How I Came Around on Gay Marriage

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

I climb out of my Pontiac Bonneville and slam the door shut; my 16-year-old brother follows suit on the passenger side. We walk down the beige concrete path to the front entrance of the middle school near my parents’ house, which leads us into the gym. One wall is lined with a row of voting booths, each enshrouded in dirty grey fabric. My heart beats a little faster.

It is November 2004, and I am about to vote in my first national election. I had been three months shy of 18 at the time of the last one, when I watched my fellow college freshmen register to vote in dorm lobbies and on the quad, and when I would eventually hear more about hanging chads and the state of Florida than I ever cared to hear. Four years — a lifetime, really — have passed since then; instead of a wide-eyed, insecure freshman, I am now a newly minted college graduate, enlightened by years of studying and paper-writing and classroom debate. Or so I think, at least.

I step into a booth, my brother to my left (though he is too young to vote himself, he is an aspiring politico who lives for elections), and draw the curtain behind us. I make my largely uninformed choices for president, for congressional representative, for justice of the state supreme court. I quickly breeze through the ballot until we get to the last item, Proposal 04-2, an amendment to the state of Michigan’s constitution:

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

I stare at the text, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. This item is not a surprise. I knew it would be on the ballot. I thought I knew how I was going to vote, but the last few days have brought a wave of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Minutes pass. My brother also starts to fidget. I start to worry that I am taking too much time, that there are people impatiently waiting in line, tapping their feet and checking their watches. I exhale and fill in the bubble for “yes.” It won’t come down to your vote, I try to reassure myself as I gather my things. I open the curtain, feed my ballot through the machine, and step with my brother into the late afternoon sun.


In hindsight, the fact that I felt conflicted about the decision at all was a surprise, given the trajectory I had been on in the years leading up to that moment.

I became a Christian when I was 15. The consequences of this change are too numerous to list here, but one of the most immediate was that, after years of trying to make sense of a confusing, ambiguous world on my own, I felt like I finally had clear, black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. Did evolution happen? Here’s what the Bible says. Why does a good God allow suffering? Got my list of reasons right here. (For real. I had a list.) Thus, I spent the next several years in what I call my neofundamentalist phase, being exceedingly rigid and dogmatic and brashly calling out anyone who didn’t see things in the same way that I did. (I didn’t need to be gentle or tactful, see; I was speaking truth, and if others were hurt or offended, that was their problem, not mine.)

It wasn’t until the end of college that I started to come out of this phase, when I started to realize that almost everything is more complicated than it seems — even when faith is concerned. My original stance on gay marriage had been borne out of the same simplistic reasoning that I used to form all of my political views: “There are verses in the Bible saying that homosexuality is wrong; therefore, gay marriage should not be legal.” I had started to question this position the year I graduated, the same year I found myself hemming and hawing in that voting booth. But in the heat of the moment, my very new, somewhat nuanced way of seeing the world faltered in the face of the staunch dogmatism I had been building for years. Hence the “yes” vote, which was far less surprising than the struggle that preceded it.


I would come to regret my vote in a shockingly short amount of time — months, maybe even weeks — as I started, perhaps motivated by my internal debate in the voting booth, to have the kinds of conversations about the issue that I should have had before I went to vote in the first place.

Most significantly, these conversations helped me realize that civil marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing. Even now, I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t know that there’s a difference; when I ask people what civil marriage is, many give me the definition of common-law marriage. So it seems worthwhile to pause and explain:

Civil marriage is marriage in the eyes of the law, secured (in this country) by a marriage license signed by someone the state has authorized to sign these kinds of things. It confers a whole host of benefits, like tax breaks and visitation rights and the ability to be covered by your partner’s health insurance. It is entirely possible to have a civil marriage without having any kind of religious marriage; it happens all the time when people go to city hall to get married by a justice of the peace and don’t have a church or synagogue wedding.

Religious marriage, on the other hand, is marriage in the eyes of your particular faith tradition. Different traditions have different requirements for who can participate and what this looks like. It is entirely possible to have a religious marriage without having a civil marriage, though few people forgo the civil part unless the law forces them to; the practical benefits of being married in the eyes of the state are just too great. But plenty of people for whom civil marriage is not an option — most notably, same-sex couples, until recently — have had religious marriage ceremonies without civil ceremonies or paperwork.

Understanding this distinction helped me see that same-sex civil marriage — the kind I was being asked to vote on in that election — was not a moral issue; it was an issue of civil rights. The government was denying a group of citizens the rights and protections that others freely receive. And that is discrimination.

My brother has long maintained that all couples, same- and opposite-sex, should be issued civil unions and marriages should fall solely under the purview of religious institutions. He’s right, I think — but marriage and the state got tied up centuries ago, and it’s far too late to untangle them. So if heterosexual people can have the rights and privileges that the government bestows on married people, it’s only fair to extend those same rights to same-sex couples.

So shortly after I voted to ban gay marriage in my home state, I realized that I had gotten it wrong. My stance on civil gay marriage should have nothing to do with how I personally felt about gay marriage; it was an issue of making sure that all citizens have equal rights. Churches and religious groups could make their own decisions about whom they would allow to marry — decisions that are protected by the First Amendment — but when it came to government-sanctioned privileges and protections, it was only fair to give those rights to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.


A few years after I changed my stance on gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the needle started to move for me theologically as well. This came as a surprise to me, in no small part because it happened at the evangelical seminary I attended for graduate school.

First, through my various classes, there came the realizations that the Bible wasn’t actually as clear on homosexuality as I previously thought.

Those Old Testament verses in Leviticus? Don’t hold a lot of water, sandwiched as they are between verses about not mixing fibers or eating shellfish, things we do without hesitation or condemnation in our current culture. If we’re under a new covenant, then we’re no longer beholden to those rules.

Sodom and Gomorrah? Not so much about homosexuality but about gang rape and being inhospitable to strangers, to put it mildly.

Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in various letters? Not the word generally used to refer to same-sex sexual behavior at the time. Probably better translated to mean pedophilia or perpetrators of sexual violence. Consensual same-sex relationships between two people with equal power weren’t so much a thing back then.

Paul’s use of the word “natural” in Romans 1? The only other time he uses that word is in 1 Corinthians 11, describing men with long hair. So what he’s talking about seems to be more about cultural norms than the so-called laws of nature.

So those verses started to lose a lot of their weight. At the same time, I started to see that when viewed as a whole, the trajectory of the Bible moves away from unequal power hierarchies — between men and women, between Jews and Gentiles, between masters and slaves — toward liberation for the oppressed and equal status for the oppressed and the oppressor. And that seems to be a central mission of Jesus; he kicked off his ministry by declaring as much in Luke 4, and he spent most of his time hanging out with and affirming those who had been marginalized by society and shunned by the religious leaders of the day. Which sounds an awful lot like the LGBT community of today.

