We left Hong Kong on Easter Sunday. I cried when we left the apartment. I sobbed when we left Beverly, our helper who lived with us and took amazing care of our daughter. My dear friend, Sherna, helped us get to the airport, and I cried when we left her. And then we got on a plane, and we flew for a day or so. And then we were in Louisiana. My parents picked us up from the airport. We all cried some more.
The first thing I noticed upon re-entry into the US was how huge Americans are. Overweight, yes, (and I am myself in that category, so I’m not saying that from some high horse) but also just tall and broad and loud, taking up space in a jarringly different way than most of the people I’d been surrounded by for the past three years. The second thing I noticed was that my 17-month-old could wear a mask more correctly than half the people around me. And then, frivolously perhaps, I noticed the huge difference and fashion and style. Hong Kong is a people-watcher’s paradise where the majority of people dress intentionally. Sure, there are the people dressed to the nines in perfectly tailored clothes, but even people who appear to be casually dressed have a carefully crafted aesthetic. Don’t be surprised if those sagging jeans and holey shirt cost more than your monthly salary. American style is sorely lacking. 🤣
We spent three weeks with my parents, adjusting to the time difference and making up for some of the time we’d been apart. Juniper was an absolute champ and was totally acclimated to the 13-hour time change within 4 days. She has adjusted to each phase of the past few months with such tenacity, we’ve been completely blown away. She also adjusted brilliantly to new surroundings and new people.
I adjusted slightly less brilliantly. Those first three weeks I was so incredibly happy to see my parents and my youngest sister who still lives in my hometown. Seeing them fall in love with Junie and watching her begin to develop relationships with them was an absolute dream. But apart from that I was deeply, profoundly miserable. I fell into the most severe depression I think I have ever experienced. I cried so hard and so often you would have thought I’d a loved one. And in some ways I had. I’d lost my home. I took the highest dose of anti-depressants I was allowed to. I slept as much as I possibly could.
The grief weighed on me so heavily that I could not imagine ever being happy again. At least not in the US. Coming back to the Deep South was an especially intense culture shock. All I could think was that aside from my family and a few close friends, this was not where I wanted to be, and these were not the people or the values or the culture I wanted to raise my child around. I often cried until I was physically sick, and I could not be comforted.
During these weeks Jonathan interviewed for approximately 1 million teaching jobs in Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. We lived in Columbia during Jonathan’s Master’s program before moving to Hong Kong and still have strong ties there. We also have close friends in Charlotte, NC, about 1 1/2 hours away from Columbia, who we’d like to be close to. We had decided before leaving Hong Kong to settle in one of these two cities and to focus on Jonathan’s job search first. This process was incredibly draining and I am so proud of Jonathan for all of the tenacity and grit he showed through it all.
At the beginning of May we drove to Ohio, stopping for a couple of days in Columbia, South Carolina, where we saw a few friends and Jonathan did an in-person interview. Those few days were the first time I started to envision a life for us in the US that wasn’t all doom and gloom. We stayed with friends and imagined what it might look like to have a little house in a quiet neighborhood and to return to the church we’d been a part of before going to Hong Kong.
We arrived in Ohio and spent a month with Jonathan’s parents. We also got to see Jonathan’s brother and sister during this visit. It was really wonderful to share Junie with them and see how much they loved her. Nevertheless, I continue to be weighed down by a heavy depression. Jonathan continued to interview for jobs. I spent my time reading, taking care of Junie, and trying to make myself useful around the house.
Finally, at the end of May, Jonathan started to receive job offers. He received multiple offers, but ultimately took a job teaching 11th and 12th grade English with Richland One school district in Columbia.
We had discussed the possibility of buying a house with the money we had saved working in Hong Kong. We’ve been married for 11 years and have never owned our own home. For a long time I thought it wasn’t in the cards for us. For one thing, I couldn’t imagine being in the same place long enough to buy. For another, I couldn’t imagine saving up enough for a down payment. But as we prepared to leave Hong Kong we realized we might be able to afford a house. And then we heard about the housing market and how houses were selling like hotcakes at well over their list prices. We didn’t know if it even made sense to buy in that kind of market.
