It’s 2013. I’m on a night train in northern India heading from Amritsar to Dharamsala. I’m an intern at the UN Refugee Agency. I’m travelling to Dharamsala, the exile home of the Dalai Lama. Crammed into a packed train cabin, I try to remember my instructions on how many stops I need to pass before getting off to take the bus that will bring me to the foothills of the Himalayas. But there are no signs to tell me where to get off, and no one around me speaks English. I frantically ask everyone in my cabin to try and find an English speaker who can tell me where to get off. Eventually, I find one. He reassures me that he will help me. But then we discover that he has to get off before me. So he looks for someone else who can help me and comes back with a short, beady-eyed man. I ask the short man if he speaks English, and he nods his head. About an hour later, he gestures to me to follow him. He tells me my stop has come. I jump off the train, but there’s no platform here. It’s just a field of grass. There are no lights anywhere except a dimly lit village in the distance. In my gut, I know something is very wrong.
Tentatively, I follow the man, asking him to find me a taxi. I always try to believe the best in people. He leads me into the village, which is a ghost town. My heart is pumping faster. He tries to take me down a dark alley, and I refuse. I turn away from him, searching for a taxi, or even just another human in this silent, dark village. Suddenly, the man snatches the phone from my hand and starts running down the long road. It takes me a second to realize what has happened. Then I start chasing him as best as I can: I’m sprinting while wearing a full backpack and carrying a camera bag. Just as I think I’m about to lose him, he veers around a corner into an alleyway. As he turns, I leap and grab him by the shirt and bring him down to the ground. I pry my phone back from his fist. I start running away, while he throws rocks at me. But he doesn’t follow me. Eventually, I find a small bus station and I drop down onto a bench. I can barely breathe, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Did that really just happen?
Later, at the UN office, my co-workers treated me like a hero. The Deputy Chief of Mission said it was like something out of a James Bond movie. But in reality, the only thought I had sitting by myself in the middle of the night outside of a rundown bus station in India was: “How the hell did I get here? Why am I even here?”
Earlier that year I had graduated from Queen's with a degree in Political Studies and an International Studies certificate. When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do, or what was even possible. But I tried to fake it to my peers and relatives. From the outside, everything seemed like it was going according to plan. My graduation present from my amala (mother) was a Nikon DSLR camera. This camera sparked my interest in photography and gave me the confidence to believe I was capable of creative endeavours. Growing up, I had always been creative. But I never thought I was as good as my Caucasian artist friends or the people I saw on TV. Now I know there is a term that describes my feelings – imposter syndrome.
After graduation, I interned on Parliament Hill through the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet program. While I was on the Hill, I kept searching for the next opportunity. The only plan I had was to volunteer-teach for one month in northern Tibet later that summer. So I walked into the Ottawa office of the United Nations Association of Canada. Naively, I asked to speak with a manager. The manager wasn’t available that day, so I tried again. On my second visit, I secured a meeting with the head of internships. When I met her, I brought a container of Tibetan momos to make an impression. Momos, a staple in any Tibetan household, are scrumptious dumplings made with ground beef, onions, and a mixture of spices. The head of internships was touched by the gesture and absolutely loved the dumplings. That helped me secure an unpaid internship with the UNHCR in New Delhi later that summer.
I barely had enough to get by at the time, so I had to sit down with my amala and tell her that I needed her help to pay for my expenses during the internship. This is not a conversation any parent wants to have after their child has just finished university. I felt awful, but at the time this was my dream.
I left for Tibet for my volunteer-teaching gig, now knowing that I’d be going on to India in the fall for at least eight months. In Tibet, I taught English, public speaking, and photography to rural kids from across the plateau. Our camp was set up at a beautiful grassland area in Amdo beside Tso Ngonpo, the largest lake in Tibet. I took photographs constantly. These photos later became the content of my first-ever gallery exhibition. This was the spark that led to a belief in my own creative embers. After Tibet, I headed off to New Delhi to start my internship. I didn’t know a single person there.
After searching on Couchsurfing, I connected with Ronnie. We ended up becoming good friends and I stayed with him my whole time in India. Part of the reason I went to India is because it is home to the largest number of Tibetan refugees in the world. It was an opportunity to learn about my heritage. My job at the UN Refugee Agency required that I interview asylum seekers who were trying to gain refugee status. These refugees came from all around the world, including Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, and many parts of Africa. I was learning interview and communication skills, skills that I had no idea I would use later on in my career. It was an eye-opening experience to bear witness to the asylum seekers' suffering and resilience.
During those eight months, despite all the challenges, being in India was truly life-affirming. I had gained the confidence to do anything and go anywhere.
