Reader Responses, Part 2: on adoption and heritage, trailing and leading, living abroad and starting anew
It’s been a bittersweet few days. We hosted a graduation ceremony for our seniors this week and had the joy of virtually meeting their parents and loved ones, and right now we’re packing up the apartment. We’ve always been terrible packers, but this is especially disastrous. Can someone volunteer to come torch all our stuff? All we ask is that you leave the stuffed animals alone. Michelle and the baby really like them.
Thank you again for 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. We’ve organized the responses mostly in the order of their arrival; if you missed last week’s installment, you can find it here.
We’ll be traveling next Sunday to see Michelle’s family in the U.S. before setting off for Taiwan, so we’re taking next week off. See you in mid-June!
On the experience of being a “trailing spouse”:
I think it is wonderful and terrible news that you two are moving to Taiwan. Full of opportunity and fear. At least that's what I take away from your twin essays about the decision. I feel a little uncomfortable to have received such a clear lens into your individual and married lives—I guess it's my Midwestern-ness. But my soft-heartedness makes me feel beloved that you would share that with the world. Beloved to be a recipient of it.
I am sorry that I never really shared my experience of being a trailing spouse with either of you, at least not specifically. Perhaps it was egoism that prevented it. Perhaps if we had spoken about it, we would've found some shared solace. But that's probably also egoism.
I remember the experience much like Michelle described. It felt like my partner could never really understand what I had given her, done for her, by "letting" us move. In one argument I was complaining about the experiences I was having—the feeling of being stalled or even abandoned by academia. I think I was even relitigating the argument/decision that had led to our move. And she said, "What do you want me to say? I GOT you a job." I felt betrayed; she hadn't "gotten" me the job, I thought. I had accepted a lesser option; I had chosen not to pursue the job opportunities that were still open to me. I had not refused her the opportunity for the sake of my own. It took us years to work through the ways I failed to support and celebrate her achievement of securing a tenure-track job and the ways she failed to appreciate the sacrifice I felt I had made. It still hurts and we struggle to support each other's work sometimes, in part because of that.
I don't know if this is news to you. Obviously you both have lived and experienced this. You continue to live and experience it. Sometimes I think it is a product of twenty-first-century elite expectations—that we can and should have everything we can get. That we deserve those things. That two people should be able to reach the stars and that those stars should be in the same constellation.
As you know, we have lucked into what we "deserve." I wonder if we would've found a way to be happy if we hadn't. I think so, but those years were very hard. I don't know that I liked myself enough then to be happy.
Anyway, your eyes are open. You know who you are and where you're going (literally and metaphorically). One day I hope I can visit you in Taiwan.
Jasmine Paul, a former student, on adoption and the challenges of finding heritage:
Michelle, I just wanted to tell you how much your stories and thoughts resonate with me, in ways I’ve never spoken out loud.
I was adopted by a white family, which has always just been a fact of the matter, like being from Michigan, just a part of my story. But lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about how that shaped me and my identity as a Chinese woman with zero Chinese heritage.
My adoption story is similar to a lot of Chinese girls’. We were told that I was left in a public place. I was brought to the police and then was taken care of in an orphanage run by nuns. I was eight months old (based on an estimated date of birth) when I came to the U.S. and was warmly welcomed by all of my family.
When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to go to a group called Families with Children from China (FCC). Some of it was cultural, including a Chinese New Year celebration where we made lanterns and learned about the history and rituals. As we got older, it was more social, just hanging out and doing activities. I stopped going as soon as my parents gave into my pleading. It felt so forced and awkward! I remember thinking, “I can make my own friends, Asian or not! I don’t need Chinese friends just because I’m Chinese.” The only thing I had in common with the girls was that we were adopted, which was not enough to bond me to them.
The part you shared so honestly about dating Asian people also resonated with me. It makes me acknowledge how I’ve never sought to surround myself with Asian/Asian-American community because it never felt relatable or fitting for me. I’ve never felt like delving into Asian literature or culture or history; it feels really forced because I don’t feel like “those are my people” either, even if they biologically are. I still feel really uncomfortable in majority-Asian spaces because I feel like an imposter. You should’ve seen the look on an Asian-American friend's face when I told her that I don’t like boba!
