For Pearl, on Her 35th Birthday

The last time I saw you was on September 4th, 2021. I was visiting my parents for the long weekend and came to your parents’ condo, just a few miles away; they were away at a church retreat, your husband was getting a haircut, and your friend Anna — possibly the best friend who’s ever lived — was taking care of you. I had picked up Taiwanese food from Oakland Tea House, because we had planned to have our next hang there. But then you had a brain bleed, likely a side effect of the experimental chemo you were on, so bringing Oakland Tea House to you as you recovered was the next best thing.

We had retired to the living room after eating. You were laying on the couch, in a fresh change of clothes after a drainage bag mishap, and I sat in a chair next to you. I asked you if you were still seeing clients.

“Yeah, I am,” you said.

My eyes grew wide. “Why?” I asked.

You looked over your shoulder at me. “It’s who I am, you know?”

That’s pretty much everything anyone needs to know about you.


There’s a thing that happens when you’re a therapist, especially a therapist who is female, Asian American, Christian: You get used to having mildly unsatisfying conversations in your everyday life. People not asking how you’re doing, or asking without giving you ample time or space to answer meaningfully; people not knowing what to do with your feelings when you share honestly; people not going beneath the surface to the level you want to reach. This isn’t anyone’s fault — it took me years of professional training to learn how to engage like this, to be able to empathize and attune, to be comfortable sitting with things that are unpleasant or unresolved. I don’t blame anyone for not connecting at the level I would often like to, but it makes me all the more appreciative of the few who do.

You were one of those rare people. No surprise, perhaps, given that you were also an Asian American Christian female therapist. But when I moved back to Michigan in 2018, even after not seeing you for years, we were able to get to that level almost immediately. You made plans to see me at my parents’ house; since being an Asian American Christian female therapist often means carrying a disproportionate amount of the load in my friendships, your effort alone was a gift, especially given how young my kids were. You asked me how I was doing and made time and space for my many feelings, your attention breaking only when my children demanded it. And you reciprocated — you told me very honestly about everything that had gone down since we last saw each other over a decade before, about the cancer and being in and out of chemo, about how foggy you still felt, about John, about your families, about caring for a full load of clients even as you had so many needs of your own. You showed up, literally and figuratively, and after months of pure chaos — having my second child five weeks early, moving across the country with a six-month-old and a three-year-old and no permanent home to speak of — your presence with me was a balm. You received me into a new chapter of my life with such care, and in this moment of massive upheaval, it was everything.

You showed up like this for everyone in your life, personally and professionally. I still don’t understand how you did it. When I was a therapist, my social circle shrank as my caseload increased; after being so present with clients all day, I had little bandwidth to engage with anyone else. But you didn’t seem to have the same limitations. In all your years as a therapist, you somehow managed to care for all your clients while investing time and energy into your friendships from every chapter of your life. And you did this even as the cancer kept returning, even when it spread, even when chemo failed and failed again. I would have stopped caring for anyone but myself, and no one would have faulted me. But that’s not who you were.


After I left you and got in my car, I made a commitment to visit you every time I was in town to see my parents. The next time would be October 9th. I would bring cider and donuts from the Franklin Cider Mill, which had just opened for the season. I would get to meet John, like you said I would. Your birthday was a few months away and I would write you a card telling you how much you meant to me, because birthdays are a socially appropriate time to do that, and I thought we still had time.

We did not. On October 2nd, I got a text from Liz Lai: “Pearl died at 9:50.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

I thought we had more time.

I drove to my parents’ house on October 9th as planned. Only instead of having cider and donuts with you and John, I went to your funeral.

