Claudia Kolker is 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. Based in Houston, she previously has reported from Mexico, El Salvador, the Caribbean, Japan, and India. Before joining the panel at a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event, “How Are Immigrants Changing Our Definition of Health?” at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, she talked in the green room about Houston, Salvadoran journalists, and why she loves her fountain pen.
What’s the best place to eat in Houston?
Well, my happy place is called Pho Saigon, a noodle shop right in what used to be Vietnam Town in the center of Houston. … When we emerged from our house after days indoors from Hurricane Harvey, it was the first place we went—the only place that was open.
What was the last book you read?
A biography of Marquis de Lafayette by a historian named Harlow Giles Unger.
What is your strongest memory of reporting in El Salvador?
So I got there on the day that the peace accords were being signed. I was a postwar correspondent. I spent almost four years there, and I often think about Salvadoran reporters and photographers. They had lived through that war. On Fridays, at the end of the day, the Salvadorans and the Americans who worked with them would have a cucharada, which means a tablespoon—of rum—and they would talk about the war, and what they’d been through. … They were heroes.
On what machine do you do most of your writing?
A notebook, with a fountain pen and a glass bottle of ink. It’s sustainable.
Yes. The Los Angeles Times had a series many years ago about plastics and the ocean. Any reporter is an incredibly large consumer of Bic pens. My brother had given me a Montblanc fountain pen for graduation. It was a thing I never considered using. Then I tried it. … And I went to the art store—I saw that people who use fountain pens had these heavy glass bottles of ink, and they don’t leak. The pen is fun, it’s a joy, and it’s addictive. And you get very attached to your particular pen too. … How many plastic pens have I lost in my life? A million. But you don’t lose your car. You don’t lose the things you depend on, and now I don’t lose my fountain pen—I’ve only got one.
If we turned on the TV at your house, what channel is likely to be on?
If you turned on our screen, it would be Netflix, and you’d see Stranger Things or Shtisel, an amazing new series about a Hasidic Jewish family.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Houston?
The most obvious one is that it is a desert with tumbleweeds rolling down the street, and with cowboys. Another one is that it is intolerant. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s tropical and lush, and it’s the number one refugee destination in the country. It’s a place where people come to make lives for themselves.
Where do you go to be alone?
I go to Memorial Park in Houston for nature. And I go to Kung Fu Tea in Houston where I’m surrounded by young and striving college and grad students, but I’m in a corner and feel very alone.