USA Freelancing without a Parachute #4 – Freefall

Jump on the count of three.  One…

Life is funny. Hard to predict. Just when you think you have it all figured out, something comes your way that you weren’t expecting.

You see, the first week went great.  I was on a three-week assignment in the desert. Contrary to popular belief, deserts are gorgeous, especially in the Fall. And this one had the most perfect fine-grain white sand you had ever seen. It looked like freshly fallen snow. In fact, many of the locals and tourists sled down the dunes that seem to go on forever.

I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico interpreting for an annual project between American and Japanese personnel. While the project ran for several months each year, the interpreters were normally sent in three- to four-week shifts since it was difficult for most interpreters to be away from home for months at a time. This was my fourth year working on this project so I knew the team members pretty well and had explored many of the charming stores and shops in the small town. This was a place that felt really comfortable to me. The work was not stressful. The toughest thing about the job was driving forever to get to work.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

You know how I said the first week was a breeze. The second week – well, that was a different story. This is where life got a little funny. I did not feel well. Luckily I wasn’t working that Monday as it was Columbus Day, a holiday in mid-October. I drove myself to a nearby hospital and waited for a long time in the Urgent Care area. I remember there was a full moon the night before. When I finally was called up to see the doctor, I asked the receptionist if they were always this busy. He said that they usually got much busier when it was a full moon. Considering this part of the country was known to have more UFO sightings than any other, I wasn’t that surprised.

In the end, everything turned out to be fine. After running a few tests, the doctor said I was okay. However, she ordered me to be on bed rest for two days and take it extremely easy afterward. I was fortunate to find a colleague who could extend his stay by 2 weeks, so I flew home early to rest. Change was afoot.


At this point I was four years into my freelance career and work was exciting. After interpreting a good number of IVLP (International Visitor Leadership Program) assignments for the DOS (US Department of State), which are staffed at Consecutive and Simultaneous levels, I began receiving more assignments at the Conference level. These assignments could come from any of the US federal agencies including, but not limited to, the military, the Patent Office, and the White House. The Office of Language Services at the DOS has a roster of interpreters and translators. They assign the linguists based on the agencies’ requests. Interpreters who live in the area surrounding Washington DC are often given assignments in the vicinity of the capital, and those living in other places, including me on the West Coast, often receive assignments that happen elsewhere.

By then, I had enough experience to feel fairly confident. I could sleep the night before and not get too nervous. Yet, I was still receiving many types of work assignments that were “firsts,” which kept it fresh. I married the boyfriend who thought I must be crazy to turn down the translator position in 2009. Instead, I became a freelance interpreter during the recession. As a freelancer himself (he is a musician), Daniel knew it was tough. But we were both in our mid-30s and were enthusiastic to take on new work that would further our careers.

In 2012, which is the year after we got married, I was out on business trips for 125 days. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, I’d say! And a month before we got married, I was out on a 17-day trip until three days before the wedding. Needless to say, Daniel has always been very understanding and incredibly skilled in handling event-planning details.

After the hospital incident in Las Cruces in 2013, I was ready to slow down and take it easy. But there was this one short dinner reception at a nearby university where I was personally asked to interpret by the organizer, and my professor from MIIS (Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey) was going to be my partner. I couldn’t cancel this one! It was a jovial dinner where key players in the Japanese-American society from the San Francisco Bay Area were present to welcome a delegation from a Japanese economic association, and the guest of honor was Ambassador John Roos. It was obvious that many of the participants were bilingual, so I was thinking I had better not mess this one up. My partner and I divided up the work beforehand. When my turn came, with all the adrenaline that comes when I’m about to go “on,” I had forgotten about my nausea and I was in my normal (somewhat nervous) state for work. I heard the English speech, I took some notes which is always uncomfortable when having to stand, took the mic and gave my rendering – in English!! I realized my mistake only after people started laughing at me. Whoops! I rendered it again in Japanese. That was embarrassing! And the next segment I rendered in English again, only to be laughed at louder. I had never done such a thing before.

After that assignment I declined every inquiry, realizing that my body was going through huge physical and hormonal changes that I had not experienced before. It was becoming so difficult to recall the most mundane day-to-day details. I wondered if I would ever be able to interpret again, where having a good memory is an essential part of the job.

Three…  JUMP!

Yes. I was pregnant. The hospital scare in New Mexico. The forgetfulness at the reception. I was getting bigger fast. Between the incredible nausea and sciatica, I felt miserable. But, the exciting news was I was about to have triplets. Not one, nor two, but three little babies. Two girls and a boy.

It’s often difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what life would be like if you were them. I had heard from and seen friends who had kids and how their priorities and life had changed completely. I had heard that being a parent is a 24/7 commitment, that I should really enjoy my “before baby” life as much as I could. So I knew all of that. But what you don’t realize until “after babies” is the effect of not getting quality sleep. A mother has to feed her babies around the clock, so even if feeding was the only thing she had to do, the length of one segment of sleep is five hours at the most. And with changing 30 diapers daily, cooking and laundry and all other house chores, added to the fact that mothers often sleep with a baby monitor by their side, the resulting sleep is very small in sporadic segments. And each segment is not deep sleep at all.