The church was packed; it was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever been in, since you were the only person I’ve ever met who had equal numbers of Asian, Black, and white friends. A parade of people came to the podium and talked about how you had impacted their lives and I feel like four of them said you were their best friend, because if anyone could handle having four best friends and also take care of people for a living, it was you. Your boss said that even as you got sicker and could only see clients over the phone, for shorter sessions, not a single one of them wanted a new therapist because your love and care for them was so palpable. It was a beautiful service. Yet all I wanted to do was jump out of my own skin, so much did I hate the fact that you now existed only in two dimensions, in the photo on the front of the ceremony program, in the slideshow that soundlessly looped in the background.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself drifting into an alternate reality where you were alive, where you had been able to get married when you wanted to, where you had the kids you wanted so deeply. This was the life you should have had, had cancer and chemo not taken so much of your twenties and thirties, and it was so much easier to imagine than what had actually happened. My mind kept shifting to the reality that made sense instead of the one that did not.


It’s been over a year. I no longer imagine that you’re still alive, but I still think about you all the time: Every time I try a new Asian place near my parents’ house, because you would have tried it already and given me an accurate read. Every time Robert and I go to a restaurant in Detroit, because we had talked about eating our way through the city with our spouses. Every time I hear Ace of Base, because the last thing you ever told me was that “All That She Wants” was your favorite song from the ‘90s. Every time I eat PopCorners, because you recommended them to me when I needed pandemic snacks, telling me your dad keeps four big bags in his bedroom “just in case.” In my mind, you are as present as you ever were.

I do not know where you are otherwise, if there is any kind of life after this one. I do not know why the best people are so often the first to go. But I do know how profoundly lucky I was to know you, to be loved by you, to be the beneficiary of your friendship and care. I love you forever.

Loss Upon Loss

I’d been anticipating the first anniversary of the death of my childhood friend Jason Polan — for me, the first devastation of 2020 — when I received word from Jason’s mom that his father died.

While I have clear memories of Jane from childhood, I did not meet Jesse until Jason’s funeral. Even in grief, he was full of life — warm and gregarious, wearing the hamburger t-shirt that Jason designed for Uniqlo beneath his suit jacket. He opened his eulogy with this: “It is not right that I am here talking about Jason. I feel very strongly that it should be the other way around.” It is wrong for parents to bury their children: the simplest, clearest distillation of why we were all so gutted, and in this case, a gross understatement. Jane and Jesse weren’t just parents — they were exemplary parents who had enviably close relationships with their kind, altruistic children, and in the countless hours they spent volunteering at their kids’ schools and baseball leagues, they cared for everyone else’s children too. And they did not bury only one child; Jason’s older sister Jennifer died 20 years earlier, when she was 23. It is wrong for any parent to bury a child, but it was extremely wrong for these parents to bury a child more than once.

In the wake of Jesse’s passing, I am overwhelmed by the same feeling of wrongness that he spoke about a year ago. It is wrong that Jesse, this convivial man who loved the community so deeply, spent his final year immersed first in grief and then in isolation. It is wrong that the countless people he impacted through his lifetime of service cannot gather to properly commemorate his passing. It is wrong that Jane, so endlessly generous with her time and labor, has endured the deaths of two children and now her spouse. It is wrong that for her, this year — this historically, universally terrible year — has been bookended by two unspeakable losses. It is wrong. It is all so fucking wrong.

I do not understand why bad things happen to good people, nor why the worst things have befallen the very best people. All I know is this: Jason and Jesse’s lives were a gift. Nothing is promised to us except this moment. And the world is profoundly unfair.

Photo via Uniqlo

Sign the Open Letter Regarding the Menlo Church Scandal

If you’ve been following the scandal involving John Ortberg and Menlo Church (see my previous post for more) and you’d like to do something about it, here are a few ways you can:

– Sign this open letter to Menlo Church leadership calling on them for a completely new investigation, removing john ortberg and the current elder board, and implementing a mandatory LGBTQIA+ training for staff, elders, and volunteers.

– If you know anyone on Menlo’s staff, contact them directly with your concerns and encourage them to take collective action.

– Menlo Church belongs to a denomination called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, and they are part of the Bluewater Presbytery. Email Luke Barnes, moderator of the Bluewater Presbytery, calling on him and the presbytery to fulfill their responsibility to hold their pastors accountable.

– Ortberg sits on the board of trustees of Fuller Theological Seminary. If you are a student, faculty, staff, or alumnus of fuller, email Mark Labberton, the seminary’s president, with your concerns about his position on the board. And if you are connected to anyone on Fuller’s faculty, staff, or board, please contact them as well.

Evangelical megachurches rarely change course unless public pressure and negative press force them to. Thank you for doing your part to move the needle.

The Astounding Recklessness of John Ortberg

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

Danny Lavery is the son of John Ortberg, the influential Christian writer and senior pastor of Menlo Church, an evangelical megachurch in Silicon Valley. Last week, Lavery made a startling report: His 30-year-old brother, a student ministries volunteer at Menlo, disclosed to Ortberg and his wife two years ago that he was sexually attracted to children.  Ortberg not only allowed him to continue to serve with youth, he also supported his son’s decision to do this as a way of “treating” this attraction.  His son did not step down from serving with youth, both at the church and elsewhere, until he told Lavery about his attraction in November and Lavery insisted.  Lavery then alerted Menlo leadership about the situation, as well as his parents’ collusion.  Menlo conducted an internal investigation, in which they did not interview Ortberg’s son, any students, or any parents, and found no wrongdoing on Ortberg’s part.

This troubling story has countless layers, most of which have been thoughtfully explored by people closer to the situation.  Religion News Service published a thoroughly reported piece.  Detailed timelines of the allegations and the church’s responses are available online.  Danny and his wife Grace have been active on Twitter, detailing their experiences of attempting to address this situation with the Ortbergs, from whom they are now estranged, and the church.  Megan Goodwin, who studies sexual abuse in American religious communities, wrote a thoughtful piece on the Sojourners website.

As someone who has some relevant experiences that I have not yet seen represented in the conversation, I want to draw attention to what’s happening at Menlo and offer a few thoughts.

As someone who, like Ortberg, earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary, I am completely dumbfounded by his response to his son’s disclosure.  Fuller’s clinical psychology PhD program is fully accredited by the American Psychological Association; it is not a program that teaches pseudoscience or prescribes prayer and Bible verses as therapeutic interventions.  Furthermore, clinical psychology is a discipline that so highly values the safety of children that reporting child abuse is one of the very few reasons why it is legally permissible to breach confidentiality.  Given Ortberg’s training, the notion that he could see spending time with children as a safe and effective way of managing pedophilia is incomprehensible.  I might understand this response from an evangelical pastor who was skeptical of science or had no fluency in psychology or psychological disorders.  Ortberg, however, has no excuse.

As someone who went from Fuller to a position in student ministries at an evangelical megachurch similar to Ortberg’s – so similar that a number of interns from my time there went on to permanent positions at Menlo – I am, again, dumbfounded.  I have spent the last week putting myself back at that church, trying to imagine a scenario in which a volunteer disclosed to me (or anyone else on staff) a sexual attraction to children and was not immediately relieved of their role and connected with a specialized therapist.  I have come up empty, as have all the former coworkers with whom I’ve discussed this situation.


Here’s the thing about student ministry:  The only currency you have is trust.  The trust of the students, certainly.  But equally important – if not more – is the trust of the parents, who dictate whether or not you get to spend time with their children.  No one is required to let their kids spend time with you.  It’s not school.  Their kid isn’t destined for hell if they don’t go to your overnight camp.  It is the job of the church to do not just the bare minimum to maintain that trust, but to go above and beyond to protect it – which means full transparency and full disclosure, so parents aren’t left wondering what you aren’t telling them.  Because if that happens, your currency is gone.

After its internal investigation, Menlo told the congregation at a town hall meeting – which was convened for another reason entirely – about the volunteer’s disclosure and departure from student ministries.  After completing a “restoration plan” with the goal of regaining trust with the church, the details of which are unknown, Ortberg apologized to the congregation for his poor judgment.  But a restoration plan to regain trust is of little use when the congregation was told that Ortberg made a single poor decision – failing to notify church leadership about a disclosure from a volunteer about a sexual attraction to children.  The church’s recent statement on the matter, as well as Ortberg’s apology this week, similarly suggest that this was a one-time mistake.  But in reality, Ortberg was regularly confronted with the reality of his son working with students, both at Menlo and elsewhere, over the course of 16 months.  Ortberg is not responsible for one poor decision; he is responsible for 16 months of consciously allowing this danger.  And he would have continued had Lavery not brought it to light.  This is not a single oversight or lapse in judgment – this is a lapse in judgment that lasted more than a year, resulted in children being exposed to danger for that entire time (16 months of camps, retreats, missions trips, and one-on-ones), and stopped only when someone else took action.  I am troubled by the vast discrepancy between this reality and what Ortberg and Menlo have owned up to and communicated to the congregation.


Another thought from a student ministry perspective: Menlo has also been quick to state that every staff member and volunteer undergoes a background check, which should absolutely be the case.  But background checks reveal only criminal histories — incidents that were reported to authorities and where the individual was found guilty. They cannot reveal incidents that aren’t reported — and most sexual and physical abuse is not. In addition, many inappropriate behaviors involving children — too much time together, too many texts, too much emotional intimacy — are not reportable to authorities and would thus not appear on a background check.  Furthermore, in my experience dealing with Child Protective Services, reports of yelling and other forms of emotional abuse are rarely pursued.  Menlo’s assertion that everyone is background-checked is, if anything, more damning than reassuring:  Even a background check could not keep someone with a sexual attraction to children off of their volunteer staff.

Menlo has also underscored that they found no evidence of misconduct.  But misconduct with children is not always clear-cut, and this is especially true in student ministries at evangelical churches, where building relationships is everything.  At what point is an adult investing too much time in a student?  Is it appropriate for a youth pastor to use Snapchat to communicate with students?  At what point is too much emotional intimacy being cultivated?  The answers to these questions will vary from person to person, adults and students alike.  So the fact that Menlo’s investigator found no evidence of misconduct after interviewing church staff and reviewing emails does little to assure me that no misconduct actually took place.  Perhaps none did, but without interviewing any students or parents, who are in the best position to make that call — or the volunteer himself — it’s hard to say that with any credibility.


A final thought from this angle: When an organization is invested in minimizing a danger or a failure in leadership, as Menlo appears to be, it becomes difficult for the organization to provide the people most directly affected by the situation the space they need to process it.  I have no doubt that every student and parent in Menlo’s student ministries is now aware of why this volunteer abruptly departed in November.  If Menlo maintains that this was a one-time failure of judgment, Ortberg has apologized and been restored, and it’s time to move on, are they giving students opportunities to process their complicated feelings about this volunteer?  Is the staff providing space for students (and their parents) to grieve the fact that their senior pastor knowingly put them in danger for sixteen months?  How are they communicating students’ and parents’ concerns in a meaningful way to leadership?  Do any of their concerns matter, given that Ortberg’s restoration process is already complete?  It is almost impossible to validate the concerns of the families impacted by the situation, make them feel heard, and give them agency in the response while also downplaying the problem and insisting that it has already been resolved.  The former things are of utmost importance to maintain the trust from families that student ministry requires, but you can’t do the former things if you’re also doing the latter.

As an observer of American evangelicalism – this is where things stop being surprising.

The megachurch was a hallmark of American evangelicalism in the ‘90s and early 2000s, its many orbits centered around a charismatic preacher who was usually white and always male (Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Tim Keller – the list goes on).  Ortberg is a pastor of that generation, and everything at Menlo – its multiple campuses, its marketing, its mythology – circles around him.  It is sadly unsurprising that Menlo is more invested in minimizing the gravity of this situation and protecting the Ortberg brand than holding him accountable.  Even when the safety of children is at stake.

