Growing up in a bilingual household in the metro Detroit area, WRAL reporter Renee Chou sometimes resented having to attend Chinese School every Saturday from the time she was in kindergarten to 12th grade. Her parents, who are originally from Taiwan, wanted her and her brother to learn their native language, Mandarin.
Renee’s hard work paid off years later on July 29, 2007 when she put her language skills to use and helped Wilson County authorities who were investigating a murder.
Renee and a WRAL photographer were sent to Stantonburg to cover the fatal shooting of Jin Jin Chinese restaurant owner Song Ni.
“We pulled up to the scene, and sheriff's deputies had cordoned off the crime scene,” she said. “I spoke with Wilson County Sheriff Wayne Gay. He said he was having trouble trying to figure out what happened because of a language barrier. The family spoke very limited English. I asked what language they spoke, and he told me Chinese.”
Renee mentioned that she spoke the language, and Sheriff Gay asked for her help interviewing family members and restaurant employees.
“I can't remember if they were working on a getting an interpreter, perhaps that person wasn't available right away,” said Renee. “I asked what dialect of Chinese they spoke, and he told me Mandarin. If the family spoke Cantonese or Shanghainese, I wouldn't have a clue.”
She introduced herself to the grieving family members and employees who were understandably apprehensive.
“I could tell they relaxed once they heard me explain that the investigators needed to talk to them about what happened and that I would do my best to translate,” said Renee. “I know they were very frightened, especially after the ordeal they went through. As soon as they knew that I understood, they opened up about their terrifying experience.”
Three masked gunmen had barged into their house, held guns to their heads and forced them to kneel down, Renee translated. A 2-year-old and 5-year-old were in the house at the time. The gunmen shot Song Ni in cold blood.
“It was interesting to see how law enforcement conducts interrogations,” said Renee. “They asked a lot of specific questions. Deputies did ask me not to report certain information that I learned from the interviews, so as not to jeopardize their investigation. That was a bit difficult. I talked with them about what I felt were relevant facts that should be disclosed. We struck a balance. It was certainly unusual.”
Renee says that was the only time she has had to use the language while covering a news story, but she speaks Mandarin sometimes when talking with various community groups.
“I am conversationally fluent. I can certainly hold my own in everyday conversation, and would be able to get around easily if I ever traveled to China or Taiwan,” said Renee. “I also understand a lot more than I can speak. I know how to read and write a bit, but I'm definitely not literate. I wouldn't be able to read a newspaper. Chinese is a difficult language to read, because its pronunciations are based on memorizing the specific character. Unlike English, where you can sound out a word phonetically, there is no way ‘sound out’ a word in Chinese. You have to learn that a particular word is written this particular way and pronounced this way. So to be literate, you have to memorize tens of thousands of Chinese characters.”
Renee’s first words as a baby were probably Mandarin, she says.
“I grew up in a bilingual household. My parents are originally from Taiwan and came to the United States for grad school and remained to raise a family,” she said. “I'm from the metro Detroit area, where there was a significant number of Chinese families. They joined together to rent space in a local community college to hold ‘Chinese School’ every Saturday for a few hours in the afternoon. The purpose was to teach a generation of ABCs (American Born Chinese) the language as a way to connect with their cultural heritage.”
The school provided an education experience, as well as a social experience for the young ABCs.
“(I was) able to form friendships with people of a similar background, who struggled with growing up Asian in mainstream America,” said Renee. “At times, I resented having to go to school on the weekend. But my parents never let me quit. I'm glad I didn't, because I would've regretted not being able to claim a part of my cultural heritage.”