Lost, but still searching
I came back to Canada. After my experience with the UN, I wasn't enthralled with law or international policy: they felt too procedural and bureaucratic. I had witnessed how these international institutions functioned from the inside, and I knew there were better ways to contribute. Plus, my GPA in undergrad wasn’t high enough for grad school, which limited my options. I was rejected by many of the companies I had applied to, so I decided to move to Toronto on a whim, with only a one-month position at Statistics Canada lined up. It was a humbling year, working at random jobs, from marketing to mortgages, figuring out what spoke to me. All the while, I was alternating whose couches I would crash on – my cousin’s and my best friend’s. I was lost. But I kept searching.
One day, at an employment services office, I saw an opening that aligned with my interests. I applied to a non-profit called Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and I got the job. The pay was poor, but the job thrust me into the circles of journalism and forced me to write and exercise my creativity. Before this, I had never considered the media industry as a career. I just didn’t know my options. How could I? This is a familiar story for the children of immigrants and refugees. We don’t have access to the connections or role models who can show us what is possible.
CJFE shared an office with a freedom-of-expression organization called IFEX. One day, I walked over to IFEX and pitched an article idea to its editor. It was given the green light. That piece was my first paid writing gig ever. I stumbled into learning how to freelance and began writing for different publications, while taking photographs on the side. In the span of a few months, I wrote for TVO, AJ+, NOW magazine, and OZY magazine. I covered issues I knew, such as refugees, international politics, Tibet, and housing. One of my freelance pieces even won a journalism award. It was an article about intergenerational trauma that I submitted to the Registered Nurses Association Media Awards. I had to be my own biggest advocate, because no one else would be.
A foot in the door
My work was starting to get noticed. I was building a following on Twitter and Instagram, which helped me befriend CBC producers on those platforms. One of them forwarded me a job posting, which I applied for. It was a part-time, one-month contract writing and editing
transcriptions for The Current, CBC’s flagship current affairs radio show. The proverbial foot in the door. It was grunt work, and I had to keep freelancing to pay the bills, but it was my in.
I hustled and networked every day. I listened and learned from the seasoned radio producers and journalists at The Current. I’d ask my co-workers out for coffee whenever I could. I read books and watched countless YouTube videos about news and radio. I joined a radio club of CBCers that met monthly to share work and discuss ideas. Later, I was accepted into the CBC Doc Project Mentorship Program to produce and voice a radio documentary about the memoirs of my pala (father). I used this experience as proof of concept while I was calling managers across the country to work as a reporter. The advice I received from colleagues was that to get into news positions, I would need to go outside of Toronto. So I emailed the CBC North office in Yellowknife, N.W.T. After months of cold-calling, I got a call back from the managing editor. She had a four-month contract for me as a news reporter. I had 24 hours to decide. I had nothing holding me back, so I said yes, packed my bags, and moved to Yellowknife.
There, I was thrown into the fire of daily news. I reported on Indigenous issues, climate change, and territorial politics. When you work at a small station, they teach you to do everything, so it was the best training ground for me. I wrote, hosted, produced radio, and shot video. It’s funny, even though I had been all over the world, I was nervous about going so far north; it felt even more foreign in my mind than India. But the people were so friendly and the land so beautiful that I almost didn’t want to leave. Yellowknife attracted adventurous souls and intrepid travellers, and I was no exception.
From Yellowknife, I went to Winnipeg to work as a radio producer at CBC Manitoba. I worked on stories about homelessness, the fentanyl crisis and immigration issues. I created an experimental piece of audio art for the podcast Constellations. Living in the prairies, it had been a long time since I'd had Tibetan momos and I wanted to know if I could find some. This turned into a radio documentary about my search for momos, which inspired CBC to create an interactive momo map of Canada.
After a year in Winnipeg, I applied for a job in a department called the Creator Network. Although I impressed the interview team, I didn’t get that job. But later, a position in Toronto opened up. I was hired as the talent development lead. I was hired specifically because of my experience outside of Toronto. The Creator Network discovers and develops emerging digital content creators, helping them produce short-form videos. The aim is to make CBC more relevant in an age of disruption and media saturation. It’s an innovative startup that gives me the opportunity to bring digital videos and films to life. After a few months in Toronto, I was also elected to co-chair DiversifyCBC, an employee resource group that is helping make the CBC more diverse and inclusive. In both roles I’m helping open the doors and bring CBC to the grassroots for others who are like I was – just trying to get their foot in the door.
As I reflect on my journey up until now, I think back to what brought me to all of these places. It was purpose. It was adventure. Why was I at that bus station? Because I was willing to do anything and go anywhere, for better or worse. I constantly sought new experiences and knowledge to pursue what I wanted, to get to the place I wanted to be. That place is always changing, because my journey hasn’t ended. It’s just getting started.
Rignam Wangkhang, Artsci’13, is a producer for the CBC Creator Network, co-chair of DiversifyCBC, and proud son of Tibetan refugees. Follow him on Twitter (@RignamW).