One Journalist’s Journey
I walked into a Sunset Hill coffee shop in north Ballard one crisp autumn Saturday morning and went directly to the counter to order my double short latte (it was early and it was cold and I was about to interview someone I had never met but had read about). A man from a group at a nearby table stepped forward and said, “Are you looking for Collin? He’s over there” and pointed me to a man sitting alone with his tablet at a sunlit table in the northeast corner. I took my latte and joined him and learned that Collin Tong visits the cafe most every morning and joins the group of friends he had been meeting with for years. He was clearly at home in the space, this piece of the Ballard neighborhood where he has lived for twenty-six years.
Collin knows about roots in a place. He was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His grandfather and father, both immigrants from China, arrived there in 1920 and started a Chinese candy and grocery store, the Wing Hop Company. Collin’s mother was a seamstress. Their family life revolved around friends in the Chinatown community, “especially our Tong Family Association and church.”
As a youth, Collin didn’t really think about being a writer, but he took note when two of his English teachers at Lowell High School “both recognized and encouraged my writing”. At his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Redlands, still asserting that “journalism was never my chosen profession”, he wrote for the college weekly. He admits that at some level he thought about being a journalist, but “wasn’t sure I could make a living at it.” He majored in history and then taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand following graduation.
In the summer of 1976, after doctoral studies in East Asian history at University of California, Berkeley and a brief stint teaching at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, Collin was a Michele Clark Fellow at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large was also a graduate of the same program, which trained promising minority journalists for full-time reporting positions at daily newspapers. But Collin says he was “not ready for journalism” at the time because he hadn’t yet developed the requisite “fire in the belly.”
In 1971, his heart found a home even more satisfying than being a college lecturer. He met Linda Young. Three weeks after their first date, he proposed. They married Sept 19, 1971. He was 25, she 24. They moved to Seattle in 1977 and settled in Ballard in 1987. Collin worked a variety of jobs including public affairs director for the Alliance for Education, and senior director of communications for Washington State University.
In 2005, Linda was diagnosed with Younger Onset Alzheimer’s at age 57. Two years later Collin took early retirement to care for her. He knew little about caretaking but he knew how to research. He learned that few books were available at that time. To describe his state of mind, he used the words of Dante “In the midway of my life, I woke to find myself in a wood so dark that straight and honest ways were gone, and light was lost.” He joined a caregiver support group and kept his own journal. After Linda died in 2011, his friend Jerry Large encouraged him to write about what it was like to be a caregiver.
Collin took on the assignment as a new kind of journalistic challenge because it touched deeply into his own life. The project resulted in a book, Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (January 2014), an anthology of stories told in the first person by twenty-three caregivers, Collin among them. Finding caregivers willing to write down their experiences took almost four years. He coached his contributors so they tell authentic stories that are not airbrushed. He believes that “stories are powerful — they help us navigate some of life’s complex problems and provide self-understanding.”
Collin chose the title Into the Storm because “it describes being swept into the maelstrom, where life is upended, and the bottom pulled out from under you.” His hope for the book is to connect caregivers because he knows “you cannot get through the Alzheimer’s caregiving journey alone.” He is committed to doing outreach to foster greater public awareness of Alzheimer’s as a major health challenge.
After his wife’s health required him to take early retirement, Collin left behind his roles as communications director and began doing freelance writing. As he describes it, he “drifted back into journalism.” Glancing over his cumulative output of articles and features, he is no longer drifting but firmly anchored in journalism. He is a contributing writer for Crosscut News and University Outlook magazine. At Crosscut, he writes prolifically on community and global health, education, environment, politics, diversity, and travel. His writing weaves together his life and his work. Completing his book, Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s, honors the memory of his wife and it has helped in his own healing.
Despite the protestations and disclaimers of his early years, the reluctant journalist revels in his work. As we say goodbye in the still sunlit cafe, Collin underlines that truth, “I am now living my dream.”