interview by Kimberly Davis Guerra
HFM recently caught up with Claudia Kolker, an award-winning journalist and the editor of Rice Business Wisdom, the ideas magazine at Rice Business School and author of The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers To America About Health, Happiness and Hope. Here’s what she had to say about her life, being a parent and living in our great city.
Tell us your story – where were you born; do you have any siblings; where did you go to school; are you married; do you have kids?
I’m from Chevy Chase, Maryland and went to a Quaker school in Washington D.C., which seems to influence me more the older I get. It was such a great area to grow up in. I have twins, a boy and a girl. As for background, I’m Jewish and Mexican — and that’s only one generation back. My dad was from Baltimore (my great grandparents lived in the building that became the police station in The Wire!). My mom is a writer and professor, from Mexico City, and after many years in D.C. now lives on my street in Houston. My parents’ love story — they used to take the bus between Baltimore and Mexico — set my standards for enjoying other cultures. Oh, and for knowing what true love looks like!
Your accolades are numerous – the editor of Rice Business Wisdom, award-winning journalist, LA Times Bureau chief, former member of the Houston Chronicle editorial board and author. Out of all the jobs and positions you have held, which was/is your favorite and why?
Oh my gosh. I’ve loved (almost) all of them. The happiest I have ever been, though, was my year and half on the city desk of The Houston Chronicle. My colleagues were a riot, and that job was what made me fall in love with Houston. I realized that I could travel the world, and meet role models every day, just by reporting on the people who lived here.
The most life-changing job I’ve ever had, by far, was reporting as a freelancer in San Salvador in the four years right after the war ended. The Salvadoran reporters and photographers who became my friends, and looked after me, were so brave and so thoughtful, they became role models for me to this day.
You have traveled the globe and met countless people in your career. What is your favorite place to travel and why?
I can hardly answer that one. Mexico City, where my mom is from, is my favorite city to visit. Crete is where I go to in my imagination — Natural Born Heroes by Chris McDougall and D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths pretty much sum up why.
You could live anywhere in the world, why Houston?
I love this city! What first attracted me as a reporter was getting to know Salvadorans who escaped here during the war and worked incredibly hard the minute they got here. Then, I started meeting Vietnamese immigrants. It was a community I’d never had contact with before, and through the stories of my Vietnamese teacher Biet Le, I was smitten by their many smart traditions and values. I copy a lot of them in my own life. Over the years, and after getting asked this question a lot, I’ve realized that I am fascinated by immigrants because I’m attracted to functionality. Most immigrants are high-functioning by definition. Moving to a new culture brings out the entrepreneur in all of us.
What is your favorite thing to do/place to go in Houston?
Pho Saigon for pho, Cafe FuFu for softshell crabs; running and real-estate snooping in Montrose; The Magick Cauldron; people-watching outside at Cuchara; dancing at Wild Wild West and the Big Easy and Gloria’s; shopping at Chinatown, Roops Sari Palace and H-Mart; nature baths on the mountain bike trail in Memorial Park. The Menil, forever.
What drove you to write your book, “The Immigrant Advantage”?
Around the time I was 40, a writer friend challenged me to think about what I had learned through the privilege of being a reporter. I was stumped! I had to think a lot about it — I wasn’t an expert in anything at all. I realized that the most interesting things I knew, I’d learned through my immigrant friends: about to have a happy, relaxing time as a new mother (yes, really!); how to harness your social circle to save more money than you could otherwise; how to get the most out of your public school; how to use team spirit, competitiveness and raucous parties — things we mostly associate with watching sports — to fix serious problems in your community year after year for your whole life.
Most of Houston Family Magazine readers are women between 35-44, what is one piece of advice you would like to offer them?
Enjoy what you’ve learned so far — you are in the place now to start helping others. And if you meet someone from another culture, try asking The Question: “What’s the smartest thing people in your country do that you should hold onto and we should copy?” You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn, and how much fun you’ll have finding out.
What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
Oh my gosh. So many things. Be a little more helpful in the world, mainly.
What is your biggest fear?
Boredom. Consuming and not creating.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
Hm. Maybe, that I try hard to appreciate every little life gift that comes my way.
What makes you laugh?
Ha! Hm. People, mostly. My high school pal Sonia, my younger brother Jason, and my best friend when I first came to Houston, Julie Mason. My kids, who helpfully point out how absurd I am every day.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Claudia and we wish you the best of luck!
Interested in reading Claudia’s Book? Get it online at www.amazon.com/Immigrant-Advantage-Newcomers-America-Happiness/dp/1416586830