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.

Advertisements

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.

Becoming a Mom Transformed My Relationship with Mine

Every now and then, when I’m on the phone with my mom, I’ll mention something that I’m not looking forward to doing. Going to the DMV, perhaps, or needing to initiate a conversation that has the potential to be unpleasant.

My mother will respond: “Well, you just have to do it.”

“MOM,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes heavenward, immediately reverting to the 16-year-old version of myself. Obviously I have every intention of finding a dentist, I’ll say in a huff; I’m simply commenting that I’m not looking forward to it. I do not need to be reminded or convinced that it needs to be done.

“Okay,” she’ll say, in a way that I can’t quite read. Has she heard me? Does she really think that I’m considering not taking my car to the dealership for a safety recall? I don’t want to tell her that a more helpful response would be “Oh, that stinks” or “I don’t like doing that either.” She’s my Asian mom, after all, and I’m not sure how she would receive that kind of direction from anyone, let alone her child.

In hindsight, I think I subconsciously expected these conversations to increase after I had a baby. The world of new parenthood, I was told, was full of doing things that are tedious and unpleasant but need to be done anyway. I imagined that when I talked with my mom, three time zones away, about how I was doing, I would be hearing a lot more “Well, you just have to do its” and doing a lot more eye-rolling.

That I have yet to hear this refrain once, nine months in, is testament to how much has changed between us.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Learning How to Fail

As a former therapist, an auntie to an ever-expanding brood of children, and someone who’s curious about people, I’m always struck by this simple truth: The younger you are when you learn something, the easier it is to do as an adult. Speaking a foreign language. Identifying feelings. Navigating social situations. The earlier you pick something up, the more naturally you can execute it as you grow up.

Now that I’m well into adulthood, there are many things I’m glad I picked up as a kid — a solid work ethic, the ability to talk to strangers. But one thing missing from my repertoire was how to deal with failure.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

On Careers, Kids, and Living Up to Mom

A little bit about my mom: She went to the best girls’ high school in Taipei and the best university in Taiwan, and then she moved to the US and got her PhD in 5 years – in a language she could barely speak at the start of her program. She got a faculty position at her alma mater and earned tenure in 4 years. (Most professors take 6 or 7.) She would go on to become a full professor and the chair of her department while co-founding a business on the side. Meanwhile, she cooked dinner every night, drove my brother and I to nearly all of our after-school activities, and attended all of our recitals and concerts. She and my father also had an active social life, hosting elaborate dinner parties and hanging out with friends multiple times a weekend. And she managed to do all of these things while being a warm, lovely, hospitable person, with nary a complaint about stress or her myriad responsibilities. In some ways, my mom is a bit of a machine: She doesn’t eat much or need a lot of sleep; she loves her work and thrives on being busy. She’s one of those people who seems to have a limitless capacity for work.

Thus, when I was growing up, this was my prototype of a successful woman. It wasn’t consequence-free – I was doing full days in preschool by the time I was 18 months old (my brother started even younger); I spent many an afternoon in elementary school latchkey, which I loathed; I had recurring nightmares where I’d be chasing my mom but never able to catch her, dreams that were ripe for even the most amateur analysis. But all told, I think I gained far more than I lost from this upbringing. I learned to read and write very early, I was socialized young – but most importantly, my model for womanhood was strong, capable, and ambitious. I cannot overstate the impact that this model has had on my life, on everything from my academic and professional achievement to my sense of self-efficacy to my identity.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Everything I Know About Life, I Learned from The Baby-Sitters Club

This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life” — autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.

There are any number of books I could have written about for this series — like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which gave me a completely new appreciation for my parents’ experience as immigrants in this country, or Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which is changing my life as we speak.  But at the end of the day, when I think about the books that were most formative for me, I keep coming back to The Baby-Sitters Club, Ann M. Martin’s classic series about a group of middle-school friends in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

When I first picked up these books, I was a 6-year-old child of immigrants, just starting public school for the first time.  I had lived my entire life in Michigan, but there was so much about American culture I didn’t know; my parents grew up in post-war Taiwan, after all, and did not play soccer or wear Halloween costumes or attend school dances.  There was much about life in the US that they couldn’t teach me.  These books served as my education.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

I Wasn’t the Only One Who Had a Jessa

A few months ago, I picked up a friend from the airport.  She was returning from the wedding of a friend of hers from college, and as we drove home, she filled me in on the drama of the weekend.  Things got dicey with one friend in particular, who was hot and cold with her the whole time and whose behavior devolved into that of a child, or perhaps an adult with poor emotional regulation.  I was horrified by what she described, largely because I think that kind of behavior is unacceptable at any age, and especially in your 30s.  If a teenager or college student is histrionic, I don’t condone it, but at least I can understand it — their hormones are all over the place, their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed, and they’re still figuring out how to relate to people as an adult.  If that behavior’s still happening at 30, they don’t really have any excuses.  They might just be crazy.

My friend sighed and leaned back against the headrest.  “All of my friends from college are drama,” she said.  “Are your friends like that?”

I thought for a while, flipping through my mental Rolodex as I changed lanes.  “No,” I said.  “I think I have a very low tolerance for drama.”

Only later did I realize that I had given myself too much credit.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective