Some years back, I volunteered at my newspaper’s booth at a big convention organised by the Asian American Journalists Association. Journalists flew in from all around the US for the meeting in Minneapolis.
My task was to talk to job-seekers and pass on the more promising CVs to my newspaper’s recruiter. That was how I met Poh Si Teng.
“Hi, I’m Poh Si and I’m from Malaysia,” she said, extending her hand.
“No way!” I said. “I’m from Malaysia!”
There we were, two Malaysians in a totally random meeting half a world away from home.
I’m happy to report that Poh Si is now in India, and doing quite well, thank you, as a freelance multimedia journalist covering the world’s biggest democracy.
Name: Poh Si Teng (Teng is my surname)
Age: 27 years old
Hometown: Penang, Malaysia
Current city: New Delhi
No of years abroad: 8 years
Why did you leave?:
I always knew I was going to leave Malaysia. For different reasons at different stages in life. Growing up in Penang, I dreamt of leaving the island and having a more exciting life somewhere else.
As a high school kid, I was eager to leave because as an ethnic Chinese minority and a young woman, I was made to feel different, and not in a good way. While in college in Kuala Lumpur, I quickly learned that Malaysia didn’t necessarily respect young people, their talents and enthusiasm. And so it was definitely not the place to explore a career in reporting.
In 2003, I left for United States to study journalism at San Francisco State University. I wanted to experience what it was like to write without having a boogeyman over one’s shoulders, and most importantly how to undo years of self-censorship.
A year into college, I returned to Kuala Lumpur for a summer internship at a national English newspaper. It was quite a useless experience. As a general assignment intern, I was expected to rehash government press releases for the paper and write “human interest” stories that would not reflect badly on the government, parliamentarians, law enforcement, religion, religious leaders, etc.
In addition, the newsroom setup was extremely hierarchal and sexist. People would say really nasty stuff that would get them sued for sexual harassment elsewhere. All in all, it was a pretty awful experience. I returned to college in the fall with a firm resolve of never going back to do journalism in Malaysia.
(Side note: In 2005, as a sophomore in college I co-founded theCICAK, a political-pop culture magazine and social networking site for young Malaysians to write about sexuality, government, religion and everything I could not write about while interning at a Malaysian newspaper. Many of the magazine’s former contributors are currently movers and shakers in the Malaysian entrepreneur, journalism, activist and policy-making circles. One of them is currently a Member of Parliament.)
It was very different for me in the US. I was given a lot of positive reinforcement. Journalism instructors, senior reporters and editors were generally very kind, and ever eager to help young reporters find themselves and improve their craft. I don’t think I was ever really judged as a woman or ethnic minority in the newsroom, but only by my work. It was wonderful.
My first job out of J-school was as a newsperson/multimedia producer for the AP in Miami. And in 2008, I received a grant to return to Malaysia to shoot and produce a 30-minute documentary. By then the country had changed a lot. But I had too. Suddenly Malaysia felt too small for me to be based out of. If I was to have a successful freelance career in journalism, it would have to be in a country that generated more international interest.
And so I left Malaysia again. This time for India.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a freelance video journalist and filmmaker based in Delhi, covering Asia. I shoot and produce news video packages for The New York Times and GlobalPost (CBS and PBS news affiliate) and various CSR, commercial projects. My past clients include The Wall Street Journal, AFP, AP Travel, UNICEF and IKEA. I also teach multimedia storytelling for impact and have trained journalists at the AP, The Virginian-Pilot and most recently The Times of India.
What do you like about where you live?
Living in India, one learns a lot about humanity and is tested on a daily basis. And that’s been really good for me. As Plato would say, ”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
What do you not?
Bureaucracy, pollution, food poisoning and being ripped off.
Would you return and why?
Maybe, if there was an opportunity to do fulfilling work. Countries don’t really matter anymore. I will stay wherever I can be effective.
What do you miss about Malaysia?
Being judged for being different. But who does? It’s the same everywhere. No place is perfect. And Malaysia ain’t so bad.