Reader Responses, Part 1: on leading and trailing, loser status and native status, and moving “back” and moving forward
We’ve been overwhelmed and moved by your open-hearted letters to our companion pieces about moving to Taiwan (Michelle’s here and Albert’s here). Corresponding with you has been deeply fulfilling. The private nature of marriage makes it hard to talk about the sacrifices it often entails, as well as the shame and guilt that ensue. Many people told us that these pieces made them feel less alone; receiving your replies made us feel the same way.
As always, we welcome your reactions or impressions at email@example.com. Let us know if you’d like to be anonymous or identified by your first or full name, and feel free to provide a link to your social media or other work. We’ll never publish your correspondence without your permission; of course, we’d love to hear from you regardless of whether you want your reply shared publicly. (We’re also in the midst of packing up our apartment—ahh!—so please indulge our current slowness to respond.)
We’ve organized the responses mostly in the order in which they came in. Next week we’ll share a second set.
Reader K. on the structures of academic employment:
This newsletter has been such a gift in the last few months, but I've never written before. I've considered it, as I have been repeatedly moved—especially by some of the reflections on motherhood, but also some of the poetry and some of the reflections on justice. These last two letters hit too close to home, though, because of your honesty and vulnerability about what it means to change locations and careers for a relationship.
I'm in the position of the ashamed and guilty spouse (I don't know what to call us!), although for different reasons; my partner and I met in graduate school, and while both of us liked the idea of being professors, they were always *far* more attached to it than I was. I didn't like the isolation of academic work, academic publishing required too much patience, I struggled to enjoy teaching and wanted to do something that had a more immediate impact on the world.
We had agreed that their job would be the priority—no matter where they got a tenure-track job, I would follow. I would try to get an academic job close to them, but if it didn't work, maybe I would go to law school and try to do something else with my life. I never got very far with figuring out what that was but it was my assumption for the last few years of graduate school that I was going to leave the academy for them.
That's not what happened. My partner was "on the market," a horrible phrase, for over a decade and never found a permanent job. I got a dream job very quickly. After burning myself at every end for a few years while my partner taught a few classes a year as an adjunct and did 90 percent of the housework, we got the other impossible thing in February 2020—finally a spousal hire, but not on the tenure track, a renewable lectureship.
That makes me the anchor spouse, or maybe the millstone spouse: if I quit, my partner's job goes away. They love their job, they are great at their job, and they can't imagine doing anything else.
We're lucky, ridiculously lucky, impossibly lucky, so lucky that I don't have the right to complain, but the last year has been hard. It's been difficult to adjust to being a couple with two full-time jobs. Between the stress of trying to get tenure, the pandemic academy, and my strong desire to be closer to family if we're going to have a child (not to complain—we live on the same continent! but it's a full day of air travel to either of our families, and in two different directions), I fantasize about quitting at least once a week.
I won't quit. Get through the pandemic first, see if you can get tenure first, see if your job feels any better from that position—that’s what I tell myself. But the tension has crept back into our marital discord. Why can't you imagine doing anything else, I yell, why can't you be happy at a dream job, they yell, but I suppose why can't the structures of academic employment be any more humane is the real question.
Our student Jasmine on going “back”:
[My friend] K. and I talk about going back to Asia all the time, and we were both planning on going back right after graduation, so we’ve been having such mixed feelings about getting jobs in the U.S.
The first time I told my mom that I wanted to move back to Asia as an adult, she was really upset with me. She was like, “I put in all this effort to give you more opportunities and you’re going to flee back to what I was trying to escape?” And especially for Asian Americans, I think it can be really difficult to go “back” because we aren’t rooted entirely in East Asia like people who were born and raised there. Uprooting your life is always scary, but I think there’s something especially scary about going “back” to Asia as an Asian American. I feel like I grew up knowing that I wasn’t completely assimilated to the United States, so it stings even more when I don’t feel accepted in Japan either. I hate the “stuck between two worlds” trope, but there is something deeply painful and disorienting about feeling rejected from a place to which you should feel some kind of ancestral tie. It’s hard too because there’s definitely a power dynamic that comes along with having an American education and connections. But I think my “Americanness” has helped a lot with getting involved in social justice movements in Japan, and people really appreciate having different perspectives join the conversation.
Our former student Tito on the illusion of perfection:
This and last week's newsletters were incredibly interesting and touching. I appreciate the openness and honesty both you and Professor Kuo have expressed. It must not have been easy.
From the outside, as a student in both your classes, you and she were a perfect couple. From what we saw you absolutely complemented and supported each other. You were an equal intellectual match, and you were just good people.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that everyone has their own story, difficulties, troubles, hardships, and things to fix and fight through. And perhaps when reading your story and [learning] how big an obstacle moving was for your marriage, it struck me. This didn't take anything away from my perception of you two—I remember all the brunches, extracurriculars, trips, etc. that you two organized—but enhanced it.
