At 1:30 pm on a Tuesday, Bell Tsou climbs up into her chair and listens for the cue from the control room. She nods her head at the cameraman and begins her talk show, ad libbing the entire thing with bilingual fluency.
Tsou is a host, anchor and producer at LA 18, a Los Angeles-based TV station that caters to the Asian community. She's been at the company for six years already and is able to transition seamlessly from Chinese to English, a skill that is eminently useful in her job. Part of that job is to figure out what first generation Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles want to watch.
"When it comes to food, Chinese immigrants are very picky," Tsou says. "They're very critical. They know what ingredients are good and in many ways, their critique drives the competitive restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley."
We're sitting at Taiwanese bakery, Oh My Pan in San Gabriel and Tsou has just come back from a shoot in the area. The owners bring out a platter of taro-infused bread and Tsou makes a mental note to pick some up later for her family.
Her lifestyle show, "tSOuLA" (after her last name), explores the nooks and crannies of the Southland from a Chinese immigrant perspective.
"I remember meeting Patricia Tsai, the owner of Choco Vivo, a chocolate store in Los Angeles. She's Taiwanese and went from an accountant to a chocolatier. I felt like our audience could really relate to her," Tsou says. Instead of doing a small spot on Choco Vivo as originally intended, LA 18 ended up broadcasting an entire feature.
The intent is to bring parts of LA that aren't necessarily accessible to the non-native English speaker to their living rooms. Tsou tours places like the Marine Mammal Care Center in Los Angeles and the Pasadena Model Railway. Pole dancing lessons and drive-in movie theaters are also on tap. The interviews are conducted in English, but broadcasted with subtitles.
Her goal: to empower.
"These are places that our audience members won't necessarily go out of their way to go to but enjoy learning and hearing about," she says.
According to Tsou, policy changes and financial issues are topics that are especially pertinent to the Chinese community. The issue is that a lot of her audience members have a hard time digesting the fine print in English. Part of her job is to break down the latest news in Chinese and often, she'll invite influential people in the Chinese community to be on-air and help. "It's become a platform for people to voice their opinions," she explains. "If you don't voice your opinion, you lose your right to complain."
"I can relate to them," she says of her audience, who are primarily first generation immigrants from China and Taiwan.
A former fashion student from Taiwan, Tsou was a model before she signed up as an airline attendant for China Airlines (In Asia, the physical requirements for airline attendants are strict. Beauty is a prerequisite). "I hated being a model and being judged based on my looks," she says. "On the other hand, being an airline attendant was fun but I could never explore my creative potential."
The turning point was in 2007 when there was an open call for a weather girl at LA-18. With virtually no on-air experience, she went in for an audition and got the job.
"Coming from a traditional Asian background, a lot of girls feel the pressure to figure out what they're doing right after college," she says. "But you're not supposed to know what you're supposed to do until you've done it. I jumped around a lot. Nothing is a complete waste because it'll all just be a part of your character."
From fashion student to model to airline attendant to student to housewife to TV news anchor, Tsou understands firsthand how difficult it is to make it in the States. Yet in many ways, her awareness of the difficulties of assimilation has fueled her career.
"It's all about having the right tools. When I first moved here, I was completely frustrated because people judged me based on the way I looked and talked. So I really studied the language and culture," she says. "In the same way, we're trying to give our audience the right tools to live daily life in America and pursue their dreams."