Second, I became convinced that sexual orientation is not a choice.  Science says it is not; the experiences of the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians say it is not; reason says it is not. Considering how gays and lesbians have been treated throughout history, and how they continue to be treated in most parts of the world — and even most parts of this country — why would anyone choose that kind of oppression?

Finally, and most powerfully, were the conversations and relationships I started having with people who identify as gay and lesbian.

Though I had gay friends before then, it wasn’t until grad school that I started really hearing the stories of LGBT people. This was in part because I started practicing as a therapist, seeing clients who laid out their deepest struggles and fears, and in part because becoming a good therapist requires you to confront yourself in ways you maybe haven’t before, and several people I knew did the very brave work of facing themselves and dealing with the consequences and were gracious enough to share those experiences. All that to say that suddenly, from peers and clients alike, I started hearing a lot more stories. Stories of people who had tried to change their sexual orientation for years — through reparative therapy, sheer force of will, or some combination thereof — and found themselves not only unable to do so but also plagued by depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and shame as a result. Stories of people who had been told by pastors and churches that they were broken and unlovable the way that they were. Stories of people who had been taught that they were not good the way they had been created, and were thus relegated to a lifetime of condemnation from society and an eternity of the same from the God who created them in the first place.

Needless to say, these stories were devastating to hear — let alone to actually live. And I could not reconcile an all-loving, all-knowing, all-merciful God who would create people a certain way and then require them to forsake one of the most meaningful relationships they could possibly forge, especially as I fell in love and was profoundly transformed by my relationship with my now-husband. I could not reconcile the God I knew and a God who would deny gays and lesbians the same kind of love and intimacy that my heterosexual friends and I got to freely experience.

So I came around on religious gay marriage, too. Again, this transformation wasn’t necessary for me to support civil marriage equality; my personal feelings about the issue were irrelevant, frankly, to the issue of whether or not gays and lesbians should have the same rights as all other American citizens. But this second change also happened, and for that reason, I am all the more elated about the events of Friday and the millions of marriages that are now possible because of the Supreme Court’s decision.


I want to conclude by stating that I’m not an expert on this issue in any way. I’m not gay, lesbian, or bisexual, so I don’t have firsthand experience to draw from. I’m not a theologian or a scholar of ancient Greek. I’m aware that in the great scheme of things, the amount that I understand is infinitesimal compared to what I don’t understand. So it’s entirely possible that I could be wrong about all of this. But at the end of the day, this is how I feel convicted, and I would much rather err on the side of more love and more grace and more inclusiveness than less.

For more stories, check out this New York Times interactive piece: How We Changed Our Thinking on Gay Marriage

The Day After the Verdict, Round 2: Yup, Still a Joke

Maybe this time, I thought before yesterday’s grand jury decision was announced.

Because Daniel Pantoleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on July 17, has a history of alleged race-related misconduct.

Maybe this time.

Because the NYPD forbids its members from using chokeholds — a rule that went into effect 21 years ago, long before Pantoleo was ever a cop.

Maybe this time.

Because the New York City medical coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Maybe this time.

Because the entire incident was filmed.  Because you can see in the tape, as the New York Times stated, that Garner was “not acting belligerently, posed no risk of flight, brandished no weapon and was heavily outnumbered.”  Because you can hear him say “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he dies.  Eleven.  Times.

Maybe this time.

But then the news broke.

As I tried to make sense of the decision, stunned and sad and outraged (a luxury, I recognize), I also felt foolish for thinking that the outcome might be different this time.

Because after all, the grand jury proceedings took place in Staten Island, a borough that’s long been sympathetic to police officers, in large part because so many of them live there.

Because we don’t know what charges, if any, the prosecutor recommended to the grand jury — though we do know that prosecutors are generally reluctant to put police officers on trial, perhaps because they work so closely together and don’t want to risk hurting those relationships.

Because time and time again, grand juries decline to bring charges against police officers who shoot unarmed civilians.

And given everything that this case had going for it — the officer’s history, his use of a prohibited chokehold, the medical examiner’s ruling, the tape (the TAPE!) — I had to face some deeply unpleasant realities:

That even though police body cameras are a good first step (see how public opinion largely favored an indictment in this case, as opposed to the Darren Wilson case, which had no tape and conflicting eyewitness testimony), maybe they won’t fix the problem.

That maybe our society isn’t interested in holding police officers accountable for killing unarmed black civilians, and they’ll continue to do so with impunity.

That maybe our criminal justice system is even more of a joke than I thought it was last week.

Something has to change.

The Day After the Verdict: Is This a Joke?

Like many others, I have been asking this question for months.

First, back in August, when news outlets reported that Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor for St. Louis County, had a long history of siding with the police; that his father, a St. Louis cop, was killed on the job by a black man; that his brother, uncle, and cousin were cops as well; that his mother had worked as a clerk in police headquarters; that he himself had wanted to be a cop until one of his legs was amputated in high school.  His office would be responsible for presenting the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson cop who shot and killed Michael Brown, before a grand jury.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch said he would let the jury of 12 civilians figure out what charge to bring, if any, instead of making a case for a specific charge, as prosecutors usually do.  And instead of selecting a few key witnesses and experts to testify, he would give them “every last scrap of evidence” — essentially drowning them information that they did not have the skills to parse.  As former federal prosecutor Alex Little told Vox, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,’ that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”

Is this a joke?

And then last week, when Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the grand jury’s findings — more than a week before the results were actually announced.  This announcement was one of many portents of what the decision would be; after all, if they thought an indictment was coming, they would not be anticipating riots, and they would not preemptively bring in the National Guard.  (As Michael Che said on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, “Deploying the National Guard before the verdict is like your lawyer telling you to show up in court in something orange.”)  Not to mention that bringing in such force has a way of escalating tense situations — especially when said force takes a stance that’s aggressive instead of containing, as it did when it was first called to Ferguson in August.  (Many military veterans criticized their behavior.)  Not surprisingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy ensued, because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  So everything, even peaceful gatherings, even journalists observing the situation, was perceived as an actionable threat.  So not only did the National Guard exacerbate the situation in Ferguson in August, but Nixon decided last week that it would be a good idea to preemptively bring them back.

Is this a joke?

