Dual Master's Degree Journalism & International Affairs Student Shares His Story Columbia Journalism School
Zeyi Yang in yellow raincoat with mountain in background
Zeyi Yang, ‘20 Dual M.S. Journalism & International Affairs, shares how his master's project on gay fathers in China who travel to the U.S. to pursue parenthood through surrogacy was published in Narratively.

Zeyi Yang, ‘20 Dual M.S. Journalism & International Affairs, on Reporting a New Perspective on China

Last February, we interviewed Zeyi Yang, ‘20 Dual M.S. Journalism & International Affairs, about his powerful longform master’s project on gay fathers in China who travel to the U.S. to pursue parenthood through gestational surrogacy.  A version of the story, “Two Gay Chinese Dads. One Long and Winding Trip to Fatherhood,” was published on the site Narratively.  To mark the end of Pride Month, we proudly share this story and how it was reported across two continents. 

Yang is from Wuhan, China but was finishing his degree at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After graduating in May, he is currently working as a Rest of World reporting fellow.

Over the course of his year at the J-School, the first in the two-year dual degree program, Yang reported across two continents to tell the story of Qiguang Li and Wei Xu, a gay Chinese couple who spent more than four years and $200,000 to become parents through a U.S.-based surrogate. Yang traced the political and economic factors behind the rise of international surrogacy among gay men in China, where gay marriage and surrogacy is banned, and examined the ways it both defies and supports the traditional Chinese family structure.

To find a family to profile, Yang cast a wide net, speaking with a well-known gay rights leader in China and a Chinese-American gay rights organization in San Francisco, as well as attending a surrogacy conference in New York City. A contact from that conference helped Yang join a group chat for gay men in China pursuing surrogacy. After speaking with a dozen people through that group, he met Li and Xu, who stood out because of their warmth and willingness to share their story, Yang said.

Although Yang traveled back to China over winter break to do additional reporting, he was never able to meet the couple in person and did all interviewing remotely. He credits the camaraderie of the group chat with the intimate look he was able to provide into their lives.

“I think because I approached them through the group chat they saw me as one of them,” he said. “I was also very clear when I was interviewing that I am gay myself because I wanted to achieve that connection and common ground between us.”

Zeyi Yang holding printed thesis
Zeyi Yang holds his freshly printed master's project on the first floor of Pulitzer Hall.

Yang successfully completed both the master’s project and his year at the J-School in May of 2019.  That fall, he began the second year of the dual degree program at SIPA, an experience he describes as more academic (“research, essays and exams”) than his year at the J-School. 

In September, Yang also began an editorial internship at Narratively, a website focused on non-fiction storytelling. When his editor let him know the door was open to pitch his own stories, Yang jumped at the chance to share his master’s project. The story was picked up, and Narratively commissioned the Shanghai-based photographer Gráinne Quinlan to take photos of the family Yang had profiled.

Although the original project already had a heavy narrative focus, some additional editing was required to make it a Narratively story. 

“The original story was longer and had more newsy elements,” he said. “I was talking more about what was controversial and what the Chinese legal context was.”

Writing for the site’s audience also meant providing context for a largely American readership who might be unfamiliar with Chinese culture.

“There were things I consider common sense that I realized I needed to explain more, like the LGBT situation in China,” Yang said.

Bridging cultures is familiar territory for Yang. He served on the Model United Nations as an undergraduate and has considered using his dual degree to pursue diplomatic work. But now, he says, journalism is his first priority.

“I think I’m exploring new perspectives that people weren’t familiar with before,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of stories about gay Chinese people building families through surrogacy out there. I want people to know this is another part of their lives. And this is a more positive story, not about how they’re discriminated against or oppressed by the government.”

Narratively Screenshot
From master's project to published story: Yang's piece was published on Narratively in January.

To other students pursuing a degree at the J-School, Yang has one piece of advice gained from his experience pulling off an ambitious cross-continental reporting project.  

“Dream big,” he said. “Your dream might come true.”

About the Dual M.S. Journalism & Masters in International Affairs (MIA)

Students in the four-semester joint degree program spend one year in the J-School and one year in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Learn more about the degree and scholarship opportunities.