Armed with a tape recorder and microphone, Ang Khen marched into the Heng Heng Market on 10th Street in Long Beach recently, expecting to ask some questions. Instead, she was greeted by a howl of recognition.
"I'm so happy," gushed Horn Keng, the smiling store manager behind the cash register. "Before, I only heard your voice. Now I get to see you in person!"
In fact, Keng had heard Khen on Voice of America broadcasts monitored in the refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border where the store manager had stayed before her 1980 arrival in the United States. A native of Cambodia, Keng said the American news and information had helped her prepare for her life here. Now the radio network was back, wanting to record her views for broadcast to those still in the camps or living in Cambodia.
"My only complaint is the spices," Keng said into the microphone, carefully choosing her words while she spoke in Khmer, the Cambodian national language. In Southeast Asia, she said, spices were often given free to customers as a bonus--here they all cost money. Other than that, she said, life in America was potentially grand.
Which was precisely the point the broadcaster asking questions in the market hoped to convey to the people who would be listening in Asia. She was one of five Voice of America reporters in Long Beach last week recording a series of "Americana" spots for later broadcast in five languages.
The audience: an estimated 17 million Asians.
The subject: life in Southern California, particularly among the immigrant Asian communities that have settled primarily in Long Beach--which has one of the largest Southeast Asian populations in the United States.
The purpose: to put a positive face on life in America for listeners in Cambodia, China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
For the past two years, she said, Voice of America--the U. S. Information Agency's Washington-based global radio outlet--has been sending teams of reporters across the country in an electronically equipped van to chronicle life in the United States for consumption by its overseas listeners.
"We want to convey to the rest of the world what the U. S. is all about as honestly and concretely as we can," said Nancy Lang, a VOA special events officer traveling with the reporters. What the Voice wants is "the human element . . . what makes America tick."
They had come to Long Beach, she said, because of the city's high concentration of ethnic communities and its increasing importance as a Pacific Rim trade center. "Something is happening here that you have to pay attention to," she said. "It's a big story."
Though Voice of America is generally thought of as primarily producing propaganda about the United States for the U.S. government, those who work for the service maintain that their reporting is objective. Still, Khen admitted, she did have a specific goal in mind for her reports from Long Beach. "I want to tell them that hard-working people exist here and that if you don't move up the ladder, it's your own fault," she said.
A native of Cambodia herself, Khen came to the U. S. in 1963 and has been working for the Voice of America ever since. "You have freedom in America," she said. "How you use it is up to you."
To help convey that message, she interviewed a cross section of leaders in the Long Beach Cambodian community including Poline Soth, the publisher of a local Khmer newspaper, and Nil Hul, who recently ran for Long Beach City Council. Also, Khen and the other reporters took the opportunity to tour downtown, met with redevelopment, port and city officials, visited the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary, and toured Alamitos Bay by gondola.
But last week, when the entourage traveled to Universal Studios, Khen begged off. Instead, she high-tailed it to 10th Street and Orange Avenue where the Heng Heng Market stands amid a host of other Cambodian establishments.
Here, she said, were the Cambodians she had really come to see; here were the people in the streets whose opinions she sought.
She talked to a lady in a dress shop being fitted for a wedding in the traditional Cambodian style; she interviewed the young founder of a storefront cultural school attended by 70 Cambodian children each Saturday.
"We are trying to revive something of what we have lost," said the teacher, Virath Ngin. "We think of Cambodia every day. We want the people there to know that we are not forgetting them."
When it was all over, Khen said she had found the day moving, like a homecoming. "I am happy and excited to see them doing so well," she said. "It is more than I expected."