And then yesterday morning, when news circulated about yet another African American child killed by police — this time a 12-year-old in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, who had been wielding an airsoft gun at a park.  When police arrived, he was swinging on a swingset.  Minutes later, they shot him dead.  The timing was ominous.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally took the podium last night and started his announcement with a longwinded, defensive preface, lashing out at the 24-hour news cycle and social media, as though concerned people wanting to know what happened were somehow culpable for Brown’s death.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally announced that the grand jury did not make an indictment — a statistical rarity, as grand juries almost always indict.  But prosecutors can get grand juries to do pretty much anything they want (as former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said, a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich”), so the fact that they did not — coupled with McCulloch’s tactics in presenting the case, as described earlier — suggest that he got exactly the result he wanted.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch proceeded to drone on, in excruciating detail, why no indictment was made.  The prosecutor became a defense attorney, discrediting eyewitness testimony, declaring that no one should ever have to be in Wilson’s position.  Wilson’s position.  Not the position of the unarmed teenager staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

Is this a joke?

And then when the statement from Michael Brown’s parents, Michael Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, was released in the middle of the interminable announcement — already prepared, as they too probably anticipated the worst — which was infinitely more gracious and hopeful than I could have ever been in their shoes.  As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said, their statement offered the most constructive words of the evening, that police officers should be equipped with body cameras.  Of the two parties center stage, the ones who made more sense were the parents of the deceased victim, who were probably beside themselves with grief.

Is this a joke?

And then when President Obama made a statement, looking nothing like the impassioned orator we know him to be, especially in times of distress; he looked tired and frustrated, making bland statements about how incidents like this are an ongoing problem in communities of color.  He acknowledged that, at least.  But the president has been a lawyer, a law professor, and a community organizer in predominantly black neighborhoods; surely he has more to say about this situation than that it’s an ongoing issue and “we have made enormous progress in race relations over the past decades” and “there is never an excuse for violence.”  I wanted him to rise to the occasion and be the leader that we need right now, to help us make sense of this, to tell us what we should do now.  At the same time, I felt sorry for him, that he probably has so much to say that he cannot — because if he brings up race, his opponents will accuse him of playing the race card, and because his administration has been beleaguered by troubles in the last few months and cannot really sustain any more vulnerabilities.  I felt sorry that directly acknowledging the realities of racism in our justice system would open him up to attack, but Hillary Clinton can do it and no one accuses her of playing the race card.  Because, you know, white privilege.

Is this a joke?

And then the hypocrisy of this:

And the hypocrisy of declaring it okay for Darren Wilson to use violence when he felt threatened but not for the community to do the same.

Is this a joke?

Yes, it is.  Our criminal justice system, for all of the well-meaning people in it, is a joke.

When black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by cops — the system is a joke.

When Marissa Alexander is in prison for shooting no one while Darren Wilson gets half a million dollars but no charge — the system is a joke.

When 14 people have been killed by police in St. Louis County in the last decade and not a single one of the cops was charged — the system is a joke.

When black and white Americans have comparable rates of drug use but black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs and get 13.1% longer sentences, and drugs that are more often used by black people have far weightier punishments than those more often used by white people, and SWAT teams are more likely to target black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods — the system is a joke.

It’s been a gutting 24 hours, with these painful reminders that the world is a terribly unfair place, that W. E. B. DuBois was right when he said that “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”  And I am one of the fortunate ones, that I can look at these facts and feel sadness and outrage instead of absolute terror.

Something has to change.

Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson

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

Two years ago, I found myself trying to break into my friends’ apartment.

I had coordinated their wedding a few days earlier, and they had since departed for their honeymoon.  A box from the wedding was supposed to go to one of the guests, only to end up in their apartment.  Now the guest wanted the box, and I, having a key to their home, needed to retrieve it.

My friends had warned me that the key had a tendency to stick, though that proved to be an understatement.  After ten minutes of wrestling with it, my hands sore from twisting and straining, I gave up.  The box would have to wait.  But I thought about the maintenance man I had seen across the courtyard as I struggled with the door; surely he would have a functional key.

The request was ridiculous, I knew:  I had never seen this person before.  He had absolutely no reason to believe my reasons for needing to enter the apartment.  But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I waved him over and asked if he would let me in.

Much to my surprise, he did — no questions asked.  Even more shocking was the fact that he unlocked the door and immediately left, not bothering to wait around and make sure that I didn’t ransack the place.  He let a complete stranger into an apartment that wasn’t his and walked away.

As I entered the apartment and started looking for the box, I was incredulous — and I was never more aware of the privileges I have as an Asian American woman.

Would this person have ever let me into the apartment if I were a black man?  I’m not a betting person, but even I would put serious money on the answer being no.  I probably would’ve been asked to leave the premises, too.

Yes, I experience a host of disadvantages as an Asian American woman, but I can’t deny that I also have a number of privileges — one of which is that no one ever suspects me of wrongdoing.  Thus I found myself on my hands and knees in my friends’ living room, opening and closing boxes, let in by a stranger who was now nowhere to be seen.


Race is complicated, especially for those who don’t fit into the black and white binary that usually frames conversations about race in this country.  This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why I’ve seen such varied responses to Ferguson in my Asian American circles.  I’ve seen Asian Americans lamenting and protesting; I’ve seen Asian Americans declaring that no injustice was done; but more often than not, I’ve seen Asian Americans completely silent.

Race is complicated for us.  On one hand, we’re disadvantaged in many ways.  We’re perpetually seen as foreigners, as people who don’t belong here.  Our successes are often attributed our race instead of our own talent or hard work.  We’re overlooked for promotions, walked over in social and professional situations, openly mocked.  We’re reduced to stereotypes, our women hypersexualized and fetishized, our men emasculated.  Multiple laws have been passed to exclude us from immigration and citizenship.  Tens of thousands of us, in a stunning violation of constitutional rights, were forcibly removed from their homes, communities, jobs, and possessions and relocated to internment camps during World War II — and released back into society, years later, with nothing.  We’ve been the victims of hate crimes from vandalism to murder.  Like all people of color in the US, Asian Americans have been consistent targets of individual and systemic racism.

But as Asian Americans, we do have some privileges.  People generally assume that we’re smart and hardworking, which is reductive but infinitely preferable to people assuming the opposite.  We’re assumed to be good tenants, reliable employees, responsible citizens — not troublemakers.  Teachers and police officers — and maintenance workers — tend to believe the best about us and not to suspect or fear us.  The impact of these beliefs on how we experience the world cannot be overstated.  It’s not surprising that at 17, when I first heard in a freshman seminar that I was oppressed because I was Asian American, my first response was skepticism.

So when a conversation about race is framed in black and white terms — which, in this country, is the case more often than not — it’s not always clear who we should be identifying with.  We don’t have quite the same disadvantages or quite the same history of oppression as black people, but we aren’t fully accepted like white people, either.  Our experiences don’t always clearly dictate which side we belong on.

And then there are all the other cultural and social factors that influence how we respond to events like Ferguson.