Perfection is an illusion, but the way in which you dealt and reasoned out and “compromised” your hardships is the closest one can get to “perfection.” It provided me with a living example of how difficult human relations are, but also how at a primal level anything can be solved and moved on from.
Congratulations on the opportunity in Taiwan. Professor Kuo's description of how you speak of Taiwan was an accurate reminder (kind of a déjà vu) of your passion and dedication to Taiwan. I am happy for you and hope you continue to impact the world as positively as you have been doing.
Your reflections on what return to Asia means caught my breath—I must admit that I have never contemplated living in Korea, and have some difficulty even conceiving of myself living in a country of which my most resonant framework is the Korea of the 1970s when my parents departed for the United States (things have clearly changed since then). You are again pointing to new terrain, blind spots, opening new wisdoms, and combining deep traditions with exploration, as you have always done in your work and writing.
You will always have a home and a beloved community in the U.S., but now you will again build a new one: I am truly excited to see what comes next, and it fills me with joy that there are so many paths for you to join in Taiwan. I know it will be beautiful, powerful, and will be something that the world will be lucky to hear. I wonder what it will be to live outside the fray of white supremacy, how psychically different and liberating that will be. You’ve now done so much of the hard work clearing and training in these last few years in France—writing a book, living in a place so different from that of your birth and upbringing, that I can’t wait to see how the lessons you’ve gained there will help you on this new step. I wonder if it was life’s way of giving you training ground, skills, and transition for what is to come in Taiwan…
I felt much guilt as I read your piece: I made my partner relocate to several different cities in the last ten years for my career. It wasn’t the easiest for him. And in a sense, what I believed needed to be the course of my career was so tied to my identity, what I believed to be my purpose, that I was willing to make sacrifices by giving up my community, places I’d rather live. You, by moving to France, and now to Taiwan, made a choice that I would likely be unable to make. I perhaps chose a partner who I always knew would not require this of me.
My brother once gave me advice when I decided to leave my long-term community for a new job: It is a sacrifice. And a sacrifice means giving up something that you hold dear, because you believe the other thing that you are choosing is the more important thing. This is a description of sacrifice, and not an evaluation of what you choose.
Michelle—you are brave. You are about to enter a very unusual chapter in your story, and this is going to enable you to discover new things and draw new connections that few have been able to make before. This is well far afield from what your cohort have done. But the stories we tell could be easily told by the next person in line for the internships and fellowships and clerkships. There is little creativity or depth in that. What you will do, as you have always done, is use your considerable talents to see, imagine, and build something new; it will shed new light on things that need to be told, and enrich us all. I can’t wait to see it, even though I know it won’t always be easy.
A professor on self-worth and priorities:
This letter really resonated with me on so many levels. I thank Michelle, as always, for sharing her vulnerable feelings about marriage, work, self-worth, status, and identity. I feel so lucky that my partner was willing to move here for me, and it has worked out as well as one could expect. Yet because of COVID, she delayed her job search for a year and being a full-time mom with no work has been challenging. She wants to feel useful to somebody, an institution, that is unrelated to me and our child, and there is a lot of insecurity from not having had a “proper job” in contrast to her peers in [her home country], who have been working for close to a decade now. There’s also needing to prove to her parents that she can get a proper job—her older sibling is always praised for being a doctor, but they assume that she’s just lounging around as a full-time mom and should be grateful for it.
Without her having been at home this year to help take care of our child, whom we didn’t put in daycare, I would not have been able to revise my book manuscript, and even with her home full-time I still can only work an hour here and an hour there as everything gets disrupted. It’s really exciting that she’s applied for a part-time summer internship that she can hopefully start soon. Though she doesn’t complain about what she’s had to sacrifice this year for me, we are both excited for her to be able to “rejoin society” soon.
The concern with status and self-worth is tough to change because we’ve been programmed since age five [to think] that where we went to college, what we did, was what defined us. I still feel sheepish every time I have to explain what my college is, how I’m lucky just to have a tenure-track job and to live near my family and where my partner wants to be, etc., and I constantly think how the “grass could be greener” at an elite private institution, both professionally and financially. I guess it’s part of becoming an adult not only to learn to accept not only your limitations, but also to try to define yourself outside your peers. It was easy for me to marry my partner, a non-American, because that was my parents’ model, but none of my American friends have a non-American partner, and at times I feel like even some of the closest ones will never understand why one would “settle” for a non-American. But it’s been the perfect fit for my partner and me and what we care about, and I’m sure it’s the same with you two: it shouldn’t matter, and doesn’t matter, if those around you know about what bonds you two, and that will be the case whether you’re in France, Taiwan, or the States.