The fact that Lavery is trans has tragically provided many Ortberg defenders an easy reason to discredit him, an escape hatch from seriously considering his account.  It is profoundly sad that even when the safety of children is at stake, many evangelicals have been quick to side with Ortberg, who enabled a pedophile for sixteen months, instead of Lavery, who is the sole reason why this pedophile is no longer working with children.  Others have already observed the irony that many conservative Christians have demonized queer and trans people as pedophiles, but when a trans person wants to protect children from a pedophile, the trans person is somehow the problem.  For me, this situation has been a clear illustration of how toxic, unaffirming theology isn’t just harmful for LGBTQIA+ folks (which would be reason enough, mind you, to discard it).  It is harmful for everyone.

I suspect that Menlo perceives itself as different from “those” evangelical churches, the ones who voted the current president into office, who claim religious persecution when they’re told to stop gathering during a pandemic.  In many ways, it is:  It’s situated in the diverse, liberal San Francisco Bay Area.  Its senior pastor has a clinical psychology PhD, a pointed contrast to the anti-intellectualism that permeates American evangelicalism.  The Menlo congregants and staff I know reliably vote Democrat and endorse the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Ortberg famously supported the women who accused evangelical megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, once his boss and close friend, of sexual harassment.  But this situation illustrates that even with all of its unusual qualities, Menlo is not immune to the powerful forces of minimizing, deflecting, and rationalizing that get set in motion when a charismatic leader – the sun around which everything orbits – makes 16 months of wildly reckless decisions.

As someone who has been watching American evangelicalism for the last 15 years, all of this – the impulse to minimize the problem, the transphobia, the choice to prioritize the reputation of the pastor even over the risk of child sexual abuse – all of this, unfortunately, makes sense.  Menlo is not an exception. The toxicity that pervades American evangelicalism is there, too.

As a parent, in light of everything discussed here, I have trouble imagining a scenario in which I would send my children to student ministries at Menlo.  I say this knowing several people on staff there – people with whom I’ve worked, whom I like and respect, whom I imagine were not aware of this volunteer’s attraction to children until Lavery reported it.  But after seeing the chasm between what Lavery reported to the church and what the church reported to the congregation, how could I send my child there without constantly wondering what they weren’t telling me?  When a pastor demonstrates that they are more committed to protecting their family’s reputation than the children they serve – and church leadership follows suit – how could I ever trust that pastor or church again?

I am not concerned about sending my children to Menlo, or any evangelical megachurch, anytime in the foreseeable future.  But in the wake of this story, I wonder if I can trust my children with anyone at all.  Churches, sports teams, schools – who is safe?  Who can I trust to make the right decision if my kids’ safety is at odds with the reputation of the institution? The scandal at Menlo has given me yet another reason to be suspicious of any organization that wants time with my children.


If you’ve ever been a therapist or worked in student ministries, you know that inevitably, you will hear a horrible revelation that requires you to intervene. It is part of the job. A client will recount an experience of child abuse at the hands of a coach who still works with kids; a student will report being hit at home. The process of reporting these incidents is invariably terrible — brutal conversations, disrupted relationships, broken trust. The only things you can control are 1. fulfilling your legal and ethical obligations to protect minors, whether you know them or not, and 2. your effort to repair the relationships and rebuild the trust that were broken in the process. Regarding the former, Ortberg failed for sixteen months, and he would have continued failing if not for Lavery’s intervention. And now he and Menlo appear too invested in downplaying the severity of the situation to allow for the latter.

I do not know where they go from here. I do not know how they can go about rebuilding trust when they are committed to a position that doesn’t allow for it. And trust is the only currency they have.


For #amplifymelanatedvoices, my top five works and people that have shaped how I understand race in America (and every single one of them is shorter than a book and available for free on the internet):

1. “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’s 2014 cover story for The Atlantic is a masterpiece, illustrating how 250 years of slavery was compounded by 90 years of jim crow, 60 years of segregation, and 35 years of racist housing policies to bring about the racial disparities we currently see in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, health outcomes, and more. Coates is an infuriatingly good writer and his powers are on full display here: He’s a masterful storyteller and a meticulous reporter, at once blowing your mind and breaking your heart. Should be required reading for every American.

2. Roxane Gay is one of my favorite essayists. Her writing is incisive and penetratingly clear, and she tackles complicated, intersecting questions about race, politics, feminism, and sexuality with nuance and clarity. You can find her work in the New York Times, where she’s an opinion writer; Gay, her magazine on Medium; and – if you’re up for a book – Bad Feminist, her best-selling collection of essays that was bona-fide life-changing for me.

3. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, law professor, and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (an organization you should be donating to), where he and his team represent innocent death row inmates in the South. Desmond Tutu has called him America’s Nelson Mandela, and the analogy is not hyperbolic. I’ve learned more from him about the ways in which the criminal justice system is stacked against black and brown defendants than anyone else. Stevenson is known for his best-selling book Just Mercy, but if you like articles, his 2016 New Yorker profile is excellent; if you like videos, his 2012 TED Talk is legendary; and if you like podcasts, his interviews on Fresh Air and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing legit changed my life.

4. 13TH, directed by Ava DuVernay. Speaking of the criminal justice system, DuVernay’s 2016 documentary illustrates how a loophole in the 13th amendment incentivized the incarceration of black people in the united states. it is meticulous, unassailable, and infuriating – not just because it meticulously outlines the hundreds of years of systemically criminalizing blackness that our government has done, but because our schools teach almost none of it. The Peabody- and Emmy-award winning documentary is available to stream on Netflix.

5. Another Round, hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu.  This is my favorite podcast of all time.  It ran from 2015-2017 (and will hopefully return again), and it was just two black writers, then at BuzzFeed, doing segments on whatever they wanted: politics, culture, interviews with writers and actors and athletes of color, professional advice, Tracy’s bad jokes.  Getting to listen in on conversations between two black women taught me more about their everyday experiences than I could have learned anywhere else, and the fact that Clayton and Nigatu are hilarious and smart and deeply fond of each other made the podcast an utter joy. And two people of color hosting a podcast that was about whatever the fuck they wanted – and not just People of Color Issues, though they brought their lenses and experiences to whatever they were discussing – was revolutionary and inspiring for me. You can find this wherever you get your podcasts.

Happy to discuss further or offer more recommendations!

Remembering Jason Polan

Today was the funeral for Jason Polan, my classmate from second grade through college. Two things were evident from childhood: he was talented and he was kind. (He was also the cutest eight-year-old, and thus the first object of my affection.) His elementary school doodles became murals in high school and a thrice-weekly comic strip in our college paper. Then he went to New York and quietly made a name for himself, drawing prolifically, showing and publishing his work, collaborating with everyone from the New York Times to Nike, Marvel to Warby Parker, Tartine to Momofuku. Every new accomplishment would make me so excited, not just because I knew him but because he was such a good person — and what’s more gratifying than seeing a genuinely good person succeed?

Jason’s kindness was palpable even in the pictures and observations he posted on Instagram. Also apparent there is his delight in the details of everyday life, in silly coincidences, in the people and things that most would consider background noise. Everything fascinated him, and he made you see how fascinating everything is.


Many of these qualities can be traced to his incredible family — especially his mother, whom everyone knew because she ran the PTA and pretty much everything else in our community — and I am devastated for them. Jason’s sister Jennifer died of a brain hemorrhage at 23, two days before he and I graduated from high school. His parents have already had to bury two of their three children.

That is just not right.


Last year, the Atlantic published a profile of Ocean Vuong that was written by Kat Chow, who had gone to the same high school. While they hadn’t overlapped there, that shared experience grounded their conversation beautifully. After reading that piece, I wondered if I could do a similar interview with Jason when I was further along in my career. I wanted to know what his experience of high school was like, how his sister’s death changed his work and his relationship with his family, what it was like for him to live in New York when his disposition was so thoroughly Midwestern and he was so close with his family. After he died on Monday, I found myself adding to the list of questions I will never get to ask: When you are so good at seeing and celebrating the minutiae of life, when you delight in small, lovely moments of human connection and compassion, when you are so finely tuned to the tiny details of being alive that most of us never see because we’re too damn busy running from place to place — what is it like to realize that all of that is coming to an end?


