When ‘Domestic’ Means American

No. 40


My name is Huo Jingnan, and I am an assistant producer on NPR’s investigative team, based in Washington, D.C.

When I was hunting for journalism jobs all over the United States, I would write in cover letters that having grown up outside of the U.S., I could not only report and empathize like local journalists but also tell stories with a fresh perspective. After hitting the “send” button, I often wondered whether I was fooling myself: Who am I to compete with Americans? 

Both my promises and my fears turned out to be true. Despite what I wrote, I don't think being foreign helped me with my job search. Since joining NPR, I’ve realized that chit-chatting with sources can be hard. And I probably get ‘this phrasing is odd’ in edits more often than my colleagues do. But my otherness has also given me license to ask very basic questions. Sometimes, my sources leap for joy when they talk to someone new to the U.S. From them, I then get great quotes, helpful contexts, and sometimes factoids about China that I didn’t know about.

I do bring a fresh perspective as an international journalist covering America. Earlier last year, pushed by my mother’s incredulity about the U.S. CDC’s recommendations against mask-wearing, I looked into cultural and historical factors behind the cross-pacific divide on masks. I call out American exceptionalism more readily than I would have called out “Chinese characteristics.”. 

Four years of living in the U.S. has made me increasingly aware of my ignorance about China and its people, the bubble that I grew up in, and the baggage of my Chineseness I carry around. Maybe 'reporting like a local' is a myth. It takes learning and reflection wherever you are. I’m grateful to so many in America who shared their stories, expertise, feelings, quirks, random trivia and, occasionally, food with me. I believe journalism involves a call to common humanity, and I'd like to think I’m practicing this in small ways every single day.

In today’s newsletter, I ask my fellow Chinese Storytellers: How does it feel covering stories not related to China as a Chinese journalist? What are the benefits and challenges? How do you produce quality work in and about a country that’s not yours?


Huo Jingnan

(Xavier Tianyang Wang works on a documentary about Native Americans and climate change in Louisiana in March 2021. Credit: Julian Lim)

Covering America 近看美国

Weihua Li, data reporting fellow, The Marshall Project 

When I first started at The Marshall Project as a summer intern, I didn’t know the difference between jails and prisons. And during an all-staff meeting, I asked, “What is habeas corpus?” The room went silent for a second. Then an editor answered that the phrase is Latin for “you have the body,” a legal course that gives prisoners the ability to sue the prison if they believe their confinement is illegal. She was very kind for not making me feel ignorant. 

It’s been a humbling experience working at The Marshall Project. The U.S. criminal justice system was far away from what I experienced when I grew up. And the learning curve was steep. But over the past two years, I’ve developed a thick skin: it’s okay to ask stupid questions when I don’t know something, and what matters the most is that I am willing to learn.

As I develop my beat, I feel more comfortable to use my own background to strengthen my reporting and add to the conversation about criminal justice. For example, data journalism is particularly strong at exposing systematic problems. A theme we frequently encounter is the racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Much of the disparity is rooted in systematic racism against Black Americans, which is why many of the stories focus on the gap between Black and white Americans, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are left out. Recently, I looked into the New York Police Department’s crime data and found that while the total number of harassments has declined during the pandemic, more Asian elderly people were targeted. With the piece, we also created a guide on how to get help if you are harassed in NYC and what to do if you don’t want to involve the police.

There are more layers to me than being Chinese. As a woman and a new mother, I care deeply about storys involving domestic violence and child abuse. I believe my identities empower me to tell stories through a unique perspective, many of which have nothing to do with China. 

Jiazhen Zhang, video director at SB Nation’s “Secret Base,” Vox Media 

I entered journalism because I wanted to tell stories about my favorite sports and athletes. Growing up in China, I downloaded the American broadcasted versions of the NBA games and boxing matches to get the original taste. I became obsessed with how legendary sportscasters like Mike Breen and Marv Albert pronounced the players’ names and talked about the games. I had a dream: one day I could get paid for telling stories about what I love. 

Whatever sports-related is my nirvana. I can always have my inner peace and passion simultaneously embedded in moments on and off the courts and rings. I wake up every single day knowing that my work is my dream. I spend every lunch break watching videos and learning about sports history. Once I sign off a day of work, I’ll check the scores and plug myself into conversations about sports on social media. I am confident in my knowledge and ability to dissect, analyze and report on these issues on a high level. I am proud when my colleagues ask me to proofread scripts of videos that would generate tons of views instantly after publishing. 

I aspire to be on camera talking about games. I hope my face will be recognized by many Americans one day. I hope people will realize that I am adept as anyone else in the industry. Maybe in the future, more nerdy sports reporters of foreign descent will ascend because of me.

