Audio Academy Fellow Passes the Test: Interview and Audiograph Sound at Grand Century Mall
By Ben Trefny, News Director, KALW and Christine Nguyen, Audio Academy Fellow
It’s been a little while. Our team took a two-week break for the winter holidays, and now we’re back in the groove. We’re increasing the frequency of in-station “brown bag conversations” to give our trainees a well-rounded sense of the professional audio world and its possibilities. Also, we’ve got a lot of exciting pieces coming up from our Audio Academy — a series of Audiograph “signature sounds of the Bay Area” in addition to some on-the-spot field reporting — and the team is currently helping me out with same-day news coverage, which you can hear every Monday through Thursday on KALW at 4 o’clock, just after the BBC headlines.
As our Audio Academy fellows work their way back into production mode, here’s a story from Audio Academy fellow Christine Nguyen about a recent reporting experience:
I approached recording my first solo journalism project with dread. My kernel of an idea had been exciting. Then I realized that I had committed myself to a project that might set me up for suspicion and rejection, no matter how much I prepared. I knew just enough to know better.
The piece was for Audiograph. The idea was to record the sounds of the Grand Century Mall, an iconic Vietnamese cultural institution. In my day job as a physician, I talk to strangers all the time, but they come to me expecting to talk. This time, I had to persuade people that didn’t need to talk to me that they should.
On recording day, I wore my KALW T-shirt under my sweater to feel like Clark Kent and dutifully reviewed my laminated NPR training “Field Recording Checklist.”
Just outside the entrance to the mall, a group of mostly older men sat in the southern sun. The men clustered around of 10-15 café tables sparsely dotted with glasses of beer and packs of cigarettes. I’d passed this group on past visits to this mall, and knowing the unwritten rules of Vietnamese social interaction, I had never lingered near this part of the building.
I walked up to the group of tables with a smile, trying to act as nonchalant as possible in recording headphones. The men suspended their familiar banter. I made eye contact with a dignified looking man in a blue blazer and khaki pants. He had an American Flag pin on his left lapel and wore a beige English flat cap.
“Hello uncle, my name is Christine Nguyen, I’m with KALW, an American radio station in San Francisco. I want to do a piece about the role the Grand Century Mall in the community. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
Another man interrupted me, listing slightly from side to side, “Talk to that man, he speaks WELL. He is EDUCATED. He speaks CLEAR. He uses INTELLIGENT phrases. Me, I hit my head in Vietnam! I don’t know anything. You lady, whatever you ask, I won’t know!” The man’s bellowing further neutralized any possibility that I would be inconspicuous. I scanned his mix of taut and slack skin.
“But uncle, you are speaking very clearly!” I said in my most deferential voice, and bowed before refocusing on the man in with flag pin. His name was Ngoc Tran, and he asked me about my recorder. “Yes uncle, this is a handheld recorder, can you speak English?” “Why not speak Vietnamese?” “Yes, if you speak Vietnamese, I can translate for the audience, but if you speak English, I won’t have to put my interpretation into your story.”
“Are you going to put my words next to those of a Viet Cong?”
“No, uncle I wouldn’t, this is just a fun piece about the Vietnamese community.”
“Wait. Why don’t you go around these tables. If no one speaks to you, come back.”
“If no one speaks to me, you will uncle?”
“Yes, now go. Go around and talk to everyone.”
So that’s what I did. I went to each table. Each group of men eyed me with wary silence, arms folded or stretched near a drink. One man was in fatigues and a beret, another man with a military patch on his baseball cap.
“Hello uncle. My name is Christine Nguyen. I’m with KALW, an American radio station in San Francisco. I want to do a piece about the role the Grand Century Mall has in the community. Would you mind if I asked a few questions?”
Some men would reply no, some would not say anything, just shake their heads and point to the next table. No one nodded or said yes. No one smiled. I went back to Mr. Tran with the flag pin, and true to his word, he gave me an interview.
Later, after I had completed my recordings inside the mall and ate a bowl of bún thang, I saw Mr. Tran again in the parking lot.
“Tôi nói được không?” he asked me. Did I speak okay?
He was slender but looked active for his age, and he had a strong voice. He was friendlier, more relaxed than he had been earlier.
“Yes. Thank you for speaking with me uncle, I know it’s strange for a young person to ask you these things, and my Vietnamese is not perfect. Coming here today, I knew it was going to be hard to get the men at the café tables to talk to me.”
He gave a slight head shake. “Có người đây kỳ.” There are eccentric people here.
We exchanged information, and he asked me to email him when the piece aired. He wrote with a shaky hand, but I could make out his writing. He worried he hadn’t written his address correctly. “But if I need to find you uncle, I know you will be here!”
“Every day 10 to 4!” He reminded me.
I felt I had passed the test.