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Armed with my first-grade Vietnamese and a digital video camera

Tommy Nguyen, Dateline producer

I was told by my senior producer to bring my small digital video camera for a simple reconnaissance mission. That was the initial idea.

The Vietnamese American community in New Orleans was doing some astonishing things post-Katrina, and my senior producer thought an extra pair of eyes might be helpful as Stone went down to check out a story. Even though it began as a research trip, my senior wanted someone who had some shooting experience to go along. While I am certainly no cameraman, I was looking forward to the assignment. And my understanding of the Vietnamese language, even on a mere first-grade level, would probably come in handy.

The scouting project had a special appeal for me. Unlike my experience as a print reporter -- where I often covered a range of specialized topics -- I've since discovered that working in television news forces one to be a generalist most of the time.

But here was a world I've known since I was five years old. Growing up in Orange County, California, my mother would take me on weekend shopping trips to the sprawling Vietnamese community of Little Saigon, about a 20-minute drive away from my family's first home in east Anaheim. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but at that age I knew my mother was a different person whenever she took me there.

When my mother, who has a limited command of the English language, took me to the banks or the supermarket chains near our home, she would often seem hesitant and confused -- unwilling, for example, to press the issue with the checkout clerk if she felt she had been overcharged. In Little Saigon, however, she was an unstoppable force: arguing with store managers, barging through my doctor's door when I was sick, laughing and gossiping with friends at the businesses they owned. She knew the faces around her, and she knew her way around -- it was the place where she got things done.

It's awful to think that my mother, who grew up in a warring Vietnam ever since she was a teenager, would ever have to endure another full-scale tragedy in her lifetime. But it is comforting to know -- especially since I now live 2,500 miles away -- that she still has a community of friends and family close by to make her the strong, unconfused, undeterred woman whom I know she is. I could easily see my mother, a Catholic as well, doing her weekend shopping in this Vietnamese community of New Orleans East, and also benefiting from their enormous generosity should that unfortunate disaster occur.

When Stone and I came back from New Orleans the first time, I was too exhausted to look over my footage. Imagine my surprise when, a few days later, Stone showed me the first draft of a script. He read it to me in his office. It was a great script, but I was terrified by the thought that this was definitely going to turn into a Dateline report and that the video I had shot would actually appear in a national broadcast.

In the end, the footage worked out better than any of us thought. I suppose when the subject is this inspiring, and the faces in the frame this honest, simple point-and-shoot technique can almost pass for professional work. Of all the images I captured, those that made the greatest impression were the faces of the very young and the very old. Shooting close-ups of the older Vietnamese women was a real challenge. They believe that being old means being unattractive, so they wondered why on earth I would want to photograph them. The situation forced me to speak the language better, to demonstrate my cultural understanding of their fears and apprehensions. I needed to put them at ease. And, in time, most of them came to realize that I was part of their community, despite my terrible Vietnamese. It was at that moment when my camera started to cause less of a disturbance, and when it did its best work.