I am mourning the loss of a childhood friend and an immensely gifted artist, but more than anything, I’m mourning the loss of a really good person. I thought that about you often, Jason. In a world full of assholes, you were quietly kind to everyone, strangers and friends alike — never drawing attention to it, just being who you are, no matter where you were. The world is darker and less delightful without you in it.


Obituaries and articles:

A few of the many tributes on the internet:

Introducing the Top Five Podcast

My friend Chris and I love podcasts and we couldn’t find one where two Asian Americans talk about pop culture of all kinds, so we decided to make the podcast we wished to see in the world. Our first four episodes are now up on iTunes/Google Play/Spotify/everything! A few of the things we’ve talked about so far: Always Be My Maybe. Our top five problematic faves. The most adult things we’ve done in the last year. Our top five power couples. The Farewell. Our top five albums of the ’90s. It’s been really fun and we’re so excited to share this and to keep making it. If you’d like, you can follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stream us here.

I Never Wanted to Move Back to Michigan

“Of course I miss Michigan,” she said.  “Don’t you?”

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2005.  I was home from my first year of graduate school — my first time living outside my home state, my first time needing to fly home for the holidays. After graduating from college the year before, I had watched almost all of my friends leave for New York and San Francisco as I stayed in Ann Arbor, applying to graduate school and trying to enjoy my life before selling my soul to a six-year program. Since most of my friends in town were still undergrads, I had spent much of the year hanging out near campus, fielding strange looks and pointed “Didn’t you graduate?” questions — thinly-veiled accusations that I was weird for still being around, that it was time to move on with my life.  By the end of the year, I was desperate to leave, the last kid to be picked up from the party.

Now I was a California resident, living just outside LA.  I had tons of new friends, a graduate program that I found endlessly interesting, and a constant supply of warmth and sunshine.  I could walk less than a mile to restaurants, shops, and grocery stores; I could drive less than five for a run around the Rose Bowl or a hike in the San Gabriel mountains.  I was animatedly describing all of this to my high school friends at our annual post-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck as they shared about their new lives in New York, DC, Boston — vast upgrades from our childhoods in the Midwest suburbs, we all believed.  Well, all but one, who had wistfully asked me this question.

I looked at her with a mix of surprise and confusion.  No, I did not miss Michigan.  Not even a little.


Much changed over the next decade, but my feelings about Michigan did not.  I missed certain things about it — my family and the handful of friends who remained there; specific restaurants (Ajishin, Olga’s) and regional delicacies (Vernors, Superman ice cream); fall and the crisp air, changing leaves, cider mill donuts, and football Saturdays that accompanied it.  But overall, I was content to live 2,000 miles away, my longings for home sated by phone calls and twice-yearly visits.  After graduate school, when my classmates started to move back to their small hometowns in the Midwest and the South, I felt only bewilderment.  Why are you going back?  I wondered. Wasn’t the point to get out?

Then I had a baby, and everything changed.


My husband and I knew that having children far from our families would be challenging.  Almost everyone we knew who had children also had the benefit of families nearby on whom they could rely for child care, or else they had incredibly generous friends whom they could treat like family and call when they needed a night out.  We had neither.  My husband’s family was also in the Midwest, thousands of miles away; we were relatively new to the San Francisco Bay Area, and our friends-like-family here had just had a baby of their own.  We had other friends we could call in a pinch, but in terms of our day-to-day lives, we were going to do this by ourselves.

My parents came to town for a month when our son was born — a nod to the zuo ye practice of traditional Chinese families, only without all the restrictions.  I did not anticipate how helpful it would be to have food on the table at every meal in the midst of my exhaustion, how much I would appreciate having someone to hold the baby while I napped.  My mother took care of everything — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping — without placing on me the burden of giving her instructions.  If she saw something that needed to be done, she just went ahead and did it, and I was immensely grateful.

More significantly, I did not anticipate how meaningful it would be to watch my parents start to form a relationship with my son.  They thought everything he did was miraculous — stretching; staring at lights; contemplating their faces, brow deeply furrowed.  They found him as interesting as my husband and I did, and they were as concerned about his burps and bowel movements as we were.

So in the month they were here, I came to understand why people choose to live near their extended families, why my grad school pals had forsaken our interesting, progressive city for their small, boring hometowns.  These relationships were beautiful.  The help was lifesaving — not to mention cost-saving.  Having seen very little of my own grandparents, who lived in Taiwan, I had not understood the meaning that grandparent-grandchild relationships could have — or how my own relationship with my parents could evolve after having a child.

One night during that first month, after my parents had returned to their AirBnB, my husband and I revisited our conversation about where our next destination would be.  We had started this discussion a few months before, overwhelmed by the cost of living in the Bay Area and how much more we could get elsewhere — and how much less stressful life could be as a result. Seattle was high on both of our lists; when my husband suggested Ann Arbor, I laughed dismissively.

Tonight, though, things were different.  “I would move to Ann Arbor tomorrow,” I whispered as we reclined in our bed, our newborn sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside us.

“Me too,” he said.  And just like that, our new plan was in place.


We kept this plan mostly to ourselves for the next two years, quietly checking homes on Zillow every night, letting on to friends who asked that we were contemplating a move at some point but not to where.  Between us, though, it only felt better with time.  Ann Arbor was a dynamite city, one I adored and had deep connections to, one that reminded Robert of a progressive version of his hometown.  It made every top-ten list for cities in which to raise a family, to go to college, to retire.  It was an hour from my parents — close enough that we could see them regularly and they could be a normal part of our lives, but not so close that they could drop by unexpectedly.  It was also significantly closer to my in-laws in Missouri and our siblings in DC and Boston than our current home in California.  It was diverse — for the Midwest, at least — and our kid would never be the only Asian American or multiracial kid in class.  It had more than enough restaurants and cuisines to keep us happy, especially as a young family that didn’t need thousands to choose from.  Thanks to the university, it had a constant stream of interesting talks and lectures and concerts coming through, not to mention year-round sporting events and performances that were relatively affordable.  It had a hospital where Robert could practice his very specific kind of psychology.  At no point did Ann Arbor ever feel like the wrong decision.

We tentatively planned to leave six months after Robert’s California pension vested — in the spring of 2019, right before homes in Ann Arbor started going on the market en masse.  Then I got pregnant with our second child.  On a rare breakfast date in the early days of my pregnancy, we looked at each other across the table and wondered how we were going to raise two children with no family help.  We moved our proposed moving date to fall 2018, immediately after Robert’s pension vested.

Remarkably, things have more or less gone to plan.  I had that baby, albeit five weeks sooner than expected.  Robert got an unofficial offer from that hospital in July; after ten weeks of waiting for state approval, during which we managed our anxiety by making every spreadsheet and timeline possible like the two firstborn children we are, it became official a few weeks ago.  We set our moving date for October 30 — interminably far when we thought about how much longer we’d have to raise these kids without any help, but far too soon when we thought about all the friends we’d want to see before then.  We’ll live with my parents outside of Detroit while we look for a house in Ann Arbor, which could take anywhere from a few months to most of a year, during which time we’ll take full advantage of all the extra hands we have to help us with our children and to feed us.

So in three weeks, I will be returning to Michigan as eagerly as I left 13 years ago.  Whether you’re a pal from high school, college, or grad school from the state or a friend with no Michigan connections, we warmly welcome visitors (seriously, please come visit) and offer our still-hypothetical guest bedroom.  Here’s to new beginnings in old places.