For one, Asian cultures strongly value harmony and not creating conflict.  The American proverb says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; the Japanese proverb says that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Thus, even in the face of controversial events, even when we ourselves are the victims of wrongdoing, many Asian Americans tend to remain silent.

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that more than 90% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants1 — people shaped by an immigrant mindset of keeping your head down and your mouth shut, even if the circumstances are terrible. Because you want to be welcomed and accepted here, and complaining usually creates the opposite response, even if those complaints are warranted.

Along with that immigrant mentality can come a need to survive at all costs — at least in my family.  My parents desperately wanted my brother and me to succeed in this country, and the only way to ensure that was for us to beat everyone else.  So they instilled in us a deep competitiveness, a need to be the best.  I grew up with a sense that I had to fight for my own success and not let other people or their problems drag me down, an attitude that haunts me still.

And then you have the anti-black sentiment that pervades Asian and Asian American communities. There are plenty of better-researched, better-written explanations for these attitudes, but in my experience, the human predisposition to stereotype and the fairly universal attitudes about light skin being superior to dark skin are exacerbated in cultures that are racially homogenous.  We see this in the US:  Communities that have very little diversity, where there is little contact with people of different races, tend to have the strongest stereotypes.  In Asian countries, where the overwhelming majority of people have black hair and brown eyes, it’s especially easy to generalize about those with different phenotypes, either positively or negatively.  And immigrants bring those attitudes with them to the States.

Once they’re here, they encounter the model minority myth, the erroneous belief that Asians have been more successful in America than other races because of inherent positive qualities.  Asians didn’t create this myth; it was created by a white sociologist who stereotyped Asians and other races without any sense of history.  But many Asian Americans have bought into it, and some propagate it themselves.  Because after all, it’s a story that serves us, at least on the surface.  It also aligns us with white people, the people with power, the people we want to accept us — and it can bring us comfort to think that we’re not at the bottom of the food chain.  And sometimes we keep our distance from those at the bottom, consciously or otherwise, out of fear that others will lump us together.

So when you have all of these factors at play and something like Ferguson happens, it isn’t terribly surprising that many Asian Americans stay quiet.  People’s responses vary considerably, of course, but when you consider all of these factors — the cultural value of not causing a stir, the immigrant attitudes of looking out for ourselves and wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be associated with people lower than us on the social food chain — it’s almost remarkable that Asian Americans have spoken up at all.

Make no mistake:  I don’t think that any of these factors let us off the hook when it comes to speaking and acting against injustice.  I feel very strongly about what happened in Ferguson, the wider systemic injustices it reflects, and the need for people of all races to act.  But the events of the last few weeks, and the consequent responses (and lack thereof), have made me reflect on the many things that had to happen in order for me to become vocal about issues like these.

I needed to learn about the systemic racism that pervades our society, that manifests in things like the targeting of black men.  I needed to learn the ugly history that led to these realities, much of which I had not learned in school.

I needed to acknowledge my own biases and those of my family and community, to understand their origins, and to learn how to challenge them whenever they appear in my head, in conversations with others, in public forums.

I needed to learn that my only-out-for-myself attitude was ultimately not helpful for me or for anyone around me.  I needed to learn that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King said; that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers (1 Corinthians 12.26); that ending injustice — all injustice — is a central part of what God wants to see in the world (Isaiah 58.6, Luke 4.18).

I needed to learn that some things are worth rocking the boat for — and that if I wasn’t proactive about fighting injustice, I was quietly perpetuating it.

So many things needed to happen in order for me to feel comfortable being vocal and active about issues of race; there were cultural and social barriers to overcome, things to learn, attitudes to examine.  And I still have a lot of work to do.  Again, I’m not excusing anyone for failing to speak up — but I acknowledge that being active about issues of race, for Asian Americans, often means swimming against a strong current.

So let me ask you:

What do you need to do?


1 Zhou, M., & Yang, X. (2005). The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants: Lessons for segmented assimilation. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28, 1119-1152.  (Article available here.)

Confessions of a Former Neofundamentalist

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

During my senior year of college, I mentored a freshman in my campus fellowship.  We met in the lounge of her dorm every week to talk about life and a book we were reading together, and during one of these meetings, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children.

Slightly horrified, I said to her, “Can you think of a single godly marriage in the Bible that didn’t result in offspring?”

That effectively ended the conversation.

Eight years later, this young woman — still a dear friend of mine — reminded me of this exchange over sushi at a restaurant near LAX, where she was passing through on business.  My eyes widened with horror as the memory, so long dormant, replayed in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” was all I could say in the moment.

Reflecting on this conversation later, I realized that I had a lot to apologize for.

I’m sorry that I didn’t consider that the social and cultural context in which the Bible was written — specifically, an agrarian one in which children were needed to help plant and harvest crops, in which having children was essential to survival — was completely different from the one in which we live, thousands of years later.

I’m sorry that I basically repeated verbatim what I had heard a missionary say years before, without thinking about it critically or processing it with anyone.

I’m sorry for tacitly implying that people who aren’t able to have children aren’t godly people.

I’m sorry that these words seem to have stuck with you and may have influenced your life choices.

I’m sorry that I was a neofundamentalist back then — not quite a head-covering fundy, but a slightly more modern version that went to public school and listened to pop music — and that I imposed those views on you.


I became a Christian when I was a sophomore in high school, after years of wrestling with questions of religion and spirituality.  The experience of being in a faith community was transformative for me; just as significant was the sense that I finally had answers to all of life’s questions.  The world, once so complex and confusing, was suddenly simple and easy to navigate.  Had a question?  The Bible had an answer.  The end.

The problem was that many of these new answers didn’t seem to line up with the ones I had before.  I was raised by parents who had PhDs in math and science, in a household where scholarship and intellectual rigor were paramount.  But suddenly, after my conversion, I started questioning everything I previously knew, from the validity of evolution to whether women were truly equal to men.  It was the Midwest in the late ’90s — a time and place where science and religion were still seen as at odds with each other (which, I gather, is still the case in many parts of the country) — and I didn’t really have anyone to have these conversations with.  My scientist parents weren’t religious.  The Christian women in my life told me to look for a spiritual leader.  I didn’t hear anyone talking about how evolution and the book of Genesis could be reconciled.  I felt forced to choose between what I knew pre-conversion and what I was learning post-conversion, and because my experience with my faith community had been so life-changing, I opted for the latter.  Science, once so central to my life, was now something I viewed with suspicion.

I carried this skepticism with me to college, where I learned a ton but spent more time than I should have resisting the ideas swirling around me instead of engaging them.  The Christians I knew who had opinions on matters intellectual and political were mostly right-leaning; a few claimed persecution from the biology faculty for their dissenting beliefs.  Seeing no other options as a Christian, I bought into these ideas too, which led to some conversations and election votes that I wish I could take back.

