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.

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Snapshots

March 20, 1988.

I am 5 years old.  It’s hard to say what grade I am in — preschool?  kindergarten? — because the school I attend does not have grades, or so I am told.  When I am not in school, I spend my time riding my Sesame Street tricycle up and down the driveway of my house in suburban Detroit and pestering Donny, the older boy who lives next door, to play with me; he relents only when his real friends are not around.  Occasionally, when we are reading before bedtime, I ask my parents for a little brother, like the ones I see drawn in my books.

I have no idea that in a few weeks, my parents will tell me that a brother is coming, and a few months after that, he will arrive.  I will spend a few uncomfortable days under the care of my grandparents, whom I hardly know, and at some point my father will pick me up to take me to the hospital and meet the baby.  When I arrive, my mother will be sitting up in the hospital bed, smiling at me, and hand me presents from my new brother.  One of them is a fat red pen that writes in 10 different colors.

Either because of the pen, or because this brother is the fruit of my requests for the past year, I will become instantly, fiercely protective of him.  When nurses arrive to draw blood from his toes and he cries out in pain, I start screaming as well, louder and wilder than he does.  I will be hysterical with rage, threatening the doctors and nurses with imprisonment at the top of my lungs.  My parents, for the first time experiencing life as the parents of two, will not know how to respond.

I have no idea that this baby brother will become my favorite thing in the world.  There will be times in the coming years when he will annoy me, when he will barge into my room when I want to be alone, when my parents will force me to take him to the mall when I go with my friends.  I will also bear the responsibility of being his second mother, teaching him to wash his hands after he uses the bathroom, acting as an intermediary between him and my parents.  But for the most part, my brother will be my pal, my confidant, my teammate.  We will share snacks, personality traits, inside jokes, tastes and opinions on most things.  We will sit across from each other at the dinner table, the first to read the other’s reaction in light moments and heavy ones, our silent side conversation continuing night after night.  In rockier times, he will be the person with whom I silently huddle, whom I seek out in the aftermath when my words have returned.  For all the people I will meet in all the years to come, he will remain the only one who knows what it was like to grow up in my family.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 1998.

I am 15 years old.  I am a sophomore in high school.  I have liked the same boy off and on for about 2 and a half years, suspecting at times that he is interested too, but with no reliable evidence.  I am newly obsessed with what college I will attend.  I have decided that I no longer want to go to Michigan, as I have for my whole life until now.  I want to study both theater and medicine, so at this point, I am most interested in Northwestern.  I still hate being Asian.  I have no Asian friends, save for YT, which is fine because I rarely encounter any Asians; when I do see them, on Saturday mornings at orchestra practices, I dismiss them as one-dimensional and regard them with contempt.  I read the Bible every Sunday for half an hour, as I have for about a year and a half, still not really comprehending what I’m reading but recognizing that it is of vital importance.

I have no idea that in a few months, YT will invite me to her new church and I will love it.  I will find that the Asians whom I snub on Saturday mornings are, to my surprise, really likeable.  I will stop hating my ethnicity.  For the first time in my life, I will make sense to myself, because I share things in common with this community that I’ve never shared with anyone else before.  I will meet people who will become some of my best friends and remain so decades later.  I will become a Christian, a choice that will permanently alter both my personal and professional trajectories.  Upon reflection years later, I will be unable to find a single part of my life that was not profoundly impacted by both this reconciliation with my racial identity and this decision to become a Christian.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 2008.

I am 25 years old.  I am in my third year of graduate school in clinical psychology.  I have a crush on an acquaintance from school; I know in my heart of hearts that we would not be a great fit, but I see no better options around.  I am in the midst of an existential crisis, as I have realized this year that I do not want to be a therapist, that I am in graduate school mostly because it is what my parents expected of me.  I am terrified that I have locked myself into a career that I am not enthused about when I have so many other interests.  I am exhausted from constantly changing hats, from spending my days running between class and research and practicum and all of the meetings that my role in the Psychology Graduate Union requires.

Desperate for relief, I am hoping to spend three weeks over the summer alone in Barcelona, writing and finding myself, in an eat-pray-love adventure of sorts.  Should I stay in graduate school, I reason, this will be my last hurrah before my clinical training goes year-round and I am indefinitely bound to my home outside Los Angeles.  My parents flatly refuse.  I am dejected until a classmate tells me a few days later that there is one spot left in our school’s annual summer theology intensives in Orvieto, Italy.  I race across campus to confirm this; the next day I return with my $300 deposit.

I have no idea that on this trip, on a bus to Siena, I will meet my life partner.  He will sheepishly ask if he can sit next to me, hoping to finish our homework assignment; I will allow him to sit but not to get any work done, because I am too busy regaling him with questions.  We will talk the whole way there and the whole way back, and a few days later we will do the same on a trip to and from Assisi.  He is kind, present, and centered, his responses thoughtful and measured.  Our bus conversations will turn into long nighttime walks around Orvieto, overlooking the Umbrian countryside; on our last night there, we will see red, white, and green fireworks in celebration of St. Peter’s Day.  When we return to LA and make our relationship official, I will be amazed by how easy it is, by how transformative it is to be loved unconditionally, by how this relationship makes me more at ease in my own skin.  Two years almost to the day after that bus ride to Siena, I will marry this man, declaring before family and friends that he is the best man I’ve ever known.  We will build a life together that will evolve its own language and culture, that will anchor us through moves and career changes, that will yield a new little life that brings us joy beyond measure.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 2018.

I am 35 years old.  I am a writer, adjunct professor, organization co-runner, toddler-wrangler — in that order, I tell people, though the reverse is probably more accurate.  No matter how much of the other three I do, I measure my professional success by how much I am writing, which is never as much as I want to be.  Because we live so far from our families, I am fairly certain that our days in the San Francisco Bay Area are numbered, and the cost of living here does nothing to dissuade me.  I have mixed feelings about parenting, but at two and a half, our son is the most delightful he’s ever been.  By day, I watch him fall in love with the world — squealing at animals and anything he finds cute, excitedly naming all the numbers and letters and vehicles he sees, saying words and phrases he’s never uttered before — and do impressions of him with my spouse at night.

I am 6 months pregnant with our second son.  If it were entirely about me, I would not have opted to have another child; our life is full enough with the one we have, whom I am crazy about, and I consider it highly unlikely that we would have another one this easy.  I am also grateful to finally be in a place where I can spend part of my time working and part of my time tending to the child, a place that took two years to reach.  But it is not entirely about me.  I want this boy to have a teammate, like the one I got when I was 5, like the one I still have as an adult.  My gratitude for mine has only increased with time, especially as I started a family of my own and began the reflection on my family of origin that this process often triggers.  There is no one else in the world with whom I can process what it was like to grow up in my family, who understands how my parents empowered me and wounded me, who appreciates their ongoing evolution in the same way that I do.  I want my son to have the same — someone to play and fight and learn to share with, someone to share secrets with, someone who can understand what it will be like to be raised in our home.  Thirty years after getting a teammate, I am giving my son one of his own.

He is in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of his life to date.  His life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And he has no idea.

The PAAC Lent Devotional

Last month, a member of Progressive Asian American Christians asked if anyone knew of a commentary or devotional that was maybe a little more progressive and maybe not written by a white man. No one knew of anything, but another member wondered if we could make one ourselves. Within 72 hours, she had gathered (and scheduled!) more than enough people to make one for every day of Lent, including not just writers but also illustrators and photographers and calligraphers and dancers.

Today is the first day of said devotional, and I couldn’t be more stoked. I haven’t done anything in Lent for years, so i’m looking forward to actually doing something. And more than that, I’m so proud of this amazing team for seeing a need and creating something beautiful to meet it.

One Year

A year ago today, I posted a piece on The Salt Collective about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian. At the end of it, I linked a brand-new Facebook group that my brand-new friend Lydia Suh had just started. I had no idea that in the course of a year, that group would become a vibrant online community of over 5000, members would host meetups in 17 cities, we’d start a podcast with our new friend David Chang, we’d host a national conference, we’d launch a 9-month online intentional learning community with 28 dynamite fellows and 9 incredible speakers. I had no idea that this community would teach me so much, introduce me to amazing people and dear friends, and make me feel at home in a way that I hadn’t since I was 17. I had no idea how dramatically my life would change.

What a beautiful, crazy, transformative, humbling year it’s been. So thankful for Lydia and the many, many people who’ve made this experience so rich and meaningful.

The Unexpected Primary Caretaker

“I just love being with Spencer all the time,” she said as she crawled up the play structure, on the heels of the child in question.

I was at a neighborhood playground with a new mom-friend, our toddlers happily ignoring each other.  We had met at a preschool open house the weekend before.  Our sons were less than 3 months apart, we lived mere blocks from each other, she had an engineering degree from the prestigious university down the street, and she was a full-time parent.  Excited to find another high-achieving mom who spent a lot of time taking care of her kid, I got her number immediately.  I had so many questions for her:  I wanted to know how she made the decision not to work.  I wanted to know if she still had professional ambitions and, if so, how she was keeping them at bay while she raised her child.  I wanted to know if the same drive and intellectual curiosity that had gotten her that degree ever made it frustrating to read the same Elephant and Piggie book eight times in a row.  I wanted to ask her all the questions I’d been wrestling with for the last 21 months, questions that neither my working-mom friends nor my stay-at-home friends could answer.

Five days later, we were having our first playdate, and I was quickly learning that we might have less in common than I thought.

“I can’t imagine having another kid for at least three and a half more years,” she continued. “We’re just having so much fun.”

I looked at her as she animatedly chatted with her son.  Then I looked down at mine, furiously turning the steering wheel of the plastic car he was sitting in, and sighed.  I was in my eleventh hour of the day with him, and there were still two more to go before bedtime.

So much for a friend in a similar situation, I thought.  I could not relate to anything she was saying.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Still a Progressive Asian American Christian, Now a Lot Less Lonely

I sat in a plastic chair in the fluorescent-lit conference room, leaning on the small tablet desk attached to my seat.  The chairs were arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, filling one by one as people trickled in.  Eighteen.  Nineteen.  Twenty.  I could hardly believe it.

It was the first San Francisco Bay Area meetup of Progressive Asian American Christians, an online community I had inadvertently helped to start.  Less than two months prior, I had written a piece about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian.  At the end of it, I linked a then-empty Facebook group that a new friend of mine, Lydia Suh, had created.  It would be a place, I imagined, where people who resonated with the piece could go to see that other people like them existed — where they would see a bunch of profile pictures and feel validated and maybe post the occasional article.

Neither Lydia nor I expected what followed:  Three hundred people joined the group the day after the piece went up; less than six weeks later, we had two thousand.  But it wasn’t just the numbers that surprised us — it was the energy and enthusiasm that these folks brought with them.  They immediately started sharing their stories, discussing controversial topics, asking when we could start meeting in person.  The first meetup took place a month after the group started (in Minneapolis, impressively enough); within the next three months, eight more cities would start their own.

On this sunny Saturday afternoon in February, on the fourth floor of an office building in the city, the first Bay Area meetup about to begin.  As I watched people rolling in — peering around, introducing themselves, finding seats — I noticed an unfamiliar feeling in my chest.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective