UPDATED:  June 30, 2009 8:56 PM
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Angie Chuang: Reporters as Truth Seekers and Story-Tellers

By: Jennie L. Ilustre

After a 13-year career as a reporter for The Oregonian, Hartford Courant and Los Angeles Times–winning national and regional awards for her stories on Afghanistan, Vietnam and post-Katrina Gulf Coast–Angie Chuang turned to teaching. In 2007, she joined the faculty of the American University School of Communication in 2007. She teaches undergraduate and graduate reporting and media history classes.

 But to stop writing, which is like oxygen to her? That’s out of the question. “I’m still writing, although as a freelance now,” she said in a telephone interview. Her schedule as a teacher allows her the time to complete a book. “I’ve been working on it, off and on, since 2004,” she added.

The book is connected to her trip to Afghanistan. “It’s evolved a lot, from a biography of the Afghan immigrant family I followed, to more of a memoir about my experience getting to know them from after 9/11, to after I went to Afghanistan to meet the family members they left behind,” she said in an earlier email interview.

She added: “There are chapters of it published in various places, including in a travel-writing anthology called ‘Tales from Nowhere,’ by Lonely Planet Publishing. I received a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts residency to work on the book this summer, and I'm hoping I'll be ready to shop it out to agents, finally, later this year.”

 Her awards include the Columbia University School of Journalism Workshop on Journalism, Race & Ethnicity. At the AU School of Communication, she brings her experience “developing one of the first regional-newspaper race and ethnicity issues beats into the classroom,” as well as her research. She oversees its partnership with New America Media, the nation’s largest collaborative for ethnic media.

 Her mom, Ling Chen, said in an email interview, “She’s an excellent journalist. She has earned much respect in her journalism and teaching careers. I am very proud of her–how fortunate could a mother be?”

Speaking during the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the Voice of America (VOA), as organized by the BBG through Ms. Mya Mya Myaing and co-sponsored by other agencies, Ms. Chuang said her parents did not pressure her “to become a doctor, dentist or engineer,” the way most Asian American parents do.

But she recalled, “My dad once asked me, ‘Why are you majoring in English? You speak English just fine.’” Her mom told her, “Okay, so you’re not very good at math and science, so you don’t have to be a doctor or engineer. But you like to argue, so why not be a lawyer?” (Angie said her brother became a surgeon, in pursuit of the American Dream.)

Ms. Chuang received a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Stanford University. A second-generation Chinese American, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her mom works in accounting. Her father, Tien-Yuh Chuang, is a real estate broker and a retired civil engineer.

She said her parents eventually threw their support on her career choice, although they had “to listen to their peers say things like, ‘That’s such a shame that she wasted a Stanford education on being a reporter. The least she could have done was married a doctor while she was in school.’”

Reporters as truth seekers

She pointed out: “But my parents stood by me and tried really, really hard not to freak out when I went to places like post-Katrina Lousiana, where I waded through fetid floodwaters with Vaporub under my nose to ward off the smell of decaying corpses, or non-NATO-controlled rural Afghanistan, dodging Taliban checkpoints and landmines.”

To her mom, who was in the audience, she added, “Umm, Mom, I don’t think I specifically ever told you about the Taliban and landmines, did I? Oops. Well, now you know.”

Her mother later wrote in an email interview: “Yes, I was worried about her safety when she told me she was going to Afghanistan, but she reassured me. I trusted her to get the best protection from her reliable Afghanistan friends for the entire trip. However to spare me, she didn’t mentioned landmines then.”

Asked in the email interview for advice to would-be journalists during these critical media age, she replied: “Right now, it's a difficult time for aspiring journalists because the industry is changing drastically and newspapers, especially, are having so many financial problems. I’m heartened that students will want to major in journalism, that they still believe that no matter what happens to the industry, people will still want trained professional truth seekers and storytellers to help them interpret the huge, complex world out there.

“I would advise them to gain the technological skills they need and be flexible about the changes in journalism. But in the end, it’s still about your ability to connect with people who are not like yourself, to be curious, relentless in finding the story, and to tell it in a way that has heart and is fair.

“If you do all of those things, it doesn't matter if it’s on a piece of newsprint, on a computer, or beamed into a computer chip implanted in your head–it's still good storytelling, and there is always a basic human need for that.”

Fighting stereotypes

Ms. Chuang herself became a journalist because she “loved to write and wanted to tell people’s stories.” She told her audience: “I didn’t consciously try to buck tradition, but I soon became aware as my career took me out of San Francisco and into communities like Phoenix, Arizona, and New Britain, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon, that I was working against expectation in another way. I wasn’t the Asian that mainstream America expected me to be.”

“As a journalist, I had to be pushy, nosy, aggressive, willing to throw myself–sometimes unwisely–into places everyone else wanted to flee: crime scenes, disaster areas, war zones,” she added. “I found myself having to consciously convince sources and editors to rethink their assumptions about me, just as I had in my own Chinese American community.”

            She stressed she wasn’t making light of the dangers that journalists face. “As I speak today, Roxana Saberi has just returned to the United States after being imprisoned in Iran, and Laura Ling and Euna Lee are still being held in North Korea. These courageous Asian American journalists illustrate the dangers that reporters face when uncovering the untold stories.”

            After reporting on “rural Afghan women who had never had running water or electricity, poor teenaged girls in Vietnam weighing the decision of whether to turn to prostitution to support their families, a Creole family whose entire town was torn down to its foundations during Hurricane Katrina,” she realized something far more important about her identity as an Asian American: “I was drawn to outsiders because I had been one myself, both in her own Chinese American community, as well as in mainstream American society.”

Her experience as an immigrant, she said, gave her the empathy, “as Jewish American author Cynthia Ozick writes, to love the stranger because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ and to ‘imagine the familiar hearts of strangers’–which is what the best journalists do.”

Here in the US, she wrote about immigrants and refugees–from Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan. She said she was struck “by how many things were universal between all of us,” particularly noting the “the fervent hopes, and sometimes crushing expectations, of one generation for the next.”

Her speech at the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month last May was filled with gems of truth, including this one: “The fact that we are here today, blocks from where the first black president was sworn in, where three Asian American cabinet members serve in his administration, where the first Latino Supreme Court nominee will undergo confirmation hearings, we should truly appreciate the symbolism and intent of what today’s event formalizes–a sense that ethnic diversity is fundamental to our nation’s strength and identity.”


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