Mengwen Cao, New York-based photographer, artist and cultural organizer

Journalism happens to be one of the industries I’ve left my footprints on. I’m not here to compete, neither with locals nor with anyone else. I’m here to tell stories from my unique perspective as a Chinese queer immigrant and make heart-to-heart connections with people. The more I show up with my frame visually and narratively, the more I can break free from the labels that were imposed on me. 

Having unraveled many layers of my own non-dominant identities, I am very sensitive to toxic ways of extrapolative storytelling and tokenizing characters. My process of storytelling is very collaborative. Be it a China story or non-China story, I always research in-depth in advance and come up with questions I am genuinely interested in digging deeper. Then when I meet my subjects, I try to let go of the knowledge I’ve gained from research and lean into their embodied experiences. I believe that as storytellers, we need to challenge ourselves and free our minds constantly, so that we can tell others’ story from a more generative and spacious view.

(Self-portraits in Mengwen Cao's visual diary Playground Radio, where she embeds her inner dialogues and unflatten her layers of identity. Courtesy of Mengwen Cao)

Xavier Tianyang Wang, freelance video journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York

Since the Karen refugees, originally from Myanmar, arrived in Minnesota in 2004, the community of over 17,000 has called the Land of 10,000 Lakes their new home. But when I pitched a profile on a Karen refugee pastor in a video class at the University of Minnesota, one of my classmates asked: “Did you mean Korean refugees?” 

It dawned on me that not many locals wouldn’t know about their existence in the state if I didn't cover the diaspora. I want to uplift Asian voices. It brings me joy when my cultural sensitivity and understanding of Asia help me detect inviting stories and sources. 

In 2019, after graduating from Columbia Journalism School, I became a video fellow at The Charlotte Observer. I would arrive at a filming scene at least two hours before an event took place and leave the office at midnight to finish editing the assigned segments. As a member of a minority group, I always reminded myself to feature marginalized groups and share their undercovered experiences. Among the 51 videos I produced during my six months at The Charlotte Observer, I told stories about a drug-addict-turned tailgating star, the grievance of a gun violence victim’s family and more.

While being a Chinese national could make me less special in an American newsroom that doesn’t cover China, I embraced the battle for professionalism and honed my visual-storytelling skills. Foreigners are a perpetual minority in the U.S. media industry, but I will make it my stated goal to tell stories about the much neglected people and places.

Henry Gufeng Ren, equities reporter, Bloomberg News 

For me, a Shanghai native, language is the most evident difficulty at my job. My j-school professors were enthusiastic supporters of international students and cared about my feelings. But newsroom editors can be far blunter. They demand that everyone, regardless of where they come from, deliver clean copies with punchy sentences in a short period of time. 

Reading edited copies with numerous word-choice comments and sentence restructures can be painful. But to avoid frustrating the editors again, I keep the edited copies and compare them with my original drafts to learn where I can improve. I have also asked editors for writing tips. Some told me it’d take decades of practice. Others walked me through an editing process in detail.

When I graduated from j-school last year, a professor told me that I should feel good that I was a better reporter than a writer. According to her, writing is easier to pick up, but no one can thrive in the business with poor reporting skills. I take this to heart and always try to stand out with my (over)reporting. When I wrote about how pizza chains could benefit from a Super Bowl Sunday, when Americans mostly stayed at home, I called up America’s 20 biggest pizzerias. And sometimes, I’d spend three months researching for a 1,000-word story. 

I enjoy being a reporter. I relish learning new things every day, interacting with new people and thinking about stories in depth. Writing can be hard for now, but I’ll find my groove sooner or later.

Jacqueline Zhou, daytime programming production assistant, Fox News

As a young journalist writing in my second language, I often wonder if I could resonate with my audience. My lack of local knowledge restrained me from shedding light beyond one specific incident. I reached out to my colleagues for help. They told me their fluency in their jobs came from years of reporting. I used to feel anxious and blame myself for the smallest mistake I made at work. Now, pressure fades as I embrace the fact that I am new to TV journalism and I will gain experience over time. And occasionally, doing research in both English and Chinese languages helps me fill that knowledge gap and bring fair and balanced reporting to our readership. 

As a young’un on a news production team, I enjoy navigating what’s outside my daily life, scoping a wide variety of stories and exploring a broad range of opinions, which I believe will benefit my career in the long run.

(Jacqueline Zhou works on a prime time shift. Courtesy of Jacqueline Zhou)

Writers: Huo Jingnan; Editor: Wufei Yu; Copy Editor: Shen Lu

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