Exploring my Chinese heritage also felt forced because I felt like I was being matched to a culture based on my appearance. It kind of feels like cultural appropriation, which is so bizarre to say. If I were to dress in traditional Chinese clothing or try to speak Mandarin, it would feel just as inappropriate as if I tried to do that with Japanese or Korean or Indian culture. And clearly it’s not due to the lack of my parents' efforts; I always felt that way going to those FCC meetings.
Recently my mom shared that she feels guilty for not trying hard enough to keep me connected to my roots, but I told her that she tried and I resisted. Now that I’m old enough to make my own informed decisions, I still don’t feel that interested in learning more, and now I’m wondering if I’m just perpetuating my own internal racism and xenophobia.
Being adopted adds an extra layer to “exploring heritage” because I feel like there’s a risk that moving more into my Chinese heritage could feel like trying to distance myself from my white family and background. Of course that’s not inherently true. My family has never expressed that to me, but I personally feel like it’s a major thing that would make me feel more distant. Whenever I see stories of adopted kids setting out to find their biological parents, especially in China, I shudder to think about how my parents would feel if I did that. There’s no suppressing a person’s desire to find where they came from, and although my parents would never discourage me, I don’t think I could maintain my current close relationship with them after that journey. People always ask me if I want to meet my “real” parents (which is a terrible way to ask… thanks for using “birth” parents [in previous correspondence]), and I frankly don’t. Not only is it nearly impossible because I was anonymously given up, but I also couldn’t imagine sitting with strangers and an interpreter cracking open an entire other life of mine that I was unaware of for 23+ years. There’s no turning back after something like that.
Lastly, there’s a whole other framework we could talk about of transnational adoptions being a form of imperialism and the harms of forced assimilation. That’s a really intense conversation and a highly sensitive one when it involves parents and children. It’s something I’ve heard that I don’t relate to on a personal level, even if I can understand on a theoretical level.
Reading your nuanced, vulnerable reflections makes me feel more comfortable in the limbo space of trying to figure it all out. I just wanted to thank you for sharing and to tell you that your newsletters are very moving.
Jasmine also wanted to mention that she would love to connect with any adoptees who are reading. Feel free to reach out to her or e-mail us so that we can also connect you directly.
This is such a lovely essay and that feeling of return as failure is something that I think so many immigrant children feel as well. I used to feel anxious even when we were to visit home, as if I was going to be trapped there and never allowed to leave again. But I think there's so much strength in embracing the places one's family is from, and doing away with that idea of assimilation as success. The last few years I've actually been telling my parents that once they retire they need to go home as well. In the U.S., there's so much pressure for them to be American externally and internally, and I would like for them to at least have some time to be in comfort and that very specific happiness of being at home again.
I think my dad is dying to go back home. I've told my older brother that my dad belongs in our village: it's when he comes alive and is at his happiest. Here in America, he's so burdened by the work he has to do to provide, and by being isolated from most of our family and his role as a community leader. He's practically an extension of our village and you can visibly see the loneliness when he's here.
Albert’s old classmate who grew up in Taiwan, on identity and mythology:
Like many others, I found the last two letters to be particularly poignant. I, of course, can easily identify with Albert, but I see in Michelle (and in your marriage) some of the same themes that [my partner] and I have as an Asian-American and Asian.
Identity is a strange thing. A few years ago, I discovered my barber was an avid Red Sox fan. She could relate, at length, the various merits of each member of the bullpen, and give assessments of recent and upcoming games. At some point in the conversation, she revealed that she had never lived in Boston, and had never visited Fenway Park. Her allegiance was entirely inherited from her parents. And I thought—if she ever visited Fenway, would she be thrilled, or disappointed? Fenway is an old building, made from rusting steel girders and fading painted wood. The seats are hard and uncomfortable. The concrete floors are grimy and interspersed with mysterious puddles of liquid. Would reality match her imagination? Never meet your heroes, as they say.
Taiwan, perhaps, is my Fenway Park. A superposition of my imagination, a projection of my desires, as well as a real place of flesh and blood, wood and steel. The Taiwan of today is not the Taiwan of my childhood, nor is it the Taiwan I currently imagine it to be as I sit here in the United States. Taiwan changes and grows independently of my existence, and every time I return I am slightly sad at Taiwan's indifference to me, and slightly embarrassed by my narcissistic presumption that it could be otherwise. Our school has changed its name, various favorite hangouts have been bulldozed and rebuilt, and my favorite noodle place has changed ownership. But even so, my unreciprocated love for Taiwan is real, and I am envious of the opportunity you have, with Phoebe, to build a life in Taiwan.
