The paddy fields stretched out as far as my eye could see. The sun shimmered off the water, the cool wind in my face, the roar of the bike’s engine as it clattered over the bumpy dirt path. We were speeding through the Bangladeshi countryside, and the driver of my bike was reaching for his ringing phone while steering one-handed at what felt like 100 kilometres per hour. It was not somewhere I would ever have predicted I would be. It was wonderful.
I’d always loved writing, even as a child, but had never really thought seriously about becoming a journalist. I’d had a sense of adventure, but was easily intimidated by the thought of venturing too far out of my comfort zone and speaking with people I didn’t know. Thinking of new stories and pitching angles seemed too hard from behind the safe, familiar limits to my sheltered life.
Journalism changed that. There was no time to think about how things were too difficult, too new, too scary; I’d got a job in documentary production and had to hit the ground running. It was probably the best way to get into it – there wasn’t any time to overthink anything at all. It led to travel, then to volunteering, then to what has practically become a way of life.
I’ve yet to find anything more exciting and fulfilling than having fallen into this life. The paddy fields of Bangladesh were not the only trip. In the past five years I’ve been to the jungles of Karen State in southern Myanmar, to refugee camps in southern Thailand, to town squares in Mexico and occupied newsrooms in Greece.
I’ve met so many people who have been so generous with their time, their hospitality and most especially their stories, even when I had so little to give in return. As journalists, we love to believe that the reports, commentaries and articles we write will make a difference, but change comes slowly and often fails to benefit the subjects of the story in any direct, meaningful way. Still, people chose to share their experiences, to share little pieces of their lives.
The opportunity that I’ve had, as a journalist, to learn about lives unlike mine has been invaluable. I’ve learnt about empathy and sympathy. I’ve learnt about human resilience and kindness, just as much as I’ve learnt about exploitation and greed. I’ve learnt about power and marginalisation, about the different ways people have struggled for the dignity and rights they deserve.
People like me – middle class, Chinese Singaporean, well-educated – live with so many privileges every single day. It’s so easy to forget they exist; exercising our privilege is as easy as breathing, and we judge others and the choices they make through that lens.
Being able to unpack these privileges and recognise them for what they are has perhaps been the most important lesson I’ve learnt thus far in my journey as a writer and a journalist. It’s a lesson that I keep learning every day, one I should never stop learning. It’s how I try to understand other people’s experiences, how I try to tell their stories with respect and compassion. And ultimately it helps me understand myself, how I perceive the world and my place in it.
To say that I could never have made this transition from an inward-looking child-in-a-bubble to a more socially conscious adult without journalism might perhaps be overstating it: we’ll never know how my life could have turned out otherwise. But I’m glad I found myself on this path, and I’ll not turn back.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist, writer and producer. Her bylines have appeared in Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, the Diplomat and Southeast Asia Globe, among others. She’s also the Singapore stringer for Deutsche Presse Agentur. She got her start as a production assistant on documentary projects, working on stories that highlighted important issues such as domestic abuse and labour exploitation. When not working, she volunteers with anti-death penalty campaign We Believe in Second Chances and migrant rights NGO Transient Workers Count Too.