With a Chinese dragon in the background, Chan and her friends head to The Moth event. From left: Becky Chan, Fran Lynggaard Hansen, Ann Turner Tripp, and Pam Lane.
With a Chinese dragon in the background, Chan and her friends head to The Moth event. From left: Becky Chan, Fran Lynggaard Hansen, Ann Turner Tripp, and Pam Lane.

On the Mainstage

Becky Chan, a former area resident and Brattleboro Union High School graduate, finds connection through the art of storytelling — on this night, about her journey from Putney to the FBI to ‘The Moth’

Becky Chan sits casually with us, her friends, chatting about our youth in Brattleboro. Fellow graduates of Brattleboro Union High School class of 1976, we have traveled to Tarrytown, N.Y., to see Chan perform in "The Moth in Terrytown," a Moth Mainstage event.

Chan, who now lives in Seattle, has invited us to see her live on stage tonight during her short return to the East Coast.

She shows no signs of stage fright or nervousness, and before she takes the stage it's difficult to imagine that she's about to deliver a 12-minute story about her life as an immigrant, having moved from Hong Kong to Putney when she was 15. This personal history then leads to a 22-year career as an FBI agent, and the way these two stories fit together mesmerizes the audience into stunned silence.

The Moth - a nonprofit organization "dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling," according to its promotional materials - claims to have "presented over 50,000 true, personal stories, told live, without notes to standing-room-only audiences and via radio, around the globe" over its 27-year run.

Listeners to public radio may be familiar with the nationally syndicated Moth Radio Hour, a weekly program of stories like Chan's recorded at events like this one. Each year, people download more than 1 million episodes of the weekly Moth Podcast.

Appearing at a live event can be a long process for storytellers, and it can take even longer for the audio of the story to get on the radio.

* * *

Chan's public speaking story begins when she lived in Washington, D.C. While working for the FBI, she was a member of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit group that helps participants gain speaking and presentation skills through a network of worldwide clubs.

"When I first got to Quantico [...] the room was filled with all these people who were so important," Chan remembers. "I had to introduce myself, and I felt so shy and intimidated. I went to Toastmasters to practice public speaking [and] to feel more comfortable talking about myself."

Chan notes that she was one of only three people in that room in Quantico for whom English was not their first language. Chan was only the second Chinese American woman to be hired in the FBI's 116-year history.

She has traveled extensively, both for the FBI and for personal pleasure, visiting friends in many countries. She speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and had opportunity to use all three during her time with the bureau.

Chan's curious personality has encouraged her to speak with people of all ages, religions, and cultures. Though she's still a bit shy, she's the kind of person who is easy to converse with. People are naturally drawn to her.

"Storytelling is like traveling the world. I love diversity, getting out, meeting new people, and living through another person's life by seeing it through their eyes," she says with a broad smile. "At Moth Mainstage events, the audience can travel through another person's story. You hear from people you would likely not have the opportunity to meet otherwise."

Eventually, Chan found her entry point to The Moth by attending its Story Slams. At these live events, anyone can put their name in a hat and, if drawn, take the stage and tell a five-minute story - or not. No one has to volunteer, and most of the audience is simply there to enjoy the show. She attended six Story Slam events and was picked to present four times.

At Story Slam, the Moth staff randomly picks volunteers who become judges. After each presentation, each judge holds up a card indicating a score from 0 to 10.

"It's pretty nerve-wracking to go to an event and not know whether you'll be telling a story or not, and then getting judged, but it taught me a lot and it was exhilarating," says a smiling Chan.

* * *

Chan remembers one of the first stories she shared. It involved her junior year at BUHS and the American Legion's Girls State Auxiliary event.

Girl's State, a week-long, invitation-only program, aims to develop leadership skills in high school seniors. According to the Auxiliary's online literature, "The focus of the program is Vermont town, county, and state government. Delegates are elected and appointed to offices within the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches of government, which culminates in a mock State Legislature."

Chan, a well-liked leader and athlete in her class, was among the five chosen by faculty to represent BUHS at the event - a high honor. However, when the American Legion Auxiliary discovered that Chan was not a U.S. citizen - she had not yet lived in the United States long enough to be eligible to apply for citizenship - her offer was rescinded.

On April 11, 1975, the Brattleboro Reformer reported that "in one day, 500 of her friends and teachers at Brattleboro Union High School, where Ms. Chan is a junior, signed petitions saying that she should go and receive the 'citizenship training' at the convention before she decides to become a full-fledged American. Among the signatures on the petition are the names of the other four nominated and elected representatives to the convention from BUHS."

An uproar in Brattleboro ensued over the following weeks, inspiring letters to the editor in the Reformer and, later that month, an editorial by then-editor Norman Runnion. The other four chosen delegates refused to attend without her.

Eventually the decision was reversed, and Chan was allowed to attend Girl's State.

"That was an important time in my life," she remembers. "My friends stood up for me, the community stood up for me, and I felt supported in my new country. I was an immigrant; I didn't expect that to happen. It's a good story to share."

Another way to pitch a story is by calling a designed phone number, which will give the caller one minute to leave a recording to catch the ear of the staff. If chosen, they might be invited to tell their story at a Mainstage Event, as Chan had in New York City the previous week.

Chan's presentation in Tarrytown was her fourth Mainstage event. She has also been invited to present in Seattle; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and New York City.

Her biography in the event program gives the audience a glimmer of her voice:

"Becky Chan retired in Seattle after 22 years with the FBI. An avid gardener, she volunteers, forages the wild, and hones her story telling skill as a freelance writer for the [Northwest] Asian Weekly, a community newspaper. Becky emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. with her family in 1971 and settled in Putney, VT where she learned to square dance, skinny dip, and make pizza out of Velveeta cheese, Chef Boyardee sauce, and English muffins. It's only after working in NYC she realized what real pizza is.

"A graduate of Brattleboro Union High School, she was the 1976 440-yard dash Vermont State Champ. Becky also ran track at North Carolina State University, 'alongside' Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist in the marathon. Joan has no recollection of ever running with Becky."

* * *

The Tarrytown event is about to begin. The other storytellers for the evening come to join Chan and her friends before they head into the green room backstage. Chan introduces them to her friends.

Dave Kalema is a Ugandan American filmmaker. Cleyvis Natera is an author. Jameer Pond is a video director. Mindy Raf is a solo artist, stand-up comedian, and songwriter.

Chan's friends are struck by the bond among these five people, who appear to know each other well but actually met only days before.

In fact, all the Moth staff and storytellers appear outgoing, confident, and extraordinarily friendly, not only with one another, but with Chan's friends as well. These storytellers fancy meeting new people with backgrounds unlike their own.

The lights blink, and the stars of the evening scurry away as the audience, which packs all 843 seats of the Tarrytown Music Hall, sits down. It's a gorgeous venue. Built in 1885, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, and the societal elite once filled this room. Chan and the other storytellers will walk a stage where Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck variously performed jazz, and Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt held events for their respective presidential campaigns.

But on this night, one at a time, each storyteller will craft a tale that will keep the audience fully engrossed.

"Everybody has a story, an experience to share," Chan says to her friends before the curtain goes up. "It's up to us to bring a diverse community of storytellers together to allow the audience to experience lives different from our own."

She disappears backstage.

A single violinist stands in the spotlight, playing a solo rendition of the Moth theme music. Then host Amber Wallin, a Los Angeles–based comedian and filmmaker, warms up the audience and educates us about how long storytellers are allowed to speak and other rules for the evening.

The theme for the event is "A Point of Beauty," which also happens to be the name of the latest Moth anthology in book form.

As each storyteller arrives onstage, the host reads their answer to the prompt, "Tell us about a time when you couldn't look away." Answers range from the sight of a nude male beach in Hawaii to the magic of a grandmother's hands seasoning food.

Four storytellers thrill us with tales of basketball, hip-hop, a sick child, and a father grappling with his polyamorous lesbian daughter's relationships.

And then Chan, the final presenter of the evening, takes the stage. Dressed in black and full to the brim with humor and wisdom, Chan, the senior storyteller on tonight's stage, weaves an astonishing story about bringing Cheng Chui Ping, a Chinese woman who ran a human smuggling operation, to justice.

"Sister Ping" - or "the Snakehead," as she was also known - was arrested for bringing over 3,000 Chinese people into the United States illegally, which earned her over $40 million in the process.

Chan manages to weave her childhood in Hong Kong, her immigrant story from Putney, her education at BUHS, and the capture of a notorious smuggler into a story that keeps the audience moving from laughter to tears to awe. When it's over, the applause is thunderous.

She has told a version of this story all four times at Moth Mainstage, adding information, changing the format, tweaking the words and the humorous lines each time she does.

Kate Tellers, director for the evening's presentation of Moth Mainstage, is a huge fan.

"Becky has lived hundreds of stories in her life, and I want to hear them all," she says enthusiastically.

"I appreciate that she can find humor in a situation so close to her own identity. She steps confidently out of her comfort zone at each event, and manages to quickly connect with the audience, and through them, with people across the country."

Tellers goes on to explain that Moth storytellers can "tour" only until they reach the holy grail of storytelling - being recorded for The Moth Radio Hour. At that point, they must stop touring. She pictures Chan touring for some time.

"This woman is filled with interesting stories," Tellers says. "I want to hear them all."

For her part, Chan enjoys the challenge of storytelling, and her connection with the other presenters and her audience.

But there is one more reason she keeps going.

"I have this sense of responsibility, especially now, to educate people about the immigrant experience," says Chan with conviction.

"One way to do that is to share my personal stories of living, working, and becoming an American citizen, and then working for the FBI," she continues. "How can people understand what that is like if I don't share my own story?"

Fran Lynggaard Hansen, a Brattleboro native with deep connections to local history and to people everywhere, is a Commons reporter and columnist.

This News column by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates