Dare to Dream: Made in China, Li Jing is Making it in America
Everybody likes a good rags-to-riches story—especially one that really resonates. With nothing but a dream, Li Jing came to America from humble beginnings. On a scholarship at 22, she planned to get her Master’s and pursue a career in business. 9/11 scratched all that.
Amid the tragedy, she discovered journalism was her true calling. Switching gears, against all odds and defying all boundaries, a culmination of luck, dogged determination, and a whole lot of hard work has landed the precocious business major from Beijing where she is today.
Completely self-made, the award-winning TV host/journalist/blogger has managed to carve an impressive niche for herself. Boasting some pretty solid credentials, Li has worked with the United Nations, NBC and CBS, made appearances on MSNBC and The Tyra Banks Show and even landed some major interviews with Angelina Jolie, Michael Phelps, and more. All of this considering she had no connections, no experience, and English is her second language.
No stranger to adversity, Li has been chasing the dream on a bona fide journey of a lifetime to land a media spot with a major US network. Her big break came earlier this year with the Paradise Hunter—a contest in search of a travel TV host. Her short video entry quickly catapulted her into the spotlight, landing her among the top ten finalists from a pool of over 700 contestants.
She staged a major press event at 230 Fifth called Dare to Dream to celebrate the milestone and push her candidacy. It was the biggest publicity stunt among all Paradise Hunter contestants. Supporters included longest-running NYC anchor Chuck Scarborough, not to mention NYC Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner, Adrian Benepe and reality TV stars including former Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Danielle Staub, and ABC’s The Bachelor all of whom tapping into Li’s passion, shared their success stories.
“Something I thought I couldn’t do, and normal people wouldn’t do, if you really want it, you’ll make it happen,” recalls Li who gave her all starting out working weekdays in Washington, and on weekends at CBS in New York. “I slept on the bus for six months. Eventually, you build power. At that time I didn’t know how long it was going to last. It could be a year, two years, but so long as I could get my foot in the door. Everytime I was in New York, I was so happy. I was really struggling and always running, but always smiling. And people loved that. That spirit in you, people can feel that. Eventually… it’s going to happen.”
From growing up poor in China to facing adversity including a rare skin disease that couldn’t keep her from modeling and coping with her sister’s learning disability, Li sat down with A.U.D.R.A to share her life-changing experience and talk about her ambitious quest to make it in America as the first Chinese Oprah.
Did you ever think you would land in media?
Never in a million years. I studied business and came here to do my Master’s. Journalism saved my life. We just heard Bin Laden was captured and killed, but ten years ago…during September 11, that day I was at the UN and I watched the plane go into the building. The first one. Then the second one.What was going through your mind? Initially, I thought it was an accident. And when the second plane hit, everybody stopped working. We all realized something was wrong. When the UN was evacuated, we came out and looked at the sky. Half was filled with smoke, and the other half was sunshine. I saw people lining up at telephone booths making calls. At that moment I realized, wow, they don’t care about money, they cared where their family was. They were watching CNN. That’s when I realized it’s pretty important to be that person to connect and help people communicate…I wanted to be that bridge. You were in America for a few years. It’s totally new. A different country. This colossal event happens and you get this epiphany that journalism is for you. How did you make that transition from interning at the UN into such a competitive field? The most important thing I learned is these three lessons: One, find the thing you believe in—that you love…and makes you so happy, you’ll even do it for free. And… don’t give up. Keep going. Believe in yourself. Two, work extremely hard. I didn’t take a real vacation for five/six years. Last, embrace the culture no matter where you are to build relationships. Were there any major moments of doubt when you were unsure how you were going to pull through? There were many, many times when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. One of the most difficult was when I applied for an American network news job from a Chinese news station. No experience. Totally different language. I didn’t know anyone. After two years and so many rejections, I tried all of the networks, and nobody said yes. I was pretty much ‘that’s the end of it.’ My colleagues said ‘there’s no way you’re going to make it.’ Nobody thought I could. So I thought okay, if I don’t make it by the end of 2004, I will just stay in DC and be a Chinese TV host. During that time, the key thing is to surround yourself with people you want to be like. Reach out to them. Have meetings with them. People encourage you, even though they have no idea they’re encouraging you…Sometimes miracles happen. And it did. Life is interesting. I got an email from CBS with a part-time job offer. I lived in DC, working full-time. How do I take a part-time job in New York? My former boss said ‘you’ll figure it out.’ Dare to Dream was really pivotal in your success with Paradise Hunter. You really took things into your own hands! Every day I grow. Every day I learn something. In the end, it became like a snowball. The event was so successful. That’s why we’re here today at 230 FIFTH because it’s a place I feel very connected with. If you really love something, don’t be afraid to fail. That night I asked all the celebrities who came here to share what’s their success in life, and that message came through. In the end, I didn’t get the position, but I feel like I have won so much more. It’s how you share your passion, run the whole campaign and get people to support you. If you want to do anything in life, reach any goal, that’s how you do it. Coming from a completely different field and background, what you’ve accomplished is pretty amazing and extra challenging. The key is first you need to believe in yourself. When I first told people I want to work for an American network, nobody believed me or thought I could do it. They said: ‘It’s your second language, never heard anyone made it. I’ve been here for many years, and even people born here never made it.’ Anyone can be the first, so you can’t say never. It’s like America’s first black president. It took many years, but it happened. It’s really part of my personality. When I really believe in something nobody can change it. You have an extremely positive spirit. You push all the negativity aside and don’t listen to what people tell you. Where do you draw that strength and inspiration from? A lot of it is from hard work, because I didn’t come from money or a very wealthy background. A friend in the wine business told me the best wine actually only comes from the wild. Vineyard wines actually taste more flat. Why? He said, because in those difficult conditions, even as trees, the roots will go very deep into the ground and try to grab all the nutrition. That makes the fruit and the juice much more tasty and sweet. It’s like me. How I grew up. I needed to work really hard for everything in my life. Nothing was handed to me. Little by little it built up. And also it’s because I’ve seen in China what it was like to have nothing. The whole family used to have one pound of meat per week—for four people. Can you imagine? So those kinds of situations make me appreciate today and what I have, and don’t take it for granted.