The day Jonathan received his first job offer, I got on Zillow and started looking at houses. We had not spoken to a realtor or to a lender and had only a very rough idea of what our budget would be. I found a few houses that were underwhelming. I found a few more that were great, but were too expensive. And then I found a precious little house with yellow door and a huge backyard. I showed it to Jonathan and said, “This is it. This is our house. I want this house.” And he got mad at me.
In his defense, it had been less than an hour since he’d gotten his first job offer after a grueling application and interview season all while handling the stress of living out of suitcases with a toddler, having no permanent home, and also having a severely depressed wife. He just wanted one minute to be happy and at peace about something before moving on to the next thing. “I just got a job offer an hour ago. We are not ready to buy a house. You’re going to fall in love with this house and then get your heart broken when it’s sold in the next two days.”
He was right. It was off the market within two days. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated. Frankly, it was hard to feel genuine excitement about anything, and it’s hard to be devastated about something you couldn’t feel that excited about in the first place. But I was less excited about looking at houses in general by that point.
A few weeks later Jonathan had officially accepted a job offer. We were leaving his parents’ house and heading back to Louisiana to stay with my family for a few more weeks. We decided to break up the 15 hour drive by stopping in Charlotte, NC to visit some friends and then spending a few days in our new home town, Columbia. By this point we had spoken to a realtor and to a lender. We’d been pre-approved for a mortgage, but were still expecting to have a long house hunt. We’d reconciled ourselves to the idea that we might not be able to buy right away. Our plan was to look at a few listings as well as some apartments we could rent while we continued the search.
The day before we were supposed to go to Charlotte, our friends got in touch to say their kids were getting over norovirus and that we might want to delay our visit. We made a last minute decision to go to Columbia first. Our realtor said she was available to show us some listings the next day. We got in the car and drove 8.5 hours to Columbia.
While we were driving I got a notification in my email that a house I had previously viewed was back on the market. I opened the email. It was the house with the yellow door and the great yard. I started hyperventilating.
I texted the realtor to ask if we could see it, and also, why was it back on the market?! Meanwhile I told myself, “Be cool, be cool, be cool.” Our realtor (shoutout to Mary Ellen Maloney) did some digging and found out that the initial contract fell through because of the buyer’s financing, not because of anything wrong with the house.
The next morning we viewed four houses, ending with the House with the Yellow Door. It was even more wonderful than in the pictures. We put in offer in that night. We were under contract the next morning. It was a complete whirlwind in the best way. I was (and am) in complete awe of how God orchestrated our getting this house down to the last detail.
We told our friends jokingly (sort of) that we were so thankful they’d gotten sick when they did. If we’d stuck to our original timeline, the house would likely have been sold to someone else by the time we got to town. Thankfully, our friends had recovered from the virus by that point and we were able to go up to Charlotte to visit them for a few days before driving back down to Louisiana to be with my family.
Over the weeks we were back in Louisiana, I slowly started to feel more hopeful. I saw a few old friends and their children. I worked out with my mom and my sister at the Crossfit gym they own and run. I started a book podcast with my sister. I started to imagine a life in the US that could be good. I planned to start tutoring again and thought I would start looking for a part-time job.
And then I got an email from one of my best friends. She was forwarding an email from the rector of the church we attended in Columbia before moving to Hong Kong. The email said the church was looking for a full-time children’s ministry director. They wanted someone with a background in education. Someone with classroom teaching experience. Someone who was theologically curious. They were having trouble finding the right candidate. I hadn’t even started my job search. I hadn’t sent in a single application. This was nowhere on my radar. I sent in my resume that day.
Last Friday I officially accepted the job of Children’s Ministry Director at Church of the Apostles. This past Tuesday, we closed on our house and moved in. We are officially homeowners and residents of Columbia, South Carolina. In the space of three months we have two full-time jobs and a have bought our first house.
These three months have probably been the most difficult of my entire life. I began this period feeling like I had lost everything. I am still grieving the loss of a city, friends, and a whole life that was unspeakably dear to me. But I am also in awe of how God has provided. I am deeply grateful. And with that gratitude has come a bright ray of hope. Great is his faithfulness.