Au revoir

It took three months from the date of my divorce for me to find out about it.

Having resigned to part ways in as good-natured a way as possible, Z and I had decided that lawyers would be unnecessary to the process. We DIYed the divorce with as much aplomb as one might’ve planned a wedding: we smothered our coffee table with stacks of forms and divided our possessions with an unerring eye for detail (e.g., Z kept our roll of stamps, while I pocketed our A4 envelopes).

Z also got first pick of any books I left behind. (Plus, I generously offered him my rubber duck collection.)

I also let Z have first pick of any books I didn’t feel like taking. (For some reason, he declined my rubber duck collection though.)

When time came to file, I swept our forms into a folder and took one Forever stamp (oh, the irony) from our his roll with me to the courthouse. The instructions had insisted on the necessity of this stamp as, once the divorce went through, the court was supposed to mail us a postcard saying “Congratulations! You’re divorced.”

Once I got to the court, however, I was informed no such postcard would be sent. The State had finally discovered the internet and would be e-mailing me instead.

As I slid the stamp back into my purse, the irreparably jaded civil servant asked if I had any questions. Almost as an afterthought, I asked how long it would take.

“About six months,” he replied, then paused. Scrutinizing me, he added, “Why — you in a rush to marry someone else?”


After filing in January, Z and I began slowly disentangling our lives.

In August, I finished up my Master’s degree and flew to France for a wedding. Being in the country without Z felt both strange and liberating. (Strange because my relationship with Z had comprised so much of my initial Francophilia. Liberating because I finally realized I could enjoy the country independently.)

Upon my return, I landed a job at a university in Boston. With a deadline to move out of  state, I grew increasingly concerned about our lack of a “Congratulations! You’re divorced” e-mail.

So I logged into the court’s website to check the status of our case. (I’d checked the site every couple of weeks, but it’d always said our case was in queue.)

Now? The case status read one mysterious word …




I had no idea what that meant, especially since we hadn’t received any notifications from the court.

Had we fumbled the paperwork so badly the entire case got thrown out?

Perhaps our assigned judge had passed away or been fired (“deceased” + “deposed” = “disposed,” I guess?).

Or was this the last step before a decision was made? (Possibly the judge had been indisposed before, but was now “disposed” and ready to review our case.)

I knew I wouldn’t get any answers by staring at the court’s website, which looked like it’d been built on the Geocities platform of the late ’90s. With much sighing and muttering of anarchist screeds (why does the State have such a huge say in our personal lives anyway?), I dragged myself to the courthouse again.


That was how I found out I’d been divorced for months.

Even now that I’m living and working in Boston, Z and I keep in occasional touch. Though our relationship didn’t work out, I don’t regret the memorable chunk of my life it spanned (for what it’s worth, I decided not to change my name back).

Still, I’m moving on — exploring Boston, practicing yoga, and teaching myself Spanish. As part of that onward movement, I’m veering away from blogging to devote myself to other writing projects.

For those who have followed over the years, thank you for taking an interest in my misadventures on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope you’ve been tickled by my journey from bumbling expat to femme fatale (divorcées are necessarily femme fatales, right? — or is that widows?).

Either way, I love playing to type.

Either way, I love playing to type.

This is not goodbye (a word whose etymology stems from”God be with you,” and which I’ve always found needlessly grim). Rather, I’d say au revoir — “to the seeing again.”

I know I have more to live. Someday, I’ll have more to share.


My Grandfather Left Me This

For a long time after my parents and I, at the age of six, immigrated to the United States, I tried to hide the fact that I was poor and foreign. Then, for a long time after that, I tried to hide the fact that I had been poor and foreign.

First, I learned English.

I read the dead white guys. Then, the dead white females. Then, the living white folks. Finally – when they started appearing in the curricula – I knew it was okay to read some people of color.

Second, I learned to cultivate an appreciation of slow, beautiful Criterion Collection films. I couldn’t always make heads or tails of them, but I learned enough to start awake at the end of a Tarkovsky feature and admire its “dream-like quality.”

