When Language Opens the Door For a Journalist to Connect

From an Inside the New York Times story by Soumya Karlamangla headlined “Language, Opening the Door for Connection”:

When the news broke about the mass shooting in Monterey Park, The New York Times dispatched journalists from across the country to help cover the story.

One of them was Isabelle Qian, a video journalist based in New York who typically reports on China for The Times. Isabelle grew up in Shanghai and speaks Mandarin, as do many of the patrons of Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where 11 people were fatally shot. Monterey Park is one of the most predominantly Asian American cities in the country, and it is considered the first suburban Chinatown in the United States.

Isabelle spent a week in Monterey Park, learning about the histories, hobbies and aspirations of those who were killed from relatives and friends. She interviewed a man who escaped the shooting and who had filmed his own video of joyous dancers celebrating the eve of Lunar New Year a few minutes before the massacre began.

I spoke to Isabelle about her experience reporting on a community that has been rocked by so much tragedy. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and space:

How did you end up flying out to California?

I had just celebrated Lunar New Year myself — I had a dumpling party. That evening, my editors told me they wanted to send me to California to cover the mass shooting. The crazy thing is, while I was on the plane the next day, I was reading the news and saw that the Half Moon Bay shooting happened. It was just very surreal. When I landed, I was not sure whether I would be staying in Monterey Park or be sent up to Half Moon Bay.

Your editors decided you’d stay in Monterey Park. And from your coverage, it seems as though you were able to ingratiate yourself in the community there really quickly. How did you do that?

There are two other reporters on my team who are fluent in Mandarin, Muyi Xiao and Ang Li. While I was focused on sorting out gear, logistics, they were putting their incredible reporting and language skills to use and found people who could meet with me as soon as I arrived.

And speaking the language opened all the doors for me. At a dance studio I visited, I was making small talk in Mandarin with the dance students. None of them wanted to be featured on camera or speak. But then a woman I met there connected me to a witness who managed to escape, saw the whole thing, and actually filmed inside the dance hall a few minutes before the shooter came in.

So I gave him a call. We’re both from Shanghai — I can understand his accent, I spoke in his dialect. He said: “You know, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but for you I can make an exception. Let’s meet in 20 minutes.” And that’s how I got that interview with him.

Do you think it’s just that you spoke Mandarin? Or was there an extra level of connection since you also grew up in China?

They could tell that I’m kind of one of them. It’s hard to explain. I’m not second-generation Chinese American. I didn’t learn Chinese at a language school. They can tell that we share the same culture and that I am also sort of a first-generation immigrant like them, even though we’re not the same age.

Have you been surprised by anything about the Monterey Park community?

I didn’t know that in L.A. there was a suburb that’s so predominantly Asian American and specifically Chinese American. It’s pretty incredible — immigrants arrive here, some meet people from their hometowns who help them settle down in this new country, and then near the end of their life, this is where many of them return.

I met this 88-year-old Taiwanese guy who left the dance hall seven minutes before the shooter came in. He had moved away from Monterey Park, but now that he’s too old to drive, Monterey Park is a great place to live because he can walk to restaurants he likes, walk to have dim sum with his friends. He can walk to a dance hall.

Speaking of dance halls, did you get a sense of what kind of role they play in the community?

The two that are prominent in and around Monterey Park — Lai Lai and Star Ballroom Dance Studio — cater to casual dancers who go there to celebrate birthdays or for social functions on major holidays. But they also serve this group of very dedicated dancers, where dancing is their biggest hobby and they spend a lot of money and time taking classes from professional dancers. These two places provide a major form of entertainment and exercise for Asian Americans of a certain age. This is their social circle. Instead of going to church, or in addition to going to church, this is their friend circle. This is where they go, and this is what they do after they retire.

I heard you ended up dancing yourself.

That 88-year-old man I met took me to a social dance at a private club on Wednesday. They were honoring the victims with a memorial service, and also by dancing. This was their weekly social dance and they were not going to cancel. I could really feel that dancing means a lot to this community. Like I said, it’s where they meet their friends. It’s where they hang out. And they’re all so good!

I got dragged into dancing three times. Because it’s very, very hard to say no to very insistent Chinese grandpas. But after I did that, I think they opened up to me even more.

Speak Your Mind