By Jiaman (Maggie) PengUnderwater and across the sea
It was 2001 when Seok Wun Au Yong graduated from Northumbria University (in association with UCSI University) in Kuala Lumpur with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. She was 23 when she quit her web programmer and system support job to work at a beach bar on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
“I've always loved the sea, and swimming and being around water,” Au Yong, a Fulbright Scholar in the third year of her master’s program in film studies, said. Learning diving was very natural to her and she worked as a scuba instructor for two years. That became her first “dive” into filmmaking, when she joined a company specializing in underwater photography.
They gave her training for two weeks and after that she was on her own. It was 2006 and she was using iMovie. “We shot on DV tapes, I’m old,” she said.
For the next two years, she woke up at 5 a.m. daily to dive and film, returned from the ocean at 11 a.m., edited until around 3 p.m. and made the “sale” at 8 p.m.. She basically made souvenir DVDs where resort guests could watch themselves swimming, but it was great training for her, creating a microcinema every day.
“It was a dream job,” said Au Yong, but she felt like she needed to grow. She asked to transfer to the headquarters in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo and worked there as a full-time video editor for two years. She learned Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects, shooting her own project and even directing until she got to the point where she felt the need to grow again.
Au Yong then moved to Singapore for six months as a project manager for a design agency. “I learned project management and it didn’t last me very long,” she said it was one of the most challenging jobs.
Then she was invited by a friend to return to Malaysia and be a partner at a small underwater videography company on Kapalai Island. Au Yong became the creative director and ran the show for another two to three years, filming and making some corporate videos and PSAs (Public Service Announcements).
At that point, she became increasingly interested in narrative filmmaking, becoming involved in the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) space and in different kinds of social issues. She had always liked storytelling but felt that documentary implicated ethics and the risk of exposing her subjects.
“I got to the point where I feel, a good story is a good story, and fiction kind of allows you to have a safety net,” said Au Yong.
Again feeling the need to learn and grow, she applied for a scholarship from the Malaysian government to enroll in an eight-week course at the New York Film Academy in 2013. It was her first formal introduction to narrative filmmaking, and she soon realized, “This is it. This is like my next calling, whatever you wanna call it.” Being in New York City was like walking into a movie set, she said. She even ran into David Duchovny from the TV shows “The X-Files” and “Californication.”
Upon returning to Malaysia, she started teaching not only college-level introduction to filmmaking courses but also workshops at NGOs so that staff in rural communities could learn how to make short videos.
That’s when the idea of going to graduate school came to her, to further, if not formally attain an education in filmmaking. The first scholarship that came up in her search was the Fulbright Scholarship, and the rest was history.
Beyond focusing on her film studies at Syracuse University, she also became exposed to a new world of social science theories, such as women and gender studies and disability studies.
“All these theories, it opens my eye and my mind and gives me ways to articulate things that I wasn't able to articulate before,” said Au Yong, “It makes my work definitely stronger and deeper, and helped me find my voice more.”
Learning about social inequality made her see the value in education, a different kind of education than the ones she was exposed to. She said that “the university has to be a place where people can really grow and not just a place to get a paper for job.”
“It's not a place to train labor, it’s a place to shift consciousness,” said Au Yong.
However aside from her studies, being an international graduate student in Syracuse posed its own challenges. “I'm not like a 25-year-old grad student, I’m like a 36-year-old grad student,” she said.
She looked hard for a community her first two years at SU. The only Malaysian she knew of was the manager at Chase Bank on South Crouse Ave. She went to the LGBTQ Resource Center discussion groups and spent a lot of time, in general, searching, and not without adversity.
There is the generation gap: she’ll be turning 38 this year. There is the culture gap: she couldn’t get most of the humor in English at first. And there is also an identity gap: she is Chinese-Malaysian.
Au Yong can speak Mandarin but can’t write it; her vocabulary is very limited and she would not be able to hold an intellectual conversation with Mandarin. She speaks some Malay, her first written language: she processes and listens the best in the language but doesn’t use it often. She speaks good Cantonese, she said, and thinks in Cantonese, but English would probably be the language she holds the most vocabulary in.
Back in Malaysia, she interacted with many British people for her diving job because the underwater videography company was British. She spoke Cantonese with a certain group of friends who were Chinese and spoke English with people from a mix of different ethnicities.
For those reasons and life experiences, she doesn’t feel tied to one culture. “My culture is this, jeans and sneakers, and I don’t feel like I have a very strong culture,” she said.
Being in Syracuse for the past three years, she does feel strongly about the community though. “I would say I belong to Syracuse, it’s probably more home to me now than Kuala Lumpur,” she said.
She wants to make an impact on the communities here, looking into the social inequality that exists in education. After graduating from her master’s this year, she’ll go on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cultural Foundations of Education at the School of Education at SU.
“I want to make institutional change,” she said. “I believe a lot in that everything that is given me, it’s given to me in order to give back to others in whichever way.”
She used to see herself using the tools she attained in America and bringing them back to Malaysia to create change. Instead of having an unattainable goal, she now finds it more impactful to make an impact on situations she has access to right now.
Her education experience in the States has definitely encouraged her to work harder in some ways, she said. She would have never seen herself spending late nights in the library when she was diving in the ocean every day; nonetheless, she followed where her passion led.
“I don’t think you can choose [one passion], and the choice shifts,” Au Yong said. When she found her passion for diving, for the longest time she thought that was it, but then her passion shifted to filmmaking.
The same can go for her culture and where she finds a sense of belonging. Syracuse is the strongest she’s ever felt to having a community, she said.
“For us to step into different worlds kind of complicates the idea of, ‘where do you belong?’ And I think the answer is everywhere.”
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.