Revising my book manuscript has been extremely humbling. I’m not a prolific writer and I know that first books can define a scholar’s academic identity. So will this book live up to all the superstars in my field I admire? It probably won’t, but I’ve had to accept that I did the best with the time and circumstances given to me (it needs to come out next year for me to get tenure), and I wouldn’t trade any of the time I’ve had to spend taking care of my child. The beautiful description Michelle gave of Albert’s loyalty to Taiwan made me think that my loyalties don’t have to just be to my career development (i.e., trying to get to a better school), but to my city, my parents, whom I’m fortunate to see every week, and my colleagues and students at my college. It’s so hard to see the glass as half full instead of half empty, but having our child enter our lives has helped me prioritize what really matters.
Calvin Chen, a pastor in Seattle at Church on The Ave who grew up in Taiwan, on ambition and returning:
I'm so, so thankful for your vulnerability and thoughtfulness in this week's newsletter. First, I just appreciate your sharing so honestly. It's such a gift when people are so real and open. Second, your thoughts on moving “back” vs. Asian American identity and definitions of success are wonderful and something I totally wrestle with in light of perceived hierarchies.
In college I once shared similar dreams and ambitions of returning to Taiwan someday with an Asian American friend. She said, "Our parents worked so hard so we could come here and make it, why would we ever go back?"
I have to admit I felt stung—but was also offended by her ignorance. If anything, I felt like I enjoyed a lot of perspective and privilege from my transpacific semi-expat upbringing that I wouldn't have had growing up fully in the States. And among "returnees" of our parents' generation there can be a sense that many of them worked hard and succeeded by returning or first worked to earn their right to return (so many complexities!).
I often share with friends that if you look at pictures of my parents from their early forties living in the States and their late forties living in Taiwan... honestly they look younger and way healthier and happier in the later pictures. Sure, some of it is lifestyle (walking more, healthier food, no more Chicago winters), but I honestly think that as immigrants in the States they carried a burden of feeling like outsiders, functioning in their second language even though they're both fairly fluent, and needing to prove themselves here.
On the other hand, as "returnees" (also called 海龜, or sea turtles) there's also a somewhat automatic amount of privilege. My parents were both maniacally career-driven and their goal had always been to go back and contribute their skills to Taiwan and establish influential careers there. (This is another set of complexities which you've certainly explored this week and elsewhere, the struggle of defining self-worth and identity in terms of career ambition.) The amount of privilege that expats and returnees enjoy also ties into the whole global hierarchies thing and will be an interesting experience for both of you, especially since as a couple you'll probably experience some hybridity/liminality between the categories.
Chris Schaefer, a writer and Ph.D. student, on kinds of belonging:
Your achingly honest post about origins and feeling like a loser resonated with me but for very different reasons. I've moved to central Pennsylvania after over a decade in Morocco, France, and England, and now I'm having to confront head-on the consequences of refusing the trappings of many Americans' idea of the good life: a stable white-collar job, a house in the suburbs, with all that goes with it, including a mortgage, a dog, and lawnmowing. I rejected that life, which probably isn't quite the ideal of your Asian American friends but I think it's fair to say is on the same spectrum. But for me, there were always just so many aspects of the American way of life that grated. And I knew that my set of skills and interests were better appreciated outside the United States (speaking more than one language well, just for starters).
I guess I always thought my path would lead to a different kind of belonging and another kind of success. But it hasn't. And now due to a complex set of circumstances, but mostly because the past year of my PhD has been wasted, I've now been thrust back into a part of the US I thought I had left for good, cut off from the cultural, literary, and culinary worlds I had grown accustomed to. Here in this small town, my wife's hometown, I know almost no one, and there isn't much to do. Even if, in a certain sense, these are my people, I still feel like a fish out of water here. The parallels with your own situation strike me, even if geographically our stories are completely opposite. Moving forward, we're going to regroup, get some head space, try to reconnect with family, and then figure out what comes next. I know there's a way forward even if it's not really what I wanted.
David, a college classmate who lives in Kazakhstan, on letting work speak for itself:
On the matter of being "off the map" academically, I am so so long past caring about academic hierarchies or whatever anyone else thinks about my institution/location. Just give me stable teaching assignments and reasonable research expectations for renewal and promotion, and I'm good. Then let the quality of my work and engagement speak for itself.
Grace Chang posted a picture of her family tomb-sweeping in Taiwan, her great great grandfather’s grave in Zhuwei 竹圍:
Next week we’ll share a second set of responses. Please don’t hesitate to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and thank you for reading.
Book Club: Paradise Lost, Thursday, May 27, 2:45 ET
We’ll be discussing the first two books of Paradise Lost. Anybody is welcome, including those who haven’t had the chance to read. Please email email@example.com for a zoom link. Looking forward!