Third, I studied French in school. I studied French because I had heard that Spanish was practical. I studied French because – it, unlike the language of my parents which I had also pointedly neglected to study – was, by implication, impractical.

And “practical” was the last thing I wanted; I’d had quite enough of being “practical.”


“Practical” was owning one pair of overalls and learning to wear it several different ways (legs cuffed, legs uncuffed, torso visible, torso covered) to fool my primary school classmates into thinking I owned several pairs of jeans.

“Practical” was walking down the highway, bags of groceries in tow.

“Practical” was knowing that the first stuffed animal my parents bought me in the US cost $9.99 – not $19.99, the price they thought they’d heard before I clarified and translated for them – and naming that stuffed animal “poor little piggy” because it wasn’t worth more and we weren’t worth more.

“Practical” was subsequently directing my gaze away from any and all toy stores, so my parents wouldn’t realize that I liked toys.


What I didn’t realize as I watched and read and studied was that I was instinctively accumulating what philosopher Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” Writing in 1986, Bourdieu explained that cultural capital was distinct from economic and social capital, but could nonetheless be converted into $$$ under the right conditions.

Those conditions essentially shaped my family’s immigration experience, though I wouldn’t realize that until much later. Instead, I would grow up with a hard faith in meritocracy, bolstered by the idea that my family ascended into the middle class after “starting with nothing.”


My grandparents, too, had “had nothing.”

A picture of me with my grandfather, taken during a visit to China. He passed away in 2014.

Me with my grandfather, taken during a visit to China.

For as long as I could remember, my grandparents lived in a bare-bones apartment provided by the Chinese college at which my grandfather taught. In it, worn and mismatched furniture rested directly on top of an unfinished, concrete floor. A cockroach or two was always running underfoot or along a wall. And, much to my chagrin during visits, the bathroom was not equipped with a Western-style flush toilet.

These observations – together with my grandmother’s unembarrassed boasts that their most prized possessions were a couple of Soviet Era spoons – led me to believe they were poor as well. My grandfather was supposedly a respected art history professor, but his position had not visibly elevated their or my parents’ lifestyles.

Thus, I would not think to credit him with my parents’ and my eventual success as immigrants to the US. At least, not for a very long while.


By 2008, I was a sophomore at an Ivy League university. My parents were not only financially comfortable but determined that I graduate with minimal loans. I was unbelievably fortunate, incredibly privileged, but still, I felt out of place. Whether it was the knowledge that I was receiving significant financial aid or the fact that I was encountering new Western foods for the first time in the dining halls — I somehow felt distanced from my even more privileged peers.

I could count on one hand (without using all five fingers) the number of friends I had made. My grades were mediocre, no professors knew my name, and I was not particularly active in any clubs. In short, I was convinced I did not belong. Sure, admissions had squeezed me in from the bottom of the wait-list, but I was clearly out of my depth.

Then, one day, my father came to visit me.

As I showed him around campus and we neared the main library, my father was suddenly struck with an idea. “Hey, why don’t we see if the library carries your grandfather’s books?”

My brow shot up as I immediately rejected his proposal. How could the work of my grandfather be housed so far way, in such a select institution? Still, my father persisted. (“Let’s just take a look, okay?”)

So I went to a computer, translated my grandfather’s name into the Roman alphabet, and hit “search by author.”

There it was.

My grandfather's book (at the right) on the shelf of my university library

My grandfather’s book at the right.


The revelation upended how I saw myself in relation to my university and my peers, as well as how I saw my family’s socioeconomic status in the US. Somehow, we had not coming “from nothing.” Somehow, my grandfather had made it to the Ivy League before I did.

Later, I would also learn that my grandfather had had a hand in my parents obtaining visas for the US. In order to be approved, they’d had to show that they possessed a requisite amount of money to support themselves. When they came up short, my grandfather borrowed from an American colleague in the art history department at Rutgers. Thus, he took the only thing he had of value – cultural capital – and converted it into economic capital for my parents.