Near the end of college, I must have voiced some of these opinions to my longtime academic advisor, an Episcopalian woman with very left-leaning tendencies, because she gently directed me to Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to issues of social justice.  I visited their website, where my mind was promptly blown.  “God is not a Democrat or a Republican,” it read — which, being in the Midwest in the early 2000s, was news to me.  The website’s list of moral issues centered not on abortion and gay marriage but on war, poverty, the environment.  The idea that I could care about these things — that, as a Christian, I should care about these things, and my faith should inform these opinions — immediately felt right.  And just like that, an entirely new world of intellectual and political possibilities was opened to me.

A few years later, I started a doctoral program in clinical psychology that was housed in a seminary, and my theology classes continued the demolition of my black-and-white beliefs.  How do we reconcile the fact that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell different stories of creation — or that much of the Psalms are word-for-word replications of Egyptian religious texts?  How do we reconcile the promises of Proverbs with the realities of the world around us?  Instead of giving me answers, my classes not only unraveled the ones I had but also raised questions I hadn’t known to ask.  The only thing that kept my faith from coming completely unglued was the fact that the professors asking these questions seemed to retain their faith in the midst of them.  They demonstrated that it could be done, that faith and questions weren’t mutually exclusive, that one didn’t necessarily quash the other.

If my theology classes took a wrecking ball to my simple, literal faith, then working with therapy clients blew the remains to pieces.  As I sat with people in pain and listened to their stories, a few truths became clear to me: that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have; that things do not always turn out well for people who make all the right choices; that you can’t really separate bad people from good people, because anyone, in the right circumstances, will do just about anything.  More than anything else, my time as a therapist made me see that my old black-and-white beliefs simply didn’t fit the world around me; the world was much more grey than I had ever realized.  I needed to learn how to be comfortable with that, and I needed to figure out what my faith was going to look like in light of these realizations.

My faith is still intact, but it looks completely different than it did before — and, I’ve come to accept, it will forever be evolving.  In contrast to when I started this journey, I have a lot more questions now than answers.  I’m aware that I know virtually nothing compared to what I don’t know.  But I think I have a much better understanding of how the world actually is; instead of forcing everything into boxes that feel manageable and safe, I can see that the world is messy, complex, contradictory, unpredictable.  And as a result, I have a lot more compassion for people than I did before — and a much greater appreciation for a God who entered the messiness, who knows suffering and pain, who gets just how effed up the world and its inhabitants are but loves them all the same.  So even though it’s a lot more complicated and a lot less comfortable, I think my faith is more real, more honest, better this way.  And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Oh, and Jenny — it’s cool.  You don’t have to have kids.

Finding a Therapist

Starting therapy isn’t easy; once you’ve made the decision to go, you then have to find a therapist, which is no small task.  As I’ve written previously, finding a therapist isn’t like finding a dentist or a mechanic; how you feel about your therapist has everything to do with how well your therapy will go, which isn’t the case for most people who provide you services.

So if you’re in the market for a therapist, here’s what I recommend:

1.  Ask around.  If you know someone who’s been in therapy and you feel comfortable doing this, ask who they see and if they like working with them.

Since you may not know anyone who’s seeing a therapist — or at least is public about it — this may not be a viable option.  But if you do, having someone you know and trust vouch for a therapist is a huge deal.

2.  Psychology Today has a Find a Therapist directory; you can enter your zip code and find a list of therapists in your area.  Each therapist’s profile usually includes a blurb about how they work, areas of specialty, fees, and the like.  Do a search, find a few who fit your needs and whose profiles resonate with you, and give them a call.  Almost every therapist I know in private practice has a profile there.

3.  Below is a list of therapists I would recommend.  Since I went to school in LA, my list is disproportionately skewed toward Southern California and where my classmates have dispersed around the country, so I apologize if your city/state/entire geographical region is neglected.  But for those who do live in these areas, every person on this list is someone I would be willing to see myself.

A few things to keep in mind in the process:

– Just as medical doctors have different specialties and techniques, so too do therapists.  It may be helpful, as you look for one, to inquire how they work and if they have experience working with the kind of issue you’re dealing with.

– Since finding a therapist who’s a good fit is so important, you might need to try a few before you find one you like.  It can take some time, but many therapists offer free consultations, either in person or by phone, which is helpful.  The extra time and effort is worth it.

I wish you the best on your search, and if there’s anything I can do to help, feel free to shoot me an email.


Los Angeles County

Mackenzie Abraham (Hermosa Beach)

Lauren Ahlquist (Santa Monica)

David Choi (Santa Monica)

Whitney Dicterow (Los Angeles)

Tara Fairbanks (Santa Monica)

Katie Flores (Pasadena)

Michelle Harwell (Eagle Rock)

Gary Hayashi (South Pasadena)

Martin Hsia (Glendale)

Peter Huang (Pasadena)

Jennifer Kung (Los Angeles)

Broderick Leaks (Glendale)

Eunice Lee (Alhambra)

Hanna Lee (Cal Poly Pomona Student Health and Counseling Services*)

Angela Liu (Pasadena)

Jennifer Shim Lovers (Pasadena)

Jeremy Mast (Ventura)

Shauna McManus (Pasadena)

Nikki Rubin (West LA)

Ani Vartazarian (Los Angeles)

Tim Wong (Santa Monica)

Linda Yoon (Los Angeles)

Orange County

Jessica Eldridge (UC Irvine Counseling Center*)

Lindsay Golden (Newport Beach)

Negar Shekarabi (Lake Forest)

David Wang (Fullerton)

Riverside County

Hana Carmona (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Jennifer Hung (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Loretta Mead (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Santa Barbara

Steve Rogers


Ya-Shu Liang (Fresno State Student Health Center*)

Bay Area

Katie Byron (Redwood City)

Jennifer Chen (Oakland)

Sharon Coles (Oakland)

Sarah Kasuga-Jenks (Berkeley)

Stephanie Lai (San Francisco)

Danielle Vanaman (Castro Valley)


Sarah Moon

Chris Waters (The Dalles)


Judith Hong Cho


Lindsay Sturgeon


Sarah Moon

New York

Hana Shin


Stephan Gombis

Crystal Kannankeril

Eunia Lee (Chicago and Lisle)

Tracy Leman (Hinsdale)


Tim Hogan (Plymouth)

Jennifer Tang (Ann Arbor)

Grace Wong (Southfield)

Dan Zomerlei (Grandville)


Lauren King

Brittany Rader


Kelley Bolton


David Kim


Sam Lee (Austin)

Ryan Spencer (Austin)

Jenny Wang (Houston)

* Therapists working at university counseling centers can be seen only by students enrolled in that university.

updated 04.27.22

Seven Things You Should Know About Therapy Before You Start

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

For a therapist, the first session with a client is everything.  Not only is it where you start to build a relationship, but it’s also where you gather all of their background information, the puzzle pieces you use to construct a picture of who they are — the most important of which is why they’ve come to see you in the first place.  When I was a therapist, that was the first thing I would ask.

