Celebrating Agents of Asian Ancestry: Nelson Low

Retired Special Agent Nelson Low describes his experience as an Asian American in the FBI.

Video Transcript

My name is Nelson Low. I joined the FBI in 1983 and retired in 2010. I am American-born Chinese. My first office was Las Vegas. It was a two-year assignment and I started like most new agents, they do general criminal work. And then after the first year, they assigned me to the surveillance group, because I guess they wanted new faces that people didn't know in the area, so I went and worked on the surveillance group until I transferred.

I think once I got my assignment to San Francisco, my background was a very important consideration because they assigned me to national security work when I first got to San Francisco. And from there, my background was used extensively to address Asian matters. So I think the FBI was smart in a sense that they were able to have people that could do work that maybe some of the other guys would not be able to do otherwise, and I had limited language ability.

I spoke a local, a very limited local dialect, and I had to learn Cantonese Chinese, so it was a transition. I had a little background on it, but the more generally spoken Cantonese was something that I was expected to learn.

They wound up sending me to language school and probably one of the most stressful times of my entire life because I went back for about nine months and I couldn't come back and not speak Chinese otherwise the guys on the squad would just beat the crap out of me. Because you went on a nine-month vacation and can't speak Chinese? I'm going to kill you. Because they were picking up all the work. So I actually studied pretty hard and you know got some Chinese, learned some Chinese.

And then there were guys on the squad that were fluent speakers and they were kind and very gentle in developing my Chinese further because it was formal Chinese being taught and you need to learn the language that was being used on street level.

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