a new chapter

I’m about to move again, and I haven’t worked out how I feel about it yet (delayed emotions, anyone?).

I do know that nostalgia was hovering over my shoulder for a good portion of this week, though. The result was an extended session of #ThrowbackThursday (#TBT for all you cool kids), involving lots of scrolling through old Facebook pictures. So much has changed over the past few years that I often catch myself wishing, just a little, that I could re-visit certain periods of my life. Sometimes I think that nostalgia is actually a coping mechanism for moments of uncertainty about the future, but that’s another blog post altogether.

I remember a conversation with a mentor during my freshman year of college. I was overwhelmed and adjusting to all the differences college life presents – no AP or IB class prepares you for those – and in the midst of everything, I admitted to her, “I just wish I could feel settled in life.” She laughed kindly and said, “To be honest, I don’t think most people feel settled until their 30s.” That was not quite the answer I wanted to hear; twelve years is a long time to wait for anything when you’re only 18. These days, though, I see the truth in her words, and I’m ok with it.

There is something to be said for the semi-migratory life, even though it can be hard to leave behind family, friends, and old haunts. I don’t mean that each move is a new adventure, although it is. I mean that when you’re really familiar with what it’s like to be an outsider, to be “that new person,” it can help you become much more aware of other people who may feel lonely or homesick or unheard. You learn that good friends can come from anywhere, that struggling through tough situations with people draws you closer, and that some of the best friendships begin when you step outside of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to that person you’ve walked past dozens of times but with whom you’ve never had the occasion to chat.

Here’s to a new chapter.


Chimney Rock Park, North Carolina


In this season of transition and all its companions – worry, impatience, doubt, etc. – I’ve sometimes found joy a hard thing to grasp. But tonight, I was reminded of why I love being part of a university and living in a college town.

Tonight, I sat around a dinner table with a married couple from mainland China, a young woman from Taiwan, and another young woman from Brazil. It was just another Saturday night, with no special occasion to celebrate and nothing more to inspire a gathering than hospitality and friendship (and the promise of hotpot!). We spent at least half an hour on Google Maps’ Street View, showing each other the neighborhoods where we grew up, the cities where we went to school, the places from which our families emigrated. We talked about everything from strange dreams to border security, with a healthy serving of religion and politics thrown in. And all the while, there was much food and laughter to go around.

It’s in these moments where I feel incredibly glad to be alive. Minds open up when we connect across boundaries of culture and differences in experience and thought, and homesick hearts find comfort when invited to share a homemade meal, but there’s also a wonder and joy that I’m not sure how to explain. It’s almost like…this is how it’s supposed to be. This feels like home.

Which is ironic, given that this city is not really home to any of us, at least not in the long-term view of things. Such is life for many in today’s world, I guess. The semi-migratory life is becoming more and more common as globalization progresses.

Still, I wonder if this is a little taste of what heaven is like. People from all walks of life and every corner of world, sharing a meal – except in heaven perhaps it’ll be more of a spiritual “meal,” finding complete satisfaction in the presence of God – and being really, incredibly glad. Heaven often seems so far – but occasionally a small ray of light seems to shine through, and I’m so thankful it did tonight, because it was very much needed.



This isn’t my usual flavor of post, since I usually try to be optimistic and hopeful and generally just not a killjoy (at least in public…haha). However, we do live in a imperfect world, so I think there’s room for going against the grain sometimes!

It looks like there’s been a growing movement to display positive, feel-good messages in public places. A few weeks ago, I was driving down Lake Shore Drive (endearingly referred to as “LSD” by locals) towards the University of Chicago when I saw what appeared to be a giant wooden tag with the words “you are beautiful” carved into the front (see here). Just today, I was on my way back from the post office when I saw this sprayed onto the sidewalk:

And apparently, so Google tells me, there are actual groups whose missions include posting these sorts of messages in public spaces. For example, The Joy Team posts inspirational tag lines on billboards, while Operation Beautiful puts up affirming messages just about anywhere where people might see them, from bathroom mirrors to car windshields.

I have to admit, a small part of me is actually a little annoyed when I see these messages. Don’t get me wrong – I think they’re about 10 million times better than what’s normally graffitied on city sidewalks and walls. And if someone’s day or week is made better because of a positive message, then I’m glad it’s there. However, I can’t help feeling that they can come across as trite to someone who is going through deep sorrow or suffering. I can’t speak for how others would feel, but I’d imagine that if I was in a season of depression, seeing something like “smile” or “you’re awesome” wouldn’t really help. Or what if I was in a I’m-on-the-wrong-track phase of life? I wouldn’t need to be told that I was awesome – a more fitting message might be, “Wake up, girl!” or “Get your act together, you can do better than that!” (But please don’t go posting those around.) Of course, as strangers, there’s only so much we can do to help someone whose life we know nothing of, so we do the next best thing in an effort to do something. I get that. Still, maybe there’s a way we can say something that’s more, well, likely to be true or meaningful regardless of who you are, if we are to say something.

Maybe “this won’t last forever.” Or “there is still grace.” Or hey, maybe the occasional J.R.R. Tolkien quote. Personally, I like “even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

God with us.

I wrote most of this post on Monday morning, when the week ahead looked daunting and all I really wanted to was dive back under the covers. I’m pleased to say that the week actually went well for the most part, but a little downtime on this Friday night meant finishing my half-baked thoughts. May these words be encouraging to you!

As we come to another potentially challenging week, I think an attitude check is necessary this morning:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all your ways submit to Him,

And He will make your paths straight.

There are a lot of things I don’t understand with regards to research results and how to best proceed with new directions. More importantly, there is so much I don’t understand about what’s been going on in our world recently, both locally and internationally. The lights are up, carols are being sung, gifts are being exchanged, and compassion (or intended compassion, at least, for some of us) is being given…yet Christmas cheer feels as fleeting as a wisp of smoke. Part of this is certainly colored by my own issues this year, but I know I’m not the only one, and “sad” doesn’t even begin to describe the state of our world. You know that verse about all creation groaning, waiting for God to come back and heal it? Here, let me look it up:

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Think about that for a bit. (Yeah, it’s not pleasant – the closest I’ve gotten to witnessing childbirth is watching the PBS show Call The Midwife, and from that I’ve seen all I ever want to see.) The whole world is basically shrieking in pain. I appreciate the lack of sugar-coating here.
But Paul goes on, and here we see something very interesting:

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Woah there. You mean that Spirit, that Holy Spirit who is God – He groans on our behalf? So much for wondering if God is even listening to us. God is actually experiencing our pain for us, putting Himself in our shoes, and groaning. This is weird, but wonderful. You know what this means?

This means that not only does God know about our pain, but He’s actually feeling it. I guess the image of a weeping Savior isn’t so bizarre after all, next to this. God knows, He cares, and He feels it, too. I’m kind of speechless. But I’m also glad – so very glad. I guess I’d been under the impression that God knew what’s been happening, and maybe that He did take an interest, but for some reason never realized how deeply involved He was. And that gives me hope.

weeping may stay for the night,

but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Ultimately, this really isn’t so weird when you think about some of Jesus’s last actions on Earth – namely, His submission to a cruel death by crucifixion, carrying the weight of all the world’s evil and sorrow on His shoulders. Not to be sacrilegious, but I’m pretty sure Jesus was at least groaning and feeling a lot of pain at that moment. He felt our pain, too.

As we reflect on both the joys and the sorrows of this past year, and as we look ahead to the next seeking ways to live out our callings in this world, I hope this truth brings comfort and wonder at the gift of Immanuel – God with us.

* Scripture verses cited in order: Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 8:22, Romans 8:26, Psalm 30:5. Excerpts taken from the NIV (The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.)

glimpses of grace

A couple of years ago, one of my all-time-favorite authors from childhood wrote a post on her blog about remembering all of the “if’s” that we have to be thankful for (ie. if I hadn’t had my flight delayed, I wouldn’t have seen X again after so many years, etc.). The idea of keeping an “if-list” – an alternative way of counting your blessings – really struck a chord with me, and ever since then, I’ve been keeping my own version of the if-list. It’s called “God’s Fingerprints” (also inspired by the title of an uplifting song by one of my favorite artists), and though it probably sounds cheesy, having this list to refer back to has really helped me during some of the darker moments of the past two years. So at risk of revealing a little too much, or infringing on copyrights (Joan Bauer gets the credit for the idea, and Steven Curtis Chapman for the song title), here are some of the entries written over the last couple of years. I’ve changed some of the names for the sake of privacy and maybe not embarrassing anyone.

If I hadn’t been able to go to Hong Kong this summer, I would never have had all the crazy experiences – Macau with Elisa, “watching the sunrise” at the Peak, hearing all the crazy things about Sara’s life – and might have missed hanging out with my maternal grandparents (especially since they were in their final months, though we didn’t know it then). – Summer 2013

If all the other first year Mat Sci’s weren’t so helpful and friendly, I wouldn’t have survived this first quarter without seriously considering giving up. – Fall 2013

If WhatsApp didn’t exist, my family wouldn’t be able to communicate as well as we all do now that Stephen is in college and my parents are often travelling. – Fall 2014

If Crystal hadn’t randomly texted me so that we could catch up at church and lunch, I wouldn’t have had the encouraging conversation I had with her. – Spring 2015

And so on. I think one of the greatest blessings I’ve been given is that I’ve had the privilege of knowing (or virtually knowing) some incredibly resilient, optimistic, and brave people who by example have taught me to always, always reach for hope, even when there is little empirical evidence suggesting that one should have hope. Optimism doesn’t often come easy – and why should it when there is so much grief and pain in this world when we stop to look? – but it’s essential for moving forward when all the lights seem to fade. I’m definitely preaching to myself here. Attitude checks are a daily (hourly?) necessity, and I haven’t been doing a good job this week, to be honest.

One of the perks of working late in the summer (and having a west-facing window) is that you get to watch breathtaking sunsets. This one's from sometime in either June or July of this year.

One of the perks of working late in the summer (and having a west-facing window) is that you get to watch breathtaking sunsets. This one’s from sometime in either June or July of this year.

Sunset over Florida.

My family officially left Florida yesterday, and I’m not going to lie – I feel like I’ve lost something.

Not that I really moved with them, not physically, at least. I haven’t been able to visit ever since my parents told me they had decided to move, though that wasn’t so long ago. The last time I stayed there for more than three weeks was two years ago, and technically, I moved out of Florida when I left for college. But home is where the heart is, and part of my heart was definitely still there. As they say, home is really more about the people, but I think I underestimated the power of having a place that becomes comfortingly familiar over the years. Gainesville has its own share of problems, but I can’t help but see it through rose-tinted lenses right now. There have been so many memories made, both good and bad, in a place where change is the norm – it is a college town, after all – but things still seem to stay the same year in and year out. It’s hard to remember a time when Gainesville didn’t feel like home. (Although now that I’m looking back, I do remember that first month when we couldn’t move into the house yet, so we were living in an apartment that seemed to shake with the afternoon thunderstorms and had a bathroom door that wouldn’t close if the toilet seat lid was down.)

And now all the memories come flooding back – those first strange impressions of the city being full of more trees and churches than a bit over 100,000 people could ever require (trust me, it was really strange coming from the Bay Area), that first fall when we learned what it meant to be in a place so quiet you could hear a pin drop (the city 3 miles out from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during a football game – of course, once you got closer, the roar from The Swamp sounded like a 20-second tornado had descended whenever a touchdown was made), that first winter when – wait, who do you think you’re kidding? Florida? Winter? (Or so most people seem to think. North Florida does have its share of freezing temperatures, though.)

Remember the days of Tim Tebow and the back-to-back football and basketball national championships (2006-2008)? I’d never been much of a sports fan and I’m not much of one now, but back then, it was nearly impossible not to panic when Ohio State scored a touchdown within seconds of opening the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, or feel elated when the Gators came back around to take the lead. We all got caught up in the spirit of the orange-and-blue one way or another. I remember my U.S. history teacher promising us 10 bonus points on our next test if the Gators beat the Bulldogs in the upcoming UF vs. UGA game. So long ago now, but those were the days…

I don’t miss the thick summer heat and humidity, though – the way it would feel like walking into a sauna every time you left an air-conditioned building, with any showers taken before 10pm being essentially useless. Nor do I miss the annual swarms of lovebugs that made you wonder how such slow and stupid insects hadn’t died off a generation ago. And of course, on a much more serious note, I don’t miss the way the city still felt segregated between east and west – that division was surprisingly stark for a 21st-century big-college town.

Nevertheless, I’m going to miss Gainesville, and on a larger scale, Florida. You can’t grow in a place without it leaving some mark on you, and frankly, I don’t mind.

Another thing I'll miss - those breathtaking sunsets that were far from unusual.

Another thing I’ll miss – those breathtaking sunsets that were just part of summer Floridian life.

A poem (as yet untitled).

It’s been a long hiatus, but this morning I remembered a short poem I’d written a few weeks ago in response to some things I was dealing with, and accompanying struggles. I don’t have a title for it yet, but I’d be open to suggestions!

Ah, Fear

My constant shadow, grown larger under the covering of night

An unholy companion

A robber of Joy

Friend to none, save Worry and Despair

Who let this unwelcome stranger into the secret closets of the heart?

Begone, you!

Pretender to Care and Concern

You only seek to corrode, layer by layer

Until I break.

You will not win this fight.

Hope comes back to take its rightful place

A coating, thin to invisible, but one that nonetheless

Will wrap its arms around the wounded soul

And keep it safe from harm.

(Yes, materials science had to sneak in there somehow. I can’t have taken all these classes for nothing!)

I hope you win the battle against fear today – but if not, don’t worry, because the war isn’t over yet.

Home: the places and the people.

I know it’s been a while since the last When Helping Hurts update – sorry if you were waiting on more of those! – but there have been a lot of other things on my mind in recent weeks, and this particular one I felt compelled to share.

It’s actually something that’s been on my heart since I left for college at 18. Every time someone asks me that wonderfully simple question with a less-simple answer, “where are you from?”, I start thinking about it again. And that’s this: where is home?

This concept of “home” has been very fluid in my life, largely due to the fact that I’ve never lived in one place for more than five years. My childhood was mostly wonderful, and my family pretty close-knit (my parents aren’t the stereotypical strict Asian parents, though they did care enormously about my brother and I getting the best education possible). I do sometimes wonder if our closeness came in part because we moved so much. We as a family unit were the only thing that seemed to hold constant in each of our lives. My dad’s workplace would shift from one state to another, and so we followed him, criss-crossing the country. Moving was not easy on us kids, although I later came to realize how much harder it must have been for my parents, who not only had to uproot from work/church/neighborhood communities, but also had to find new schools, doctors, dentists, piano teachers, etc. every time we re-located. “Home” for us was never one place for very long. So in my mind, it became about our family more than any location – home was wherever we were together.

As I grew up and moved on to college, this definition wedged itself deeply into my heart. I went to school about 600 miles away from where my family lived. Not an impressive distance by any means, but it was just enough to make any trip of less than one week economically unjustifiable. Not unlike many freshmen, I periodically struggled with homesickness that first year, though it manifested itself in other ways (like the inability to concentrate on any intensive reading – think “biology textbook”). I haven’t told many people this, but up until midway through my sophomore year, I seriously considered transferring back to the university that was 20 minutes’ drive from where my family lived. UF is a good school, and I didn’t feel like I belonged at Vanderbilt. It still wasn’t home to me, and I missed being with my family.

Somewhere between that time and the end of my junior year – I don’t know exactly how it happened – Nashville and the Vanderbilt community in particular became home. Perhaps it helped that I stayed in town the summer after my sophomore year to continue working in a lab, and got to know the people and place better. Perhaps it was that friendships which were previously casual began to blossom in junior year. All I know is that as my dad and I drove away from the Nashville skyline after graduation, my heart felt incredibly heavy, because part of it was getting left behind. Another place had become a home, another set of people, a family.

These days, I’m thinking a lot about what “home” means again. I’m now at graduate school even farther away from my immediate family, and only see my folks two to three times a year. There are almost 500 miles separating Evanston and Nashville, too, and even if I were to go back now, most of the people I knew and loved there have moved away. My parents recently announced that they’re moving, once again (we laugh and say this is it, this is the final move for them, but I’ve learned that’s a dangerous thing to assume), so I will no longer be going back to Florida for regular visits. I’m moving myself this summer, although just from the suburbs to the city, to be closer to the downtown campus lab. It’s not much, but it does mean being in a new community and re-adjusting. I don’t have a place that I feel is home now, to be honest, and as my parents move on with their post-kids-in-the-house lives, sometimes I wonder if I can ever find that space again where I feel at home. It’s disorienting, though I know it’s all part of the normal growing-up process in today’s world. Change can be a good thing. I do sometimes wish I could go back…but the only way is forward now.

Carrie Underwood’s song “Temporary Home” captures the sentiment well:

This is my temporary home, it’s not where I belong
Windows and rooms that I’m passing through
This is just a stop on the way to where I’m going
I’m not afraid because I know
This is my temporary home.

I'll miss Florida shoreline sunsets for sure.

I’ll miss Florida shoreline sunsets for sure.

And the story continues.

Incredible, how quickly time seems to pass us by sometimes. I hope the daylight savings switch didn’t catch anyone off-guard!

Chapter 4 of When Helping Hurts was actually pretty succinct. My main takeaways were 1) Be very judicious when trying to offer aid to people, because you might end up taking away their human dignity/responsibility if you’re not careful to give appropriately, and 2) Often the people who know best about poverty are…well…poor people.

I was a little bothered when they talked about individual responsibility and how sometimes we need to show “tough love” and let people learn “the appropriate lessons” from their mistakes. The authors were quick to say that we should also remember that there are systemic reasons for poverty (so show some grace), to be fair, but I just had this nagging thought that we’re putting ourselves in God’s shoes when we judge whether some lessons are “appropriate” for people to learn. Who are we to say so-and-so should be allowed to suffer so they can learn a lesson? They didn’t dwell for too long on that point, though, and maybe it’ll be clarified later.

I do agree that we’re often too eager to dish out quick-fixes rather than thinking through their potential benefit/harm, though. Hmm…well, there is more to come in this book, so we’ll see what’s next!

* Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotes and poverty-alleviation-related concepts are taken from the following source:

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fickkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor – And Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. Print.

Go get a copy and read it. Really. 🙂

A tangent to re-find the center.

And just like that, a month came and went.

I’m sorry about how long it’s taken me to update this. I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t much matter to you how often this blog gets updated, but I had made a mental commitment of sorts – a commitment to go through one chapter of When Helping Hurts and do a reflection post each week. Part of my failure to follow-through was grad school busyness, but a larger part was that I had stalled on Chapter 3. Ironically, this one’s called “Are We There Yet”? As the authors apparently predicted, we’d gotten to a point in the book where anxious readers like myself start saying, “Ok, enough with the background info already, let’s get to the good part where we actually find practical tips about ways to help people!”

Why did I get stuck on this chapter? Simply put, my heart was hard towards Jesus. There, I said it. In this chapter, Corbett and Fickkert get to the heart (pun intended) of the problem and solution: humanity’s fallen nature and our need for reconciliation with God. It’s a heart matter, and my heart was cold. In some ways, it has been ever since the end of freshman year of college, although that’s a long tale for another time. Let’s just say that I was all for practical methods of poverty alleviation – you know, what can we do about hunger, lack of sufficient housing, racial inequity, etc. – with just a vague nod towards faith as the motivation behind it all. Don’t get me wrong, I did and do believe that “Every good and perfect gift is from above” as James 1:17 says (NIV translation), but somewhere along the way I’d pushed God aside in my mind. Specifically, I failed to see the importance of Jesus’s death and resurrection – the basic foundations of Christianity – in “fixing” our world’s problems. These things Christians profess – that humans are inherently sinful, that we cannot have right relationships with God without accepting Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and that we live in the hope and promise of eternity in communion with God – are basic tenets of the faith, but sometimes they get lost in the middle of all the other things in this world.

If you’re zoning out or about to click away because there’s too much “religious talk” in this post, I wouldn’t blame you. Until this morning, I was there, too. Like I said, I wanted to know what things I could do, what things I could say, to help the poor among us, without bringing faith into it. I’ll be frank with you – I’ve been very quiet about my faith with non-Christian friends and acquaintances over the past few years. Some of that was honest doubt, but some of it was also a cowardly fear of what others would think about me if they knew I was a Christian. And how could I answer all the deep questions about suffering and hell and God’s sovereignty that I’m still struggling with? So let’s just push all that under the rug, and speak from a purely practical perspective.

Ah, but this morning at church, during a rare sermon on racism and the Church’s role in combating it, something moved in my heart. The guest speaker, Pastor Bill Reed, went back to the foundations of Christian belief, and though I’d heard the Gospel story so so many times before, somehow it hit me differently. You know that feeling when you re-read your favorite book for the hundredth time and suddenly you see something new and wonderful in the text that you’d never seen before? It was a little like that. No, I haven’t suddenly found answers to all my doubts. No, I haven’t turned into a shout-it-from-the-rooftops evangelist. But for the first time in forever, a part of my heart has thawed towards the amazing grace found in Christ. (Sorry if you’re cringing at the Frozen reference.)

I’m praying this is more than a fleeting feeling. I’m thankful that I finally understand a bit of what Corbett and Fikkert mean when they say that we can’t fully deal with poverty without turning to God. And I’m hopeful that God’s at work within us and around us.

* Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotes and poverty-alleviation-related concepts are taken from the following source:

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fickkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor – And Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. Print.

Go get a copy and read it. Really.🙂