I once had a client who responded, “I was watching House last night, and one of the characters on the show saw a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist pointed out all of these things they didn’t even realize about themselves, and they had this amazing, mind-blowing experience.  I want to experience something like that.”

I paused.  “Okay,” I said slowly.  “Is there anything in particular that’s bothering you, or anything specific that you want to address?”

The client stared blankly back at me.

This was not going to go well.


After my last post about being in therapy, I got a number of questions about how the process works.  This is completely understandable, as when it comes to therapy, most people know only the random tidbits they’ve gleaned from distant relatives and The Sopranos.  As a result, many are thrown for a loop when they start the process and find that it’s not exactly what they expected.  This can frustrate client and therapist alike, so in the interest of all parties, here are a few things you should know before you begin.

You should have a goal in mind.  The client I described earlier had an unrealistic expectation for therapy:  She wanted me to blow her mind.  Somehow.  But that’s not how it works.  Simply walking into the office and expecting the therapist to pull something helpful out of thin air isn’t reasonable; you need to have a sense of what you want to work toward.  Wanting to learn how to manage your stress, to understand why you interact in a certain way with others, to feel less sad, to stop obsessing about food, to figure out your sexuality, to understand why your kid throws tantrums, to communicate better with your partner — these are all reasonable goals.  Wanting your therapist to amaze you is not.  (That may happen, but it shouldn’t be your main objective, because you’ll probably be disappointed.)

This leads to my next point:

Therapy takes work.  I’ve had any number of clients who seemed to think that simply coming to therapy was the big accomplishment, and now that they had made it into my office, I would reward them by producing a prescription for happiness or doing some kind of alchemy that would magically make them feel better.

Don’t get me wrong:  Making it into a therapist’s office is a big deal.  But that is not the ultimate goal.  And if your therapist had a prescription for happiness, they would probably not be your therapist; they would be reclining on their private island in the Caribbean, because they would be a bajillionaire and never have to work again.  And no one would ever need therapy.

Therapy requires you, the client, to do a lot of work.  You have to be open and honest about your experiences, past and present, and your fears and concerns about the future, however embarrassing or unrealistic they might be.  You have to reflect on your feelings, thoughts, and actions; you may have to revisit painful experiences; you may have to sit in uncomfortable feelings; you may have to put some things into practice outside of your sessions and come back and report how they went.  Yes, your therapist will be working too; it takes a lot of effort and skill to see how all of the pieces come together, how your past experiences shape your current ones, how your behavior is reinforced by your environment, why you feel and think and act the way you do — all while keeping tabs on your behavior in the session and their own feelings and using all these factors to determine where to go next.  Your therapist is tracking things on multiple levels, and that kind of work is no joke.  So therapy is a lot of work for the therapist — but it’s also a lot of work for the client, and you should know that going in.

The best time to go to therapy is when you are *not* in crisis.  When it comes to your physical health, you wouldn’t want your first encounter with a doctor to be in the ER when you’re having a heart attack.  At that point, their main goal will be simply to keep you alive.  Ideally, you’d first see a doctor when you’re feeling well to make sure that everything looks okay, to establish a game plan to manage anything out of the ordinary, and to avert a heart attack in the first place.  The same is true for your mental health.  If you go to therapy only when you’re in crisis, the main goal for you and your therapist will be to get you back to a place where you can function.  You won’t have a lot of margin to think about much more than that.  The best time to see a therapist is long before the crisis happens so you can develop healthy patterns and prevent the crisis altogether.

You should like your therapist.  When you think about it, it doesn’t really matter if you like your dentist or your mechanic; it helps, certainly, but at the end of the day, how you feel about them personally has little bearing on how well they fill your cavities or check your brakes.  In contrast, you share with your therapist your deepest vulnerabilities, wounds, and pain.  Not liking them will significantly impact your ability to do that — and to be open to their feedback.  So find a therapist you like.  You may have to visit a few before you find one, but many will do a first session or a phone consult for free.  If they seem like a weirdo or you don’t click, find someone else.  (Unless you see a bunch of people and you don’t like any of them, in which case… you, or your attitude about therapy, might be the problem.)

… but therapy is not the same as talking with a friend.  If it were, you could simply talk with a friend and save yourself the money.  Your therapist may do things that a friend might not, like make observations about your body language and how they’re experiencing you in the moment.  On the flip side, they might not do things that a friend probably would, like tell you about themselves or give you advice about what they think you should do.  Some things that aren’t normal in the real world are par for the course in therapy.  The point is to get you as aware as possible about yourself — your thoughts, your feelings, the messages you send and receive from the people around you.

Therapy is not cheap.  Many people assume that therapy won’t cost much, perhaps because it requires no fancy equipment.  They are wrong.  Depending on where you live, therapy can run anywhere from 80 to 200 dollars an hour.  This, to some, seems unreasonable.  But 1. your therapist is working hard, as I described earlier; 2. their education and experience weren’t free; and 3. your payment for therapy signifies your investment in it.  Even agencies that serve the lowest-income clients almost never provide free services, because when people regularly get something for free, they tend not to take it seriously.  We pay for what we value.

That being said, many clients do not pay full price for therapy.  Many therapists have sliding-scale fees, so if you legitimately cannot afford their services because of your income, they can offer a reduced rate.  Also, many insurance plans cover mental health services; some cover a certain number of sessions a year and some even cover unlimited sessions, usually with a small co-pay.  The downside of using insurance is that you have less choice in who you can see (and, with certain providers, you may not get to see your therapist more than once a month).  In addition, therapists who are still in training usually have lower rates than licensed ones; the drawback there is that they have less experience.  (I wouldn’t rule out this option, though — I had classmates who were so naturally gifted that they were better therapists in their first year of school than some of the licensed clinicians I’ve met.)

If you’re a college or graduate student, your school almost certainly has a counseling center on campus, where you get a certain number of sessions a year simply for paying your (required) student fees.  Not nearly enough students know about these services — or take advantage of them.  Given how expensive therapy can be in the real world, this is a pretty sweet deal.  In addition to therapy, your school’s counseling center may offer resources like workshops and group therapy.  The downside:  Like seeing a therapist through your insurance, you have less choice in who you see, and you may have to wait a while to see someone, as many counseling centers have waiting lists.  But many of the best therapists I know work at universities.