Tell us a little bit about your business. I want to start a website. My goal is to reach the most people in the world and to share those inspirational stories, meet business leaders and different cultures. China has the largest population in the world, and the most internet users: 450 million—more than the entire America. But here’s very limited information, lack of firsthand stories told by…one of them, to see what life is like here. When is the projected launch? I hope to work this summer to launch the website, and…collaborate with one of the largest websites in China to do a live chat with people to really reach people here and there. The internet is so powerful, and it’s going to be more and more. The largest Chinese Twitter just started a year ago and now they have 100 million registered users. When you look at evening news in America they have an average of 1 million viewers. Chinese Twitter is 20/30 times that whole audience, and most them are younger—they’re the hope and the future. That’s why I feel really passionate to do this. I just need to keep going to make it happen. Little by little. After launching your website, the next step is your own show. The cherry on top. Oprah is really inspirational. I think of her, how she grew up and now how the world now is so global. Ten percent of Americans are first generation immigrants. We don’t see them enough in the media. I hope to be the first one to do that and share a lot of amazing inspirational stories. Immigrants are minorities because of their language and cultural barriers. They aren’t able to speak up and voice who they are. But there are so many great things we can learn from them. Think of someone who came to a country with nothing. That’s the worse that you can get. Now the economy was pretty tough. If those people in that situation can rise… My goal is to represent that and give them the hope. Coming from a more traditional, reserved culture, what do your parents think about all this? I didn’t really listen to what to my parents told me. Initially, they asked me to go the traditional route. Good company. Work there in business and make a good living, get married and have kids. It took a long time for them to really understand my vision. Eventually last year when I did this campaign, they were voting for me in China. Were they more supportive initially when you came to the U.S. to study? Since I was little, I had my own ideas and didn’t really listen to what they said. You’re a rebel. Perfect word to describe me!
You’re very well-rounded. I Understand you were part of the swim team, a model, and even an inventor. You’ve done everything. Haven’t been an astronaut… There’s still time, right? I like to explore very different things because when you learn you are open to becoming better and that’s the key. As for my modeling, this is something I never really talked in public about, but when I was about 13 I got a skin disease. It was really horrible. They still don’t know how I got it. Nobody in my family had it. It came all over my body, face and hands. I was scared. There was no way to cure it. It must have been so scary—especially at that age. I was like ‘why did this happen to me?’ It cost a lot of money for my family. They spent more money on medicine than food at one point—just on me. I didn’t understand. Now I … always remember when I don’t have something, what it was like when I didn’t have that. Just to have normal skin was so lucky. I wanted to be in fashion. And my mom’s like ‘you can’t. You’re not normal.” Power of the mind. Totally. It started going away, then I sent in that photo…to a magazine modeling contest for cosmetics. I became their youngest spokesmodel. It was about four years after I first got the disease, and my mom couldn’t believe it. Not many would think if you had a skin disease, you could become a model. You’re defying all odds. There are no rules for you. A lot of times that’s how I keep myself going. When I’m 80 years old and I look back, there will be nothing I will regret. So what’s your best advice for someone who is just embarking on their journey coming from China? It’s really important for anyone coming to a new country to really believe in yourself and embrace the culture. That’s who you are. In my contest, the first thing I said is that I was made in China. I’m really, really proud of that. People think that “made in China” is really cheap, but no. My culture is so hardworking and open. China is actually projected in 10 years to be the number one luxury market in the world. It’s beginning to change, and I think every culture has its own unique spirit. So embrace that. Nobody is perfect, but you are one and only, and you can make anything happen. Anything is possible. I really believe that from my own experiences. The reason those things happened because I didn’t listen to people who said no, because if I did, even my parents, who would know what would have happened. That’s pretty powerful. My future plan is also to write a book to share this whole journey. Sometimes people need a push to help them get to the next level in their life. If everybody became better the world would become better.