My grandfather passed away in 2014.

One of my favorite pictures of him, in his later years.

One of my favorite pictures of him.

Here is a list of what he left me.

First, a love of art and scholarship, beautiful and difficult things.

Second, an understanding of my significant class privilege and a resolve to be kinder, more generous, more human.

Third, a book in a library, penned in a language that I can’t read. Nonetheless, I immediately saw within it the words “You belong.”

Why I took my French husband’s last name

March being Women’s History Month and Women’s Day having just passed, I thought I’d respond to a question I’ve been asked a few times since my marriage.

If I didn’t live in New York City, epicenter of heathens, my decision to take my husband’s last name may well have gone unnoticed. As it is, my location and my female peer group – many of whom married and kept their last names – both rendered my choice more visible and my motivation less obvious.

The truth is, for a feminist who condemned the obstacles facing French men who want to take their wives’ last names, I didn’t hesitate for a second to go down the path of “tradition.” That isn’t to say I didn’t understand arguments against the practice; rather, my personal reasons for changing my name just seemed more compelling.

Normally, I'm all for disrupting gender roles though.

Normally, I’m all for disrupting gender roles though.


Reason #1: Not my circus, not my monkeys

Funnily enough, my so-called traditional choice had nothing to do with either my or Z’s cultural traditions. Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last names upon marriage, and – legally – French women always keep their maiden names (though they may use their husband’s last name socially, if they want to).

This is an important point, because it means I actually broke tradition with my choice. So while some feminists argue a name change signifies the surrender of personal identity — I felt the decision only magnified my individual agency.


Reason #2: The center *can* hold

However, my heritage did play a role in the decision-making process. I considered that, unlike many Chinese-Americans, I have a Chinese middle name aside from an English first name. This stroke of luck freed me to make my choice without completely erasing my heritage. Had that not been the case, the calculus would have been different.


Reason #3: A psychic vision from childhood

This is probably the creepiest and least comprehensible reason for my name change. As a fifth grader, I was given a school project to design a heraldic coat of arms reflecting my interests and ethnicity.

Unsurprisingly, I drew books and horses to represent my hobbies (yeah, I’m basically Tina Belcher).

Very surprisingly, I drew a Chinese flag and a French flag to represent my ethnicity.

The project was completed before I ever stepped foot inside a French class or even formally learned about the country. So imagine my shock when I unearthed it after Z and I had already been together a number of years….

*Cue X-Files music*


Reason #4: Say my name, say my name

In the Bible, there’s this riveting story about how one tribe tested if others were from the same tribe by forcing them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.”As a result, “shibboleth” came to mean any word used to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

When I was a kid, I wanted a totally easy, “American” name. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see my (now English-Chinese-French) name as a sort of shibboleth — one that only those closest to me would know how to pronounce.

(Sorry for the self-indulgence. I’m not even a special snowflake, just an average one).


Reason #5: Kick ass, take names

What can be more feminist than kicking ass and taking names? Literally taking names?!

I just take and take and take -- YAAAARGH!

I just take and take and take — YAAAARGH!


So maybe my decision-making process was a little more overwrought than I first suggested. Ultimately, though, people choose to take a spouse’s last name (or to hyphenate, or to create a new family name) for completely personal, inscrutable reasons. While I would encourage anyone approaching the altar to give it some thought, in my book, there is no single, “feminist” answer.


“Follow Your Passion”: Yay or Nay?

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind. Somehow, I – notorious dilettante and former student of eleven academic departments – am teaching a course this semester on exploring careers and selecting majors for undecided freshmen and sophomores.


Should I upload this selfie onto the Blackboard site?

And I’m concerned. Not because the syllabus needs retouching or I’m having trouble deciding which pirate version of the Myers-Briggs to administer (for what it’s worth, I’m also eyeing Buzzfeed’s “What Should Your College Major Be Based On Your Food Choices” quiz) — rather, I’m concerned about my somewhat embarrassing buy-in to that largely debunked dictum: follow your passion.