Like Albert, I have been spared the need to be accepted, to be seen, in some platonic metaphysical sense, as an American. I am Asian by ancestry, American by legal status. What more is there to say? Like Michelle's friend from Ghana, I don't particularly mind being asked where I am from. The idea of Taiwan, Taiwan as home, provides psychological ballast. Taiwan—the place of long autumn bike rides at sunset, moments of refuge at a manga cafe when I should be studying, fried chicken cutlets the size of my face—how much of it is actually Taiwan? How much is mere memory, nostalgia, and sentimentality? And if it ever was real, how much of it is still real? And, to strike at the heart of the issue, how Taiwanese am I, really? Do Taiwanese locals consider me a fellow Taiwanese, or just an overeager and slightly lost Asian American that somehow washed ashore? I think my mind has played a well-meaning trick on me. In America, I can always rely on an unchallenged Taiwanese identity. In Taiwan, I can always rely on an unchallenged American identity. My identity, then, is synthetic, situational, and slightly illusory.
I believe the Asian American identity is also a synthetic one, situated, as Michelle notes, on a narrative of assimilation. Those who are less assimilated are fresh-off-the-boat, those who are more assimilated are deracinated or whitewashed, and anyone who is just like me is a perfectly balanced Goldilocks blend.
But what of those losers who go back to Asia? They threaten the Asian American identity in two ways. First, they suggest that the assimilation narrative is not inevitable, and doesn't always terminate in a blissful state of acceptance as an American. Secondly, they suggest that the final prize—being American—perhaps isn't really worth pursuing. Since neither of those things could possibly be true, they must be losers who simply gave up. Of course, this flies in the face of observed reality. The sleek skylines of East Asia are now host to equal, if not greater, capitalistic ferocity and dynamism. In the past decade or so, it seems to me, the lines have crossed. Where, exactly, is the third world these days? Just who, exactly, are the losers these days?
If identity is synthetic, how can we synthesize a useful identity? A healthier strategy, it seems, is to base your identity on smaller, more concrete sources of meaning. Make your identity small, and make it real. For example, one facet of my identity is as the parent and guardian of my children, and they affirm that identity, perhaps more frequently than I'd like, by crying out for my presence in the face of nighttime terrors. A smaller identity is also a more flexible and confident one. There is less to defend, less to be threatened. To Taiwanese, I am not quite Taiwanese. To Americans, I am not quite American. (And what does it even mean to be American anymore?) My existence is defined more locally, enmeshed in relationships and communities. To call Taiwan or America home is merely an exercise in self-deception, but to call my family and my community home is an exhortation to action, to live in a grounded reality, rather than nostalgia or abstraction.
Addendum: I agree with Michelle that the next generation of Asian Americans, the Gen Z-ers, do very well in this regard. In response to the dissolution of larger group identities into meaninglessness, and the rise of the à la carte, digitized self, they are constructing far more agile, tactical, and pragmatic identities. I wish them good luck.
A reader who was born in the U.S., migrated to her parents’ native India at a young age, and returned for college, on finding the right questions to ask:
I was really moved and provoked (in a good way) by what Albert wrote—I envy his clarity in his identity as Taiwanese and the fact that his work is about the place where he’s from. I’ve often wished I had a professional reason to be in India, a link like that that gave me a “good reason” to go home. It’s funny because my parents did go back, after over a decade in the U.S., but for them too the vehicle for it was professional: deciding to start an eye hospital back in India. And I think they never lost the sense that living in the U.S. was an incredible opportunity and that having a connection to it (and, in their kids’ cases, U.S. citizenship) was important and would shape who we were and what the trajectory of our lives would be; my father always referred to me as an American, even though we moved to Hyderabad when I was five.
My parents and I didn’t have an intellectual framework through which we could view our experience of the U.S., our return to India, or my brother’s and my adulthood largely spent in the U.S. (I’ve moved back twice, after college and after law school, for a year or two at a time). I think it’s something I’m trying to build for myself now, but sometimes it feels like such an ungainly, hard-to-package set of questions and experiences that I don’t quite know how to even wrap my arms around. But maybe that’s been part of what’s made it difficult—seeing it as strange when really it’s common, and a zigzagging between places that many people experience.
The road is harder, as we know, but more interesting and we are fuller for it. But it is hard, starting anew.
