Ying Yang: A Ten-Year Journey in ASEAN

By Cai Yu

Ying Yang on her first trip to Southeast Asia in 2007.

Ying Yang is in her third year working as an international consultant at the United Nations in Bangkok, but her journey through Southeast Asia started much earlier.

Ying comes from Xinjiang— China’s northwestern-most territory. For people in Xinjiang, Southeast Asia seemed a distant place that only really existed on maps, and as a child, Ying didn’t learn much about the region. Later, however, she stumbled upon an album of Southeast Asian cultural heritage sites, including Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Indonesia’s Borobudur and the magnificent temples at Bagan in Myanmar. “I couldn’t take my eyes off these amazing photographs,” Ying recalled. “I started to read all about Southeast Asia, and soon, it became an obsession. It’s what helped me get through my last year of high school while I prepared for university exams.”

Ying was particularly drawn to the exotic architecture, ancient myths, legends and local culture. She couldn’t stop thinking about the area.

“I kept daydreaming and started making secret travel plans every day after school,” she said. Her plan was to hitchhike to Tibet, travel through Southwest China and enter Southeast Asia through China’s southern border with Vietnam. After a few months of planning, Ying’s plans were ready. However, there was a problem—she didn’t have any money.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” Ying said. “Gaokao [China’s university entrance examination] is the most difficult and stressful exam for Chinese students, and my classmates were studying more than 14 hours a day.”

Due to the rigor of gaokao preparations, she couldn’t take on a part time job. Instead, she looked for alternative ways to earn the money she needed to make her dream come true.

“Every day I would pass my high school’s garbage bins and I noticed there was a homeless man picking up bottles to exchange for money,” Ying said. “That’s when the idea struck me.  I could pick up empty bottles from my classmates, friends and family. I could become an after-school ‘professional plastic bottle manager’.”

Ying made some calculations. In 2005, one plastic bottle was worth 0.1 yuan (US$0.02), and she figured she could collect more than 30 bottles each day from her school. After one year, she had saved about 1,000 yuan (US$151) and was given the nickname “Miss Bottle” by her peers. By the time she finished high school, she submitted her university application and went on her trip the very next day.

“Travelling changed my life. I learned and experienced so much. My horizons were greatly broadened and my whole world was changed,” Ying said.

She started publishing personal writings about her travels online, and unexpectedly began receiving calls from famous magazines in China.

“Just like that, I became a freelance writer for several magazines. I was only 19. I would joke with my friends that it was a much better job than picking out bottles from the garbage,” Ying grinned.

During her first two years of university, Ying continued travelling around China and Southeast Asia. She started a “Thursday Feature Story” column on Chinese-language Malaysian newspaper United Daily News Malaysia. In her column, she wrote about Chinese culture, art, food and scenery for a Southeast Asian audience.

Working for a Better ASEAN

After years of traveling and finishing her bachelor’s degree, Ying enrolled at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom in 2012, studying a master’s degree in anthropology. In 2013, she applied for the United Nations internship program, specifying Thailand as her preferred work location. Since Thailand hosts most of the UN regional offices in ASEAN, and is one of the region’s cultural centers, she decided Bangkok would be a good place to start her career with the UN. Ying joined the Communication and Public Information Department at UNESCAP.

“I am honored to be a part of the ASEAN TRIANGLE Project,” Ying said. “I finally feel like my knowledge and passion can be used to help migrant workers in ASEAN.”

“It was like a dream come true, I was thrilled to be an intern with the UN, and to be back in Southeast Asia,” Ying said.

Ying worked at the 69th session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and was tasked with preparing communications materials, organizing press conferences, holding briefings and managing the organization’s social media accounts. She was assigned the role of photographer for Thein Sein, the President of Myanmar at the time, and Xanana Gusmão, then Prime Minister of East Timor.

“My experience as an intern at the UN was great,” Ying said. “I was given serious work and a lot of responsibility. However, I still felt I wanted to work with laborers and migrant workers, because my parents used to work as migrant laborers. The next year, I applied for another opportunity at the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency with the United Nations. I started working on a research project related to Thai workers and eventually joined an ASEAN migrant workers-centered project, just as I’d hoped.”

Ying Yang started her career with the UN in 2013.

Ying is currently working on the ASEAN TRIANGLE Project. It is funded by the Canadian government and is geared toward reducing exploitation of migrant laborers through increasing legal and safe migration and improved protection of laborers.

“I am honored to be a part of the ASEAN TRIANGLE Project,” Ying said. “I finally feel like my knowledge and passion can be used to help migrant workers in ASEAN.”

Through her work, Ying has been able to help many laborers who found themselves facing exploitation and cyclical poverty. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there were an estimated 232 million international migrants across the world in 2013, and 10.2 million in ASEAN alone.

One of the ASEAN TRIANGLE Project’s achievements was developing a financial education course for workers who find themselves unable to save money for the future and end up being trapped in the country they migrate to.

Ten years ago, Ying first felt a desire to travel to Southeast Asia. Since then, her dream has guided her on a journey in helping to make ASEAN a better place. “Our project has made positive impacts on many people’s lives,” Ying said. “I am very proud to be working on projects that make a difference in the lives of people in ASEAN countries.”



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