Tiny but very precious. (Photo by Margie Wong)

It was almost a year after that reception job, when my triplets were almost 6 months old, that I took my first post-partum assignment.  I went on a two-week business trip visiting places on the East Coast. It was a relief to know that my brain could still manage interpreting. I pretty much had not left the house that year other than minimal grocery shopping because I was either nauseated, too big and uncomfortable being pregnant, or was busy feeding those babies around the clock. It felt good to be outside of the house again with a professional purpose.

While it was a morale booster for me to go on a business trip, there was work at home that still had to be done. The babies needed to be fed 4-5 times a day. Daniel had a flexible schedule so he could help out in the morning, but someone else had to help when he was working. We were lucky to have Daniel’s parents living close by. When they could, they came to give us a hand. But we couldn’t ask them to do all the work around the house, so I would call on my mother who lived in Los Angeles to come up for a week or two and help out. It was not an easy arrangement since my mother only spoke Japanese and Daniel and his family only spoke English. My mother took the one-hour flight from Los Angeles and visited a handful of times when I had to go on trips, but it was not a sustainable arrangement. We went through several babysitters who helped out a few hours here and there, but we were racking our brains to figure out a solution so that I could accept any work assignment that came my way.

There were other issues too. I used to prepare for each assignment extensively, taking as much time as I needed to feel confident. But when babies are in the picture, it is often the case that you can’t even begin to prepare until after 9pm, and even then you are not very efficient because you are chronically tired. And after you go to bed too late, you are often woken up by a crying baby. Knowing that many of my Senpai interpreters had to go through this and somehow found a way to appear prepared for assignments was quite humbling.

When the babies were just over a year old, I got an inquiry from the DOS about an assignment in Washington DC and New York. The work was over several days involving public events with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and President Obama. This was my first time working for the White House and I was excited to have the opportunity. I was fortunate to have about two weeks of lead-time for preparation. I had my mother fly up as soon as possible, and she took care of most of the house/baby work so that I could concentrate on studying for about 10 days. It was a steep re-learning curve, as I had not kept up with the current events for over a year. I had not even heard about Security Legislation, which was big at the time in the world of the US-Japan alliance. And while I knew I had a lot to catch up on, the preparation process was not very straightforward since I simply did not have enough information on what exactly I would be interpreting. The name of the event to be held in New York was only disclosed to me two days before my flight. And only one day before was I sent the prepared remarks to be delivered there. The updated version of the prepared remarks for a press conference in Washington DC was given to me about 15 minutes before it began.

I was not given the names of the reporters who would be asking questions, nor what questions might be asked. This is often the case in the US for government and private sectors. The interpreters are normally given only the agenda for the meeting. More often than not, the speech script or the presentation files are not shared prior to the meeting, citing confidentiality or lack of prepared remarks as the reason.  Meanwhile, the interpreters on the Japan side (high-profile events normally have Japanese interpreters doing J>E and American interpreters doing E>J interpretation) are armed with a thick binder of speech scripts, pre-translation of the scripts, the list of the guests and their titles, layout of the room and where the key people will be seated, etc. It’s quite amazing to see the stark differences in the amount of information that interpreters in the US and Japan receive.

Now, I was very thankful that my mother could come to help out for that trip, but as I said, it wasn’t a sustainable solution. Work inquiries always have to be replied to quickly and my mother was not always available. Hiring a local babysitter for an extended period of time was not feasible, as an hourly wage for a babysitter watching three children in the San Francisco Bay Area could be $30/hour or more. And if the person was not already a “regular,” then I would have to train the person, the kids would have to get used to the person, and I did not have the time for that nor the budget to hire someone at that rate regularly.

A Soft Landing

After careful consideration, we decided to host an au pair after the kids turned three years old. Au pairs are childcare professionals who come to the US from other countries to live with the family while taking care of the children. Since s/he lives with us and becomes a member of the family, the children end up taking to the person a lot better than random babysitters who come to help out for a few hours. Besides, when Mommy is out for a few days to a week, it’s important that housework can be taken care of, such as cooking and laundry in addition to playing with and bathing the kids, or taking them to school. Having an au pair turned out to be a very important decision that we made so that both Daniel and I could be successful doing our work without worry. We are currently hosting our third au pair, who is from Japan. With a husband who does not speak Japanese, it has not been easy for me to speak to the kids in Japanese (the kids demand that bilingual Mommy speak in English). But if it’s the young and fun au pair who recently came from Japan and is still learning English, then it’s totally okay that s/he speaks to them in Japanese. So having a Japanese au pair has been wonderful in the linguistic sense, too.

Good thing we started having an au pair because the next few years would have their fair share of surprises. As I said, life is funny. Hard to predict.

Kayo Shiraishi Wood

Since completing her Master’s degree in Conference Interpretation at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) in 2008, Kayo has been a freelance interpreter working in the areas including government, information technology, pharmaceutical, and depositions. Residing in Mountain View, California, USA, Kayo is a contract interpreter for the U.S. Department of State, and has worked for many federal agencies including the White House. Kayo was First Lady Melania Trump’s interpreter when she and President Trump visited Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako of Japan in May 2019.