Google the phrase “follow your passion” and you’ll be swamped with results detailing why that all-pervasive piece of advice is worthless. Also, having read and critiqued career counseling theories as part of my Masters program, I get why the idea is not good counsel.

For one, self-actualization is at the tippy top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is no question that following your passion requires a significant amount of privilege — most people prefer having access to food, water, and shelter first.

Then, there’s the argument that the advice assumes and perpetuates a Western, individualist mindset.  What about international students and other students with ethnic ties to collectivist cultures, who might legitimately prefer pursuing majors/careers which please and provide for their families?

Finally, millennials have mostly wised up (albeit resentfully) to the reality that you can’t “just get a job” with any degree anymore. Hence the jokes about liberal arts majors. (How do you get a liberal arts graduate off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.)

This "millenial falcon" is a little angry. Source

This “millennial falcon” is a little bitter. Source

Still, I cling to a deep-seated optimism about studying and pursuing what one enjoys. I understand that this perspective is a function of my privilege, but it’s also informed by my experience double majoring in a subject I love (French, deemed utterly useless) and a subject I tolerated (economics, for the sake of employability).

Five-and-a-half years later, I can barely read a supply and demand graph, whereas studying French has proven practical in ways I could never have imagined. Broadly, the subject led me to the field of international education, and I owe innumerable professional and personal contacts to a common “French connection.”

So. A part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and urge these impressionable youths to study sculpture, or philosophy, or ancient Greek — whatever fills their hearts or thrills their minds. But the last thing I want is for my propensity to romanticize to blow up in my face (or worse, in the faces of my students).

A book, wine, and cigarettes

E.g., I set up this romanticized tableau my last week in Paris. The smoke blew back in my face, and I ended up giving away the cigarettes.

Consequently, I’ll do my level best to keep my own thoughts out of the matter. After all, I’m also a believer in another cliché: that education is more about asking questions than obtaining answers. Sure, I’ll point my students to the relevant resources and theories and assessments. But it may take them a while to find their academic or professional footing, and that’s truly, deeply okay.

(In any case, for those in a rush, the Buzzfeed quiz can be done within minutes.)


What do you think of the advice to follow your passion? Let me know!


Being Careful

The day after the election, my dad called. First he asked my plans for my birthday, then he confirmed that I’d seen the results.

“Be careful,” he warned in heavily accented English (a freelancer who works in near-isolation, he likes to conduct our conversations exclusively in his second tongue) — “Don’t walk home alone after dark.”

I grunted assent without telling him that my classes frequently ended around 9PM, and I usually got home after 10. I also didn’t tell him that two weeks earlier, a car had pulled up next to me during my walk home; the men inside had shouted “Don’t worry miss, we won’t run you over!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Because of my omission, I wouldn’t have had to reassure him that I knew how to walk home alone after dark. I wouldn’t have had to list my defensive measures: thumb on the pepper spray, keys spiked between my knuckles, safety app open on my phone.

I wouldn’t have had to wonder if the incident recalled to him another incident, a car that slowed near us one night when I was six and we had just immigrated to the United States. That time, the men had shouted repeatedly “Go back to China!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Then, I wouldn’t have had to speculate if that reminded him of the civic association in the same town, where he had taken ESL classes for a year. After we moved away, a gunman had stormed the building during citizenship classes, killing 13 and wounding 4.

(It later turned out that the gunman was a Vietnamese immigrant himself. The shooting was – for a while – the nation’s deadliest since Seung-Hui Cho’s spree at Virginia Tech.)

Perhaps my dad understood at a more visceral level than I did the precariousness of being an immigrant in America. As I was growing up, he frequently recounted interactions he’d had with strangers, prompting me to answer the desperate question, “Do you think they were racist?”

And – in fear and frustration, wanting to believe that this country belonged to us too, wanting to protect my dad with my adolescent levity, not knowing about microaggressions, not knowing about otherness, not wanting him to be provoked, not wanting him to be bodily harmed, not wanting him to be sad or mad, not wanting us to be Chinese or at least visibly Chinese – I’d always said, “no.”


Old habits die hard.

Last night, my dad called me with an “English question.”

He had driven to his storage unit, he said, in a gated area that requires a pin number for entry. As he pulled up, the gate had opened and another car had pulled out. When my dad drove through – without punching the number – the men in the other vehicle had cried, “Hey! You’re sneaking in.”

His first question was: “How do you spell ‘sneak’?”

His second question was: “Do you think they were bad men?”

My heart sank. I fumed that his English was so poor after all this time. I fumed at his crudely phrased question. I fumed that he hadn’t known how to respond. I fumed that I didn’t know how to respond.

So I told him they were joking. I insisted that it was harmless. I chided him for reading too much into a meaningless situation …

Then I texted him:


Be careful.”

Statue of Liberty in Gray

Photo credit: Z

The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.


I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.


I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.


The perfect is the enemy of the good. (But why can’t we all be friends?)

When I stepped into the elevator, the floors lit up, seemingly at random.

Ten. Three. Six.

The elevator rose, then fell. Rose, then fell.

Fourteen. Two. Five.

What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to get off?


I recently finished the first semester of a Masters program in Higher Education Administration. Although my grades were irreproachable, I was plagued by the stress dreams typical of all my years of schooling. Obvious metaphors of flailing and failing unfolded nightly in my mind’s eye. Why? I wondered. Why was I still so concerned about achieving impeccable grades when – as an adult and a professional – I should have been content with simply acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for my career?

My first instinct was to hold my upbringing responsible. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed reams of articles connecting Asian cultures with perfectionist tendencies. I also thought back to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which describes the author’s brutal tactics to mold her daughters into star students and master musicians.

When I compare what I have read with my own experiences, certain themes do ring true. For instance, the notion that parents should ensure their children’s excellence in academics and extracurriculars is simply a given for most Chinese-American families. Even my slightly unconventional parents could not escape this larger cultural imperative. Although they allowed me a positively slothful childhood compared to Amy Chua’s daughters, it did take me a while to realize most moms and dads did not grade their kindergartener’s drawings.

Yueyue Drawing 2-2

At least I got a 95 on this one.

But frankly, something about that narrative of the hawkish, Asian parents has always felt off to me. I rarely believed that my parents were truly cracking the whip. There was something perfunctory about the way they acknowledged my grades (celebrated or scolded my performance) which suggested that, deep down, they knew none of it mattered.


It mattered to me.

A-sians not B-sians

This fantastic meme describes my inner voice more than my actual parents. Source

Grades represented a tried and true avenue of approval. And approval was important for a morose child who recoiled in suspicion from the greetings of friendly classmates.

Grades were a comforting, top-down source of order. And I found order welcome after having moved homes every few years for as long as I could remember.

At my core, I must have craved the rigidity of neat categorizations. I must have clung to the idea that one’s identity could be defined through them. You could be a certain letter grade student, or you could be sorted into one of four houses at Hogwarts. Nowadays, I suppose you could also belong to one of five factions in the world of Divergent or one of thirteen districts in The Hunger Games.


The issue has always been that a part of me resents this rigidity of spirit.

That’s the part responsible for my ongoing appreciation of Young Adult fiction, in which authoritarian categorizers are consistently overthrown.

bow and arrow

I would definitely offer up my archery skills for the revolution. Now, how do you aim this thing?

These days, I’m convinced that perfectionism holds me back both professionally and as a student. The anxiety I feel over routine challenges burns me out too easily.

Meanwhile, I admire those who by nature or nurture are free of this maddening trait. I stand in awe of “big picture” types and people who simply get things done without fuss (or stress dreams).

… How do they – or you – do it?

… Do you believe perfectionism is cultural?

… Is “the perfect the enemy of the good” as they say?

And if so, why can’t we all be friends? (Tell me.)