Things might get worse before they get better.  People vary in their responses to the first few sessions of therapy.  Some feel so much relief from talking about their issues that they feel better immediately.  Others, however, find that facing their problem head-on is painful, or that the problem is deeper and more complicated than they realized.  They may realize that their depression is related to a loss in childhood that they never fully processed, for example, or that their issue will take more than a few sessions to fix.  And instead of feeling better right away, sometimes they feel worse than they did when they first went in.  It’s very common for people to drop out of therapy at this point.

But the thing is:  Sometimes, things get worse before they get better.  This is completely normal. You have to acknowledge the problem in its entirety in order to address it.  You need to face the pain in order to heal from it.  So uncomfortable as it might be, if it gets worse before it gets better, I urge you to stick with it.  If you keep working at it, it will get better.  And you’ll be better off for it in the end.


So that is my advice to you, should you be considering therapy — which I think everyone should.  If you need more information about how to find a therapist, you can find steps and referrals here.  And whoever you are and whatever you’re going through, I wish you the best on your journey to healing and wholeness.

The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis.


In the 10 years since I graduated from college, I’ve had the same conversation hundreds of times:

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m an engineer/a lawyer/a pharmacist/an analyst at [insert name of large bank here].”

“Oh, cool!  Do you like it?”

[shrug] “It’s work.”

Or maybe:

“Not really, but… I guess it’s okay for now….”

Or maybe just:


I’ve had this conversation so many times that I feel like this problem is epidemic:  So many Asian Americans I know have great jobs.  So few of them enjoy their work.

I’ve dubbed this the Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis: intelligent and hard-working twenty- and thirtysomethings in stable, well-paying jobs that they detest but don’t leave.

If the conversation continues (and often it doesn’t, because the other person is depressed by it or just doesn’t want to talk about it), the reasons for staying in the job are sometimes predictable.  “It pays the bills.”  “The economy is crap.”  But what I hear most often is this: “I don’t know what else I would do.”


Working a job that you don’t like isn’t unique to Asian Americans, obviously — it’s a problem so common that complaining about it is cliche.  But I think this issue is especially pervasive in Asian American communities.  For one, Asian cultures tend to be risk-averse, to value knowing your place and not rocking the boat.  On top of that, our parents came to this country for the sake of financial security and stability, and they inculcated us with the same values.  Most of us have been raised to think about our futures for as long as we can remember.  It starts with math workbooks.  Gifted summer camps.  Endless SAT prep.  All for the sake of fabulous college applications, which lead us to the best universities.  The best internships.  The best (read: most lucrative, most prestigious, most stable) careers, which usually fall somewhere in the vicinity of medicine, law, engineering, and (corporate) business.

In midst of all this striving for the best, there’s little to no attention paid to what we might actually enjoy.  That would be indulgent, if not completely unheard of.  There’s little concern in Asian cultures for personal strengths and weaknesses; there’s no such thing as someone who’s “not a math person” or “not a science person,” because excellence in any area can be attained through hard work.  There’s nothing that can’t be achieved through more repetitions or more discipline.  Failure to excel at something is not attributed to our unique dispositions; it’s attributed solely to laziness or lack of effort, and that is unacceptable.  As a result, we’re trained to excel at everything.  We become excellent at jumping through hoops and knocking down any task that’s placed before us. That’s what we end up enjoying, at least while we’re in school.  These are not terrible skills to have, mind you.  But the flip side is that as we’re trained be great at everything, there’s very little attention paid to what among those things we actually like.  Generally speaking, this is not on our parents’ radars at all, and as a result, it goes neglected on ours.

The result of all of this: a generation of Asian Americans who are excellent at achieving but have no idea what they want to do.  (Or, if they do know, are reluctant to pursue it because it isn’t as stable or well-paid as their current jobs.)  A generation that is incredibly successful but, professionally speaking, not terribly happy.

Not to say that there aren’t Asian Americans who, in the midst of racking up achievements, figured out and pursued what interested them.  And there are certainly Asian parents who are exceptions to the rule, who are actually interested in what their children want to do and support them regardless.  I have Asian American friends who are graphic designers, actors, community activists; who are rethinking math pedagogy for Teach for America and doing campus ministry; and yes, even a few who enjoy being doctors and programmers and brand managers.  Their numbers, however, are dwarfed by the scores of Asian Americans I know who would be much happier in other fields — engineers who should be teachers and filmmakers, lawyers who should be writers, doctors who should be chefs.  And, of course, those who have no idea what they should be doing.

Also, I’m not trying to invalidate or trivialize how difficult this quarter-life crisis is.  It’s a crisis, after all, because there are significant pros and cons to all available options.  But I can’t help but wonder what kind of creative, innovative projects and careers Asian Americans would tackle if they weren’t confined — psychologically, financially, or culturally — to jobs they didn’t enjoy.  And how much happier and more fulfilled they might be as a result.


Of course, I draw not only from my peers’ experiences but also my own. I grew up as a little achieving machine.  My parents weren’t just Asian immigrants; they were Asian immigrants who came here to get PhDs and went on to become professors, so education was paramount in our family.  The value of education (and stability it would eventually bring me) was so strong that my mom didn’t even need to be a tiger mom; by elementary school, I had so deeply internalized it that she didn’t need to do anything to motivate me to achieve.  In high school, I cleaned up across the board — not only in math and science, the stereotypically Asian subjects my parents taught, but also in English and social studies.  I had to be the best at everything.  There was no excuse not to be.

In the midst of all this achieving, I also figured out what I wanted to study:  Oddly enough, the recurring refrain of “Why are you like that?  Like, the way you are?” in My So-Called Life, which I watched obsessively in 7th grade, triggered an interest in psychology.  My parents were down with this, because they expected a doctorate degree, and whether it was in medicine or psychology, I would have tangible career options.  So I went off to college as a psych major.  Meanwhile, my Asian American friends swarmed to engineering and premed classes, spending long days in the chem lab or long nights in the computer lab, which they almost universally loathed.  I toiled with them for one semester, taking multivariable calculus and organic chemistry (“to challenge myself,” I said at the time, though in retrospect, I think I just had something to prove) before retiring from all things premed.  For the next 3 years, I looked at my peers with a mix of pity and smugness.  They mindlessly studied what their parents wanted them to study, but I was studying something I actually liked.

I kept this chip on my shoulder for years — until I found myself midway through a PhD program and seriously questioning if I wanted to be there.  I found myself in the very position for which I had judged my peers:  I was pursuing a secure, well-paying career that my parents wanted for me but I wasn’t sure I wanted.  Meanwhile, the people in college I smirked at for their hapless pursuit of stable careers — they were no less happy than I was, but at least they were making great money.  All I was doing was accruing debt.