I think you two are showing up just in time for Taiwan. All the social justice issues you write about are just as relevant in Taiwan as they are in the U.S. or France. International audiences need to understand the uniqueness of Taiwan, and Albert and you can be two more bridges across this divide.
I think about the courage of one of my favourite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, who is perhaps best known commercially for Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. Both are great reads, and that is how I got to know her as an author. But what really makes me in awe of her as an author, as a person, is that she started writing in Italian. Having had no connection to Italy or Italian, she admitted that this was perhaps irrational, but that she was driven by this urge to master this new language with an intensity that she did not quite completely understand. (Good link here for background.)
But she stayed with it, and released her first book in Italian, In altre parole, in 2015. She described learning Italian with this beautiful analogy of learning to swim, yet holding to the edge for safety, and then at one point we have to let go and swim and leave behind the safety of what we know. I often think back to this image and think of her. How much courage it took for an established writer to completely let go of the familiar language and embark on writing in another, like a child, and all the foreignness that brings. For her to be that vulnerable, yet continue to learn from the beginning, essentially, starting anew and letting go of our mental scaffolding. I recently read that Lahiri has not only continued to release more writing in Italian, but is now translating Italian literary works into English. I really admire people like Lahiri and the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is classically trained, yet collaborates with musicians from a wide breadth of musical genres: folk, tango, Brazilian music, music of the Silk Road, etc. I love these crossovers, lettings-go of perceived notions and rebuilding, because they reflect us as people: we grow and are layered by the people we meet and the experiences we form. Starting anew is harder because we walk like unsteady toddlers. We will fall flat on our face while everyone is running without breaking a sweat, but what a gift it is to see the world again, fresh- and rosy-eyed, like a young child!!
P.S. One of my all-time favorites, especially during times of disquiet, like this past year. I have listened to it many times this past year, and each time it has brought me calm.
Kim Tang, a reader from Australia, on not having it all:
In your last two posts, you have touched many topics under the subheading of moving to Taiwan. It is difficult to respond to all of the subtopics you have touched, but I think what struck me the most is about "not having it all."
Personally I think having it all is a trap that keeps people constantly comparing themselves with others, seeing the glass half full, and depreciating themselves and others. Maybe we all have grown up with a fantasy that a good life should be having it all. A happy person has it all. But this subconscious expectation abstracts us from what is already given us as a blessing and drives us further away from a good life and real life.
One and a half years ago, I spent a semester taking a postgraduate course with a very obscure name: "New Debate of Social Theory." But in essence, in my understanding, it was social development in the past two to three hundred years through the lens of personal life. In every class, we would have a topic to prepare, read, write, and discuss. Throughout the whole semester, we touched on religion, spirituality, emotion, friendship, intimacy, happiness and personal fulfillment, marriage (a bit about migration too), public life, professional life and women at work, etc. It was a feminine kind of study. During the whole semester, like my other classmates, I wished to gain some wisdom from this macro landscape of human efforts for a better life, to know how to live life better so I would be happier. My personal opinion is that, whenever we want to change the outside world it is because we want our inner self to feel better. I finished this course without a renewed sense of happiness but overwhelmed by the history of human effort. I did not see happiness in the history, just changes and adaptations and so on and so forth. Neither did I see perfection and having it all.
I guess what I am trying to say to you, and also to remind myself, is not to ask for it all, and not to try to be perfect. No matter how exceptional a person or circumstance is, it is good to remind ourselves that good enough is good enough. It does not need to be perfect.
A reader who was born and raised in Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. for college, on having a military partner, being uprooted every few years, and choosing a relationship that “is worth it”:
Since we've met, I've made compromises for partnership and parenthood, compromises that I have not come to fully accept long after I made them. I relate to many things you said in your newsletter, including about moving and about going full circle and making home with someone of your parents' heritage, having never seen it coming. Years earlier, I had often avoided dating Asian people. My partner now is a Vietnamese American member of the U.S. Army, who never wants to go back to Vietnam, the country his family fled from, the same country I dream about.
Being a military partner, I struggle with the prospect of uprooting every few years, of not knowing how much to invest in my current situation professionally and socially, of not having control over the placement, and of hating that it appears that I am moving for someone else instead of the other way round.
And yet the relationship is worth it and there exists no unequal power dynamic that would have made such compromises problematic. In other words, I choose to be with this person, to move, to bend my career out of shape temporarily, and I know for certain (but do not expect or mandate) that he will do the same for me once he gets out of the army. While I make these accommodations, it's important for me to feel in control, independent, and empowered. Maybe I'm projecting, but I see a lot of parallels with the struggle you described in your newsletter this week.
Jack Yin, on code-switching and existing in a global world:
Seeing you two navigate the dislocation of being an immigrant and being American is just so reassuring. I do have this sense of being a highly proficient code- switcher —able to pass as American, able to pass as a good son, and trying to learn Chinese so that I would be able to pass as Chinese. Hearing you articulate the questions and dilemmas around trying to exist in a globalized world—but still wanting to belong to a real and genuine community—makes me feel less alone, even if the specifics are different.
For my own part, I've been embarking on my own journey of trying to translate my grandfather's diaries from Chinese to English. My Chinese was terrible when he was alive so I never actually got to see the full person that I'm seeing in the diary. I’d started it in the beginning of the pandemic as a way to cope with being split from the rest of my family. But it hasn't really bridged anything with them, I don't think—it's just created a strange new relationship with this ghost of my grandpa.
I have consistently fantasized about moving to Taiwan or China, but most of my closest family is on the East Coast with me. My parents' stories about China are always ones of trauma. Regardless of how I build a community in the end, I know that being close to them will still be the core.
Vicky Gu, a writer, on learning how to give up the weight of others’ expectations:
While I'm in a different life stage (un-partnered person in my twenties in NYC), so much of what you wrestle with rings true for me. I'm the first in my family to be born in the states and come from a lineage of grit, as many of us do: parents who endured an authoritarian regime, put everything on the line to work and raise their children in a new country, and hope to see their kids ascend through the traditional ladders of "the good life."
Alas, I lack the society-approved pedigree of glamorous work history. I have a deep drive, but it's not a conventional one. I have skills and talents, but they're not intergenerationally translatable (as seen through my futile efforts to explain the digital industries to my parents in Chinese). I'm not in a hurry to find a partner. There is so much for which I will never be enough—to my parents, to our societies and communities—that I immediately resonated with Michelle's question: Whom exactly am I trying to prove myself to?
As you spoke to it, I think living abroad—thrown under wave after wave of new context and framework—frees us from the weight of answering that. Michelle, your path is so beautiful, strange, and fascinating. It's a reminder to us that the more challenging our labor, the more complex our fruit will be, in both hardiness and flavor.
Cyrus Habib, the aforementioned former lieutenant governor Albert referred to (and now studying to become a Jesuit priest), sends heartening wishes:
Albert, I really enjoyed your reflection, even though you demoted me from State Senator to City Councilmember (but thanks for the shoutout!). But more seriously, what a beautiful way to share about marriage and sacrifice and love and freedom all at once. Very powerful and encouraging, I’m sure, to people balancing similar dynamics. You two have been in my prayers as you make the transition.
Chuck Witschorik, one who was of the two pastors who presided our wedding, on lasting connections:
Reading both of your reflections was a moving testimony to the love you share and continue to cultivate together, which I had the deep honor to help witness and bless at your wedding. You both are truly dear to me and Adolfo and we hope that we are able to connect again in person sometime before too long, either in Taiwan or in California.
We cherish this interview between Jack Jung and his mother, Susan Jung, a nurse from Korea who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. Susan talks to her son about the challenges of her work, the comforts of literature, and the impossibility of ever really going home. “At some point I will retire,” she says. “And I think I will want to live for myself.” (If you missed our interview with Jack about translating Yi Sang, it’s here.)
The New York Times has two remarkable pieces on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Read Caleb Gayle's moving and deeply reported piece on history, memory, trauma, and the enduring struggles of Black Tulsans. And check out this powerful visualization of Greenwood, district of Tulsa, also known as “Black Wall Street,” where you can see the prosperity of this neighborhood and haunting archival photographs that demonstrate the extent of the devastation wrought by the mobs.
Next Book Club: Paradise Lost, Friday, June 25th at 3 PM ET.
We had so much fun in our last conversation! Special shout-out to the Milton lover who joined us from Kuala Lumpur (at 3 AM, no less!). We’re excited to continue reading Paradise Lost and focus on Eve. For the newcomers, that means Books 4, 8, 9. (Optional lines from Book 3, if you want to hear God explain himself: 80 to 216.) Of course please come even if you haven’t read. We also recommend the Simon Vance audiobook reading of Paradise Lost.
As always, we welcome your reactions or impressions at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.