Marco Polo Project – loneliness, entrepreneurship

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

It’s a warm late afternoon of mid-January. I’m walking along the Yarra river, down from Crown Casino. I’ve lived in Australia for about a month, and I’m heading to dinner with friends of my partner. I don’t feel very connected with those people. There’s a certain cliquey narrow-mindedness, an emotional cool, that puts me off. My people are back home. I’ve got no one in Melbourne. The sadness rises inside my chest. There’s an Indian guy sitting on the steps, in the warm evening sunlight. He smiles to himself. For a moment, I start to fantasize. Maybe this guy will be my friend. The movie plays in my head. He stands up, our eyes meet, there’s a nod of recognition. Do you feel out of place here too? We smile, we laugh, we head off on a walk. I call my partner ‘hey, I won’t be going to that dinner tonight, I’m eating out with my new friend’. Indian guy stands up, but he doesn’t smile, or look my way. He walks straight inside the casino. And the fantasy comes to an end.

Migration is an exercise in loneliness. Friends and support networks are distant. Things don’t make sense. Well-meaning locals try to support you, but their emotional language doesn’t translate. That loneliness is professional too. Native cultural capital has no currency. The daily rules and routines of work are confusing. Jokes and allusions fall flat.

Migration is hard, for sure. It’s also liberating, like a jump into the unknown. You shed old rules and models, and you figure out new ones. A friend of mine likes to use the word ‘migrapreneur’ – he couldn’t find an engineering job, and made himself a gig advocating migrant entrepreneurship. I can relate. Since I had to learn new codes, I thought, I might as well go wild, and build something new, and crazy. Building an organization to better engage with China is how I tried to make sense of living in Australia. 

It paid off. I met new friends directly through Marco Polo Project, and many more indirectly. Running that organization took me to cool co-working spaces, endless networking events, and Nanjing on a scholarship. I presented at the Shanghai Maker’s fair in 2013 with an Italian designer who was on the committee for Shanghai’s maker space Xin Chejian. Then I got introduced to the founder of the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I contributed to trendy digital magazines in Australia and China, met a prospective PhD supervisor through those channels, and then got a scholarship. My research itself involved a range of interviews with people I met around the world through Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile, I gathered a number of the cool people I met through Marco Polo Project to join in the 2015 China Australia Millennial Project forum in Sydney. Through that gig, I got invited to join the THNK leadership program in Amsterdam, and later recruited to the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. Good pick: for one of their publications, I was able to organize an interview with the Wunderkind of Chinese sci-fi Liu Cixin, through Marco Polo contacts. Eventually, I got awarded a Multicultural Honour Roll listing in Melbourne, and the title of New Australian of the Year. So, yes, the work certainly paid off.

I did what I could to give back. My experience of loneliness is not unique. Could Marco Polo Project somehow contribute to reducing the edge? Our events have brought people together, and offered them a chance to make meaning of their own lives and surroundings. Translation Club has birthed and cemented new multicultural friendships. Our interns have gotten jobs after supporting us. And people around the world, partners and supporters working on similarly whacky projects, got a little kick of ‘why not continue’ by watching us do what we do.

All this surely spells a success story. Yet the story comes with limits. How do you migrate well, if you don’t create a China-focused organization? I don’t have a clue. What I did requires a certain frame of mind, and a certain level of financial comfort as well – savings and a supportive partner with a full-time job. Not to mention, a lot of public resources went into my French education. I do my best to make the most of what I have been given, and it’s probably worthy, but it’s not easily replicable at scale. So, my capacity to serve as an example, or even empathise directly with the challenges of migrants, remains limited. It’s tempting to play role model, but as an outlier, I’m not sure that I qualify.