All of this came to a head 4 years ago, when I started the full-time internship that made up my last year of grad school, and I realized that my worst fears had come true:  I had spent 5 years in school for a career I didn’t want.  I had endured more classes, papers, and exams than I could count; an exhausting master’s thesis and an even more grueling dissertation; countless hours stressing about clinical hours, data analyses, internship applications, and all the other work of grad school.  I was getting my first taste of what my life in this field would be like — a life I spent years doggedly pursuing — and I didn’t like it.

I was also getting my first taste of what many of my peers had been experiencing for years.  Working at a job you hate SUCKS.  Like, REALLY sucks.  Getting up in the morning is terrible, because you’re tired and you don’t want to go to the job you loathe, and then you’re there for 8 hours — the entire time the sun is out — if not longer, and you come home and you’re exhausted and you have no time or energy to do the things you actually want to do.  And you have to do this AGAIN.  And AGAIN.  And AGAIN.  And a respite comes on Friday, if you’re not too tired to enjoy it, and then Sunday comes too quickly and you sink into your weekly funk because you have to repeat the whole cycle AGAIN.  It’s like being in hell.  All I ever thought about that year was my next day off, when I could maybe sneak in a sick day and just sleep….

Meanwhile, the next hoop was being placed in front of me.  Announcements for post-docs started flooding my inbox almost the minute my internship started — post-docs that my peers were applying for, interviewing for, getting.  There was pressure all around me to swim with the current — but could I do it if I was so, you know, unhappy with what I was doing?  Could I really sign up for more of the same?

I started peeling my fingers away, one by one.  I held out for half-time post-docs, which are virtually nonexistent, thinking that maybe I could do what I was trained to do part-time and use the remaining time to pursue something I actually liked.  The few half-time opportunities that materialized fizzled out quickly.  In the end, I was left with a gift:  I did not have a job in my field.  Or any job, for that matter.  I had no choice but to do something else — to maybe figure out what I really wanted to do.  At 28, with a PhD in a field I didn’t want to work in, I was about to embark on the task I should have started 10 years before.


I took a very different tack this time around:  Instead of setting a long-term goal and obstinately staying the course, no matter what data I collected along the way, I would look for jobs that interested me and try them.  If I liked them, I would continue; if not, I would quit.  And I would see what opportunities unfolded that way.  After years of meticulously planning my professional life, this strategy — one that involved working forward and not backward, in which my future would be determined by opportunities that may or may not arise — was terrifying.  But it was also thrilling — like stepping onto a tightrope without a 5-year plan to catch me.  And, well, I had seen how my previous strategy played out.  I didn’t think I could do much worse.

So, new game plan in hand, I started my job hunt.  I got an adjunct professor position at my alma mater; aside from the absurd amounts of prep work and the occasional entitled student, I found that I really enjoyed teaching, and it was a much better fit for me than clinical work.  Then a friend from college asked if I would be interested in working with high school students, which I had done in undergrad and was happy to take up again.  That job also led to some consulting work, which I had never done before but turned out to be right up my alley.  Thus I patched together a professional life, running from meeting to class to meeting — but, in a dramatic change from the previous year, I loved going to work.  Each of my jobs felt meaningful, played to my strengths, and had far more awesome moments than terrible ones.  I finally got a taste for what it was like to do work that was life-giving, and it was fantastic.  On top of that, I found that my satisfaction at work trickled into every other area of my life; after a year of being a zombie, I was happy, well-rested, energetic.  I felt alive again.

Then, a few months ago, we had to move for my husband’s job, and I found myself back at square one.  As wonderful as youth work and teaching were, I didn’t feel a strong need to continue either one.  So back I went to trying-and-seeing.  Two of my professors from grad school offered me a job as a consultant, helping millennials figure out what they want to do with their lives.  Given my experiences, both professional (therapy, assessment, working with students, consulting) and personal (knowing intimately how it felt to end up in the wrong career and to wonder what I was doing with my life), this felt like an excellent fit — and it was, for once, something I could see myself doing long-term.  I had also wanted for years to write more seriously — a desire that I had struggled to acknowledge, fearing that it sounded pretentious, frivolous, or both — and it appeared that I now had time to give that a shot.  But I also needed an income as I built up these lines of work, so I looked for yet another job.  I applied to work at a few independent bookstores, something I had always thought would be fun but never had the chance to try.  One took a chance and hired me, even though I was both incredibly overqualified and incredibly underqualified.  So I find myself splitting my time between three different gigs yet again.

And lo and behold, I am happy, for the same reasons I was in my previous trifecta of employment.  Obviously, the situation isn’t perfect:  I spend every day shifting between very different tasks.  At the moment, I make significantly less than my peers from grad school, who are now licensed psychologists, and pretty much everyone I went to college with.  My resume makes no sense at all.  I’m almost 31, and I’ve made only the slightest headway into a career I want to have.  But for me, all of that pales in comparison to how it feels to be doing work that I actually enjoy.  After years of jumping through hoops because it was all I knew how to do, of achieving for the sake of achieving, I’m finally doing work that I find meaningful.  And it feels pretty awesome.  In a sharp contrast to my previous way of living, I have no idea what my life will look like in 5 years — but I’m content and fulfilled right now, and that feels like a good trade-off.


Now, I’m not saying that what I did is the right thing to do and that every Asian American who’s unhappy with their job should leave it immediately.  I am lucky to have no student loans or house payments or children to support, to have a husband who is entirely supportive and as eager to see me in a job I love as I am, to have parents who had ample warning about this sea change and accepted it with minimal resistance, and on and on and on.  I recognize that some people have children, parental demands, mortgages, and other constraints that keep them from making similar changes — and some have found a way to be content in the midst of less-than-thrilling careers.  I respect that.

But in my case, I felt so dissatisfied with the path I was on that I needed to ask myself some serious questions about the choices I was making — and judging from all the conversations I’ve had in the last 10 years with other Asian Americans about their jobs, I don’t think I’m alone.  I don’t think that pursuing careers that are safe and stable is a bad thing by any means; having a consistent income, health insurance, and resources to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools is nothing to sneeze at.  But I worry that as a community, we hyperfocus on security and stability to the point where we don’t think to explore what could be life-giving and fulfilling for us.  And as a result, a lot of us walk around not very happy with our professional lives — which is to say, for most of our waking hours — and not really knowing how to change that.

I don’t have any easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions, but I do think we need to spend more time reflecting on our choices, both individually and collectively.  And I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves more room to explore.  I wonder what kinds of things we would pursue — and how much more fulfilled we could be.


A final thought:  If anything here has resonated with you, I’d like to hear your story, too.  If you left your career, if you decided to stay, if you’re trying to figure that out right now — what has your process been like?  What’s made it hard or easy for you to make your decision?  How will you advise your children, should you choose to have them?  I’m super-curious to hear.