First Person

I Used to Run Toward Danger

Before her twins were born, this journalist loved to report risky stories. But the earthquake in Nepal, which hit while she was en route, made her reassess her new life as a working mom.

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As soon I stepped off the plane in Abu Dhabi, the heat hit me. The air conditioning in the jet-way couldn’t beat back the desert shimmering through the tinted glass. In the terminal, I joined the throngs of women in black abayas and the men in flowing white dishdash and made my way toward my connecting flight to Kathmandu.

Just the day before, I’d kissed my 3-year-old twins in California good-bye while they slept. I’d be gone for two weeks on a reporting fellowship that I had been anticipating for months. My absence was a hardship for my family, but it was trip I knew I had to take.

During the flight, I kept looking at pictures of the twins—running, laughing, riding a sculpture. Already, I missed them, but I also had missed reporting from abroad: the adventure of navigating new cultures and new countries, the freedom to wander unencumbered down a cobbled street to shine a light onto untold stories, bringing the world closer to home. Although I’d filed stories from China, Burma, Panama, and South Korea, I hadn’t reported overseas since before my pregnancy. 

I didn’t have much time to make it to my gate, and started worrying in the clogged security line between the terminals. Would I make it? Another passenger checked his watch, muttered under his breath, and pushed past me. I was dazed and sweating. While awkwardly balancing my backpack on my rollerbag, I checked my email. I’d been out of communication for more than half a day and discovered frantic messages from friends about an earthquake in Nepal.

I didn’t have a chance to read further. I’d grown up with earthquakes in California, and hoped it was small temblor. I cleared security and rushed past the duty-free shops hawking liquor and luxury goods, a stand of camel’s milk chocolates and baskets of camel toys, and a McDonald’s offering the “McArabia,” a chicken patty on pita bread.

At the gate, I met a fellow from the program connecting from New York and told her about the quake. We hopped onto our devices and discovered heart-breaking photos taken by an Australian journalist visiting a temple complex when the 7.8 earthquake hit and had to run for her life.

She could have died. If we’d already been in Nepal, we could have too. My stomach twisted. I’d decided to leave my family after weighing the risks, resigned myself to gastrointestinal distress, to getting nauseous on winding mountain roads, to long, intense days attending meetings with aid organizations and government officials. But I hadn’t factored natural catastrophe into my calculations

The tiny, impoverished Himalayan country—a place I’d struggled to get editors to pay attention to because of the lack of a local angle—had become a global hotspot, headlining all the news sites. I gaped at the buildings turned to rubble, at the dusty survivor pulled from the wreckage: somebody’s son, maybe somebody’s brother, somebody’s father. A nation of people searching for loved ones and grieving for the dead. How high would the toll rise? If I shared their stories, it could possibly help drive humanitarian aid and international action.

Journalists run toward danger, toward fires, collapsing buildings, and the sound of bullets. Not everyone, not to every extreme, but there’s a certain professional pride in getting stories out. A reporter I know once boasted that he could write about the end of the world in “30 inches” (the length of a feature story in newspapers). In the apocalypse, he’d have his wits about him to file on time and at length.

The other fellows were impatient to get to Kathmandu. Just before the flight would have boarded, the gate agent announced a six-hour delay. Our group collectively groaned, and talked logistics, about when the Kathmandu airport might reopen.  

In a café, I kept refreshing social media and news portals for updates trickling out. Antsy, I checked in with a source in Kathmandu via Skype. “Cool, see you tomorrow then,” he replied within the minute. Internet—at least in his neighborhood—appeared to be working. I speculated—I hoped—that the damage was localized. I could go. I could tell stories about women and the LGBTI community, the vulnerable left more vulnerable in the aftermath of the quake.

I called my husband, who wanted me to return home to him, the twins, and my widowed mother, but he understood I wanted to make an impact, in the way I knew how. 

As we were talking, an email arrived: the fellowship program was cancelled. My body clenched like a fist. I read and re-read the email, which warned of aftershocks, and must have been written under conditions I couldn’t begin to fathom. 

A couple of fellows began contacting their bosses in the United States, asking how to proceed, whether their organizations would foot the expense. While on staff at San Francisco Chronicle, when I traveled to China, the managing editor had scribbled out his cell phone and told me call if I had any problems. His support had reassured me.

Now I was a freelancer. Our ranks have been growing, as media outlets have been shrinking their staffs and shutting overseas bureaus. I wasn’t worried about finding takers for stories from Nepal, but for my safety. If I fell ill, if I was injured, who would help me get out? 

Our flight was postponed again to the following morning, and our anxiety grew. Could we get seats on the next flight, and where would we stay that night? Hunched on the ground, trying to charge my phone, I sent emails to a few editors to see if they were interested in collaborating. My husband emailed, asking what time the twins had soccer class. Ten a.m., I wrote back. On the bus ride to the hotel, I nodded off, exhausted from travel and from the cold brewing in my chest. 

I slept fitfully. Go. Don’t go. Go. Don’t go. I felt like a coward. If I were ten years younger, if I didn’t have small children, I could have shouldered the risk. If I were already in Nepal when the quake hit, I would have tucked my notebook into my pocket and headed into the streets to cover breaking news.

The next morning, I read the latest from Nepal, where the death toll seemed to double, people were sleeping in the streets, and water and electricity shortages loomed. I corresponded with editors, and discussed possible stories and payment terms, but had the sinking realization that no amount would have been worth it for me.

I logged onto Skype, and watched the twins taking a bath, their bodies pink and muscled, their hair slicked back. “Hi Mama!” I’d only been gone two days, and already they looked bigger. 

Other journalists would surely write compelling stories, but my twins were my first responsibility. I bid the other fellows good luck, sharing sources and leads I’d been collecting. At the airport, I ran into German and Austrian trekkers, still wearing their zippy pants and hiking boots. They were going home after deciding their vacation would take away food and resources that should go to the Nepalese.

I flew halfway around the world for the second time that weekend. Back home, I cuddled with my twins and built them a rocket ship with Magna Tiles. I went upstairs to my office, shut the door, and donated to the Red Cross. Then I cried. I mourned for the people of Nepal. As selfish as it sounds, I also mourned the loss of who I had been and hoped I could be again: the kind of journalist who finds stories to illuminate and to inspire action.

For now, for awhile, I’m needed here. Still trying to make a difference, if not out in the world, then with my family. This afternoon, when the elder twin woke up from his nap, inconsolable, I held him in my arms and stroked his hair.


Vanessa Hua was a recent fellow at the International Reporting Project. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, PRI’s The World, FRONTLINE/World, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She blogs at Three Under One. Follow her at @vanessa_hua

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