beginning of several conversations he had with me, he had felt really strongly about it and I realized that those conversations that he was right. In my heart, I loved to teach, but I'm not an- I'm not so- I'm also somebody who cares deeply about social impact, it gets all the way back to reading Anne Frank's diary. Um, I'm not just interested in stories, I mean they're entertaining, but I wanna be on the ground and I wanna be affecting culture somehow, right?

And- and building bridges, like, fundamentally I'm a storyteller, I'm a storyteller and I'm a bridge builder and that's how I build bridges is through stories. And so his come to Jesus conversation with me helped me take off probably a curtain of denial that I was really still trying to muscle through. So I knew by the time I came back to UCLA, I knew I was gonna leave with a master's degree and I knew I was gonna do something that was a lot more hands-on.

And I knew I wanted to be a storyteller before I could write. I remember being around three or four years old and sitting at the coffee table with a pen and a piece of paper and pretending to write cursive. It's just a bunch, it looks like an EKG, right, it's just these squiggles going up and down and loops and this, but I just really, there was something powerful in there.

I was very, very early on was really interested in other people's lives because of that. I was also really shy and terrified of people back then, so this is in elementary school. And so this, it was a place to retreat into where I could be myself and I could make friends and experience different worlds. And over time, um, basically around the time I was 12 years old, I had some allowance and I went to the book store with my dad and bought the first book that I ever had with my own money and it was Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl.

And I saw this girl's picture on the front and if you see the picture, she looks a tomboy and she was a bit of a tomboy, you know, she had short hair and I was a tomboy. And I saw a girl looking back at me, you know, that reminded me of me and I didn't know her story, I just knew it was a diary and I was like, oh, this- this sounds interesting. Um, and that book changed my life forever and it began my journey as a writer and a storyteller.

I was really devastated after creating this deep bond with her, you know, in her life and then to find out that she died, um, at the hands of the Nazis and that was quite traumatizing as you might imagine. But the impression that she made on me was that here was this ordinary girl at 13 years old who owned her voice, who found her own experiences valuable in a country that did not value her. And that her words and her story when she owned it changed the world.

And so I started a diary at that point and I started really realizing I could write for myself and I wrote for myself in hiding for a very, very long time, just for me. And then when I got into my 20s, um, you know, like I said I've had so many people tell me fascinating stories where on the outside you might make an assumption about them and then they tell you this other story and suddenly, you know, everything goes technicolor and what you thought you believed (laughs) about the world or people changes. And I've had so many experiences like that, that to me, um, my favorite, favorite thing and it's still true today in my work and in my personal life is to listen to people's stories.

As a storyteller from a young age, I was always, I was that person that was fascinated by people's stories, I'm that person that people tell their life story to on a subway, you know. Um, hold family secrets that they never told anybody else, um, and I felt like, you know, I wanted to learn something about myself and I also wanted to be there to capture as many stories as possible and then be able to step back and look at these stories side by side and see what we can learn about, you know, ourselves as a civilization.

So when I found that study in:

I was- I was as much as I was passionate about this, I was a shy person and hiding out in my business and, um, it took me two years to get my website off the ground because you're like, it has to be perfect and people want to understand what you do because you're trailblazing and you're doing the thing. And, um, literally the- the- the day before I launched my website, I do one more Google search and six months prior, another company in Los Angeles is called Groundswell Studio and they're doing marketing stuff.

And instead of seeing that as a major setback which probably would have been the way I normally would think as a perfectionist, I was like that wasn't meant to be your company anyway. You chose it because you needed to get out of the gate, right, with something and, um, it's not meant for you. And I did some soul searching which is part of what I help entrepreneurs do, right, and so I spent a month and I took myself through some exercises that I would do as a journalist and as a podcast producer and, you know, marketing director, all these things to figure out what is the essence of this company and I'm building and who am I really.

And I looked, so after I wrote down, I remembered Anne Frank and then I looked on my bookshelf and there's the diary and then suddenly I realized, oh my gosh, this book has been with me everywhere I've gone. It's the only, it was the book that went with me to England when I was in high school, it was the book that went with me to Taiwan and I couldn't bring a lot of books with me to Taiwan, but it was there, it was like a talisman, like, she was with me all along. She was with me in Hong Kong, she has literally ba- been with me everywhere.

And I realized then when I connect the dots backwards, right, I realized okay, the way I do marketing and the way I do storytelling is I believe it's not about a top down approach where it's like let's listen to the CEO and the founder and how great they are and let's find out this institution was created in this date and year, it's not that. It's who are the hidden heroes in your organization and your story, right, and so it's the Anne Franks we wanna hear from.

It's the Anne Franks that change culture and mindsets and I realized that her diary, even the way she wrote her diary because she writes early in there, she starts out writing it like a diary and then she quickly, you know, turns it into a friend that she names Kitty and she specifically says I'm gonna start writing to dear Kitty because it's not about me talking to myself. She wanted a relationship and I realized that she had actually taught me how I mark- how I am a marketer to people which is I'm always looking for the invisible people and bringing their stories to life and their agency.

They're the ones we wanna hear from, they're the ones whose transformation moves us to donate, right, or to take a step forward in our lives the way somebody else has. And so Dear Anne Media's the name of my company in tribute to Anne Frank and the Dear is very important because it's always a reminder that marketing is not pushing a message, it is about creating a community in a two way conversation.

I really believe this, I believe every single person who ha- who, um, is a professional wanting to make a difference, you're gonna make a bigger difference when you own your difference and you have to understand it.

And the international exchange is one of the most different thi- different things you've done, not to mention immersed yourself in difference and it- it's made you a more innovative thinker, it's made you more creative, it's made you more empathetic. You have stories to tell in there that can be translated into your work experience in ways that add value that your employer or your client would never have thought of on their own.