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View Count: 86 |  Publish Date: February 23, 2014
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Perilous journey to America a step on Thuy Vu's path

Thuy Vus childhood had enough drama to fill a PBS documentary, as her family journeyed from war-torn Vietnam to a church-sponsored home in Minnesota.
But when she explains how she went from knowing no English to mastering the language capably enough for a career as a broadcaster, the narrative takes a turn to classic commercial television.
I learned conversational English from The Brady Bunch, laughs the host of KQED Newsroom - The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch. Thats how I thought all Americans lived - that they all had moms who stayed at home and baked cookies, and ... domestic help. She thought, America is a great country, and she envisioned herself becoming Carol Brady.
Vu has found a different definition of success, working for nearly two decades as a reporter and anchor at several Bay Area stations. Last October she started one of the most prized jobs in the market, hosting the new successor to KQEDs long-running This Week in Northern California.
It was a potentially imposing task, filling a hosting slot that had been occupied by Belva Davis for nearly 20 years. But the bigger challenge for Newsroom may involve the future, not the past. Working at a news provider that is seeking young consumers to supplement its aging audience, Vu spends much of her energy thinking about multimedia, social media and other developments that have changed journalism since the first incarnation of KQED Newsroom aired in the 1960s.New news era
I havent always been in the public media trenches. I know what the perception is - that were boring, were outdated, that we havent kept up with the times, she says. We need to be cognizant of that. I want our program to be valued for its insights and news value, but also give people a sense of enjoyment. Why do we all live in the Bay Area? Because we enjoy it here.
Vus family fled Vietnam when Saigon fell to the communists in 1975. She was elementary school-age and the second-youngest of eight children. The family was so large they couldnt leave together, so some left by plane and others by cargo ship. Their only money was some gold sewn into the lining of Vus mothers skirt. Nobody spoke English.
The journey became more perilous after their boat was denied port in Singapore.
We were running low on food. My brothers eyes had turned yellow. He was really sick, Vu recalls. We all thought he was going to die.
After a stop in Guam, the family made it to the U.S. mainland and reunited in Arkansas. Later they were sponsored by a Lutheran church group in Duluth, Minn., on chilly Lake Superior, with little understanding of the new culture. Vu remembers the family washed their clothes in the bathtub for months, before learning about the existence of washing machines.
We cranked the heater up to 80 degrees. We didnt know you werent supposed to do that, Vu remembers. We were walking around in our shorts and T-shirts. Our sponsors said, Why do you have the thermostat up at 80 degrees? We said, This is how we dress in Vietnam.
Vus parents both worked hard, with high hopes for their childrens future. Her mother worked at a garment factory in Duluth until the plant closed. Then she joined Vus father working at the Jenos frozen pizza factory. Seeking education
They stuffed pizzas and pizza rolls into boxes (things werent fully automated then) and my dad also helped maintain the machines, Vu says.
The family moved to San Jose in 1979, not because of the climate but because Californias abundance of four-year public colleges. The future news anchor had a summer job in the 1980s soldering components onto motherboards at a computer company. Both parents worked on assembly lines in high-tech companies.
We didnt have much, so I would give my entire paycheck to them to help with family finances, Vu says.
She later landed at UC Berkeley as a rhetoric major. As much as she enjoyed debating, Vu fell in love with journalism in college and volunteered to host the early newscast in the wee hours at UC Berkeley radio station KALX.
Id pull out the wire copy - it was still coming off machines where you had to tear it off the pages, Vu says. Id have to rewrite the copy, format a 15-minute newscast, sit in a dark studio and do my one-woman newscast. There was probably nothing else I would wake up at 3 in the morning for. I loved that newscast.
Vus first job out of college was at KQED radio. She later worked at KPIX, KTVU and KGO-TV as a reporter and anchor, and more recently as a co-host of KPIXs Eye on the Bay news magazine.
Vu was one of several people who filled in hosting This Week in Northern California after Davis 2012 retirement. In July, the station announced that Vu would be the KQED Newsroom host and longtime The California Report host Scott Shafer would be the senior correspondent. New start for Newsroom
KQED has made every effort to give Newsroom a fresh start. The TWINC set was rebuilt and moved to a different corner of the Mariposa Street stations studio. The hosts write blog posts and contribute to social media, and in-studio guests seem to be younger than the typical This Week in Northern California panelist. Last year, KQED sent a correspondent to Burning Man.
Obviously Belva Davis is and was an icon in Bay Area journalism. Shes very beloved, Shafer says. I think we were mindful in planning Newsroom that we wanted to build on the audience. Im sure some had (stopped watching) the show because they really miss Belva. Hopefully were growing a new audience as well.
Vu and Shafer, who hadnt worked together before she returned to KQED, have a nice rapport off the set as well. Outside the building with Shafer, Vu jokes that a gas-guzzling 1980s-era limousine parked across the street might be his ride. (Actually, he drives a much more public-television-friendly Mini Cooper.) And she pokes fun at herself, volunteering that she sits on a cushion to make her 5-foot-2 frame seem bigger on air.
She is exactly the way she is on TV. If anything, shes just more so in person, Shafer says. Shes easygoing but also a serious journalist. She asks the hard questions not just on TV but in the meetings. Shes interested in substantive issues. Shes the whole package.
Vus day-to-day life is a seminar in multitasking.
A divorced single mother of a 7-year-old daughter, she commutes from her home in Silicon Valley to three jobs in San Francisco. She remains host of Link TVs LinkAsia news program, and teaches a broadcasting class for the Academy of Art University multimedia communications program. Tough critic
Vu has a self-deprecating sense of humor but can get down to business quickly. During a KQED Newsroom story meeting, she offers nonstop input, joking considerably less than she does over lunch. As a teacher, she hands out multiple critiques for every compliment.
Smile! Were doing something fun today! she tells one of her students, reviewing an on-the-street soft video feature that resembles one of Vus old Eye on the Bay spots. The audio in the mix was problematic. What was going on there?
After class, Vu says the students energize her. Several, like Vu, were born in other countries, learned English as a second language and are intent on a career on the air.
I enjoy teaching. I wasnt sure I would, Vu says. They remind me of myself, because theyre so hungry.
To keep track of events foreign and domestic, Vu says she has about 24 publications bookmarked on various electronic devices. KQED Newsroom has a lot of moving parts, with stories and interviews often changing two, three or four times between the Tuesday story meeting and Fridays taping. During a walk from her teaching job to lunch, Vu checks her e-mail twice - apologizing that she has to return one between her salad and her risotto.
Vu never got her live-in housekeeper, but her family still found the American Dream.Family nights
All but two of her siblings live in the Bay Area, and the others are in Sacramento and Los Angeles. Vus father, Dich Vu, died two years ago. Her mother, Lan Nguyen, still invites all comers for Vietnamese dinner on Saturday night, in the San Jose home Vu grew up in.
We all have keys to the house, so we let ourselves in, Vu says. Many weekends we come in our pajamas, and we eat and hang out, leave really late and go straight home to bed. Were all sitting around the dinner table at my moms house, eating a great home-cooked meal in our pajamas.
As much as she likes old traditions, Vu says shes ready to embrace change when it comes to work. Among the current challenges is taking the half-hour news program and finding ways to dissect the information into smaller bites for a younger, smartphone-toting news consumer.
Whats changed is how much theyre looking at the future, she says. I dont think of myself as a TV host at all. I host a program thats available on television and on the radio and online.
Vu can get serious about journalism, but shes most sober when talking about the sacrifice her parents made, the benevolent people who helped her along the way and the obligation she feels to pay it forward. She says she never seriously considered leaving the Bay Area, because of the family bond.
Its one of those things were you look back and say, Ive had incredible luck, Vu says. Ive had a very blessed life, and I was one of the lucky ones.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicles pop culture critic. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

Keywords:
 Bay   Bay Area   era   family   host   KQED   news   newsroom   The Brady Bunch   KQED Newsroom   Vus 

Picture Keywords
 Bay   Bay Area   era   family   host   KQED   news   newsroom   The Brady Bunch   KQED Newsroom   Vus 
Time: 3:59  |  News Code: 382290  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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