Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story. This was before Sophia was born, when I was living in New York, trying to figure out what I was doing working at a Wall Street law firm.
Thank goodness I’m a lucky person, because all my life I’ve made important decisions for the wrong reasons. I started off as an applied mathematics major at Harvard because I thought it would please my parents; I dropped it after my father, watching me struggling with a problem set over winter break, told me I was in over my head, saving me. But then I mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely science like. I wrote my senior thesis on commuting patterns of two-earner families, a subject I found so boring I could never remember what my conclusion was.
I went to law school, mainly because I didn’t want to go to medical school. I did well at law school, by working psychotically hard. I even made it onto the highly competitive Harvard Law Review, where I met Jed and became an executive editor. But I always worried that law really wasn’t my calling. I didn’t care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me. I also wasn’t naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.
After graduating I went to a Wall Street law firm because it was the path of least resistance. I chose corporate practice because I didn’t like litigation. I was actually decent at the job; long hours never bothered me, and I was good at understanding what the clients wanted and translating it into legal documents. But my entire three years at the firm, I always felt like I was play-acting, ridiculous in my suit. At the all-night drafting sessions with investment bankers, while everyone else was popping veins over the minutiae of some multibillion-dollar deal, I’d find my mind drifting to thoughts of dinner, and I just couldn’t get myself to care about whether the sentence should be prefaced by “To the best of the Company’s knowledge.” Any statement contained in a document incorporated or deemed to be incorporated by reference herein shall be deemed to be modified or superseded for purposes of this Offering Circular to the extent that a statement contained herein, or in any other subsequently filed document that also is incorporated by reference herein, modifies or supersedes such a statement.
Jed, meanwhile, loved the law, and the contrast made my misfit all the more glaring. At his law firm, which specialized in late-1980s takeovers, he loved writing briefs and litigating and had great successes. Then he went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and sued Mafia guys and loved that too. For fun, he wrote a 100-page article on the right of privacy—it just poured out of him—which was accepted by the same Harvard Law Review we’d worked on as students (which almost never publishes articles by non-professors). The next thing we knew he got a call from the dean of Yale Law School, and even though I was the one who always wanted to become an academic (I guess because my father was one), he got a job as a Yale law professor the year before Sophia was born. It was a dream job for Jed. He was the only junior person on the faculty, the golden boy, surrounded by brilliant colleagues who thought like he did. I’d always thought of myself as someone imaginative with lots of ideas, but around Jed’s colleagues, my brain turned to sludge. When we first moved to New Haven—I was on pregnancy leave with Sophia—Jed told his friends on the faculty that I was thinking about being a professor too. But when they asked about the legal issues I was interested in, I felt like a stroke victim. I was so nervous I couldn’t think or speak. When I forced myself to talk, my sentences came out all garbled with weird words inserted in weird places.
That’s when I decided to write an epic novel. Unfortunately, I had no talent for novel writing, as Jed’s polite coughs and forced laughter while he read my manuscript should have told me. What’s more, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jung Chang all beat me to it with their books The Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club, and Wild Swans. At first, I was bitter and resentful, but then I got over it and came up with a new idea. Combining my law degree with my own family’s background, I would write about law and ethnicity in the developing world. Ethnicity was my favorite thing to talk about anyway. Law and development, which very few people were studying at the time, would be my specialty.
The stars were aligned. Just after Sophia was born, I wrote an article about privatization, nationalization, and ethnicity in Latin America and Southeast Asia, which the Columbia Law Review accepted for publication. Armed with my new article, I applied for law teaching jobs all over the country. In a mind-boggling act of temerity, I said yes when Yale’s hiring committee invited me to interview with them. I met with the committee over lunch at a scary Yale institution called Mory’s, and was so tongue-tied that two professors excused themselves early and the dean of the law school spent the rest of the two hours pointing out Italianate influences on New Haven architecture.
I did not get asked back to meet the full Yale Law faculty, which meant that I’d flunked the lunch. In other words, I’d been rejected by Jed’s colleagues. This was not ideal—and it made socializing a little tricky.
But then I got another huge break. When Sophia was two, Duke Law School gave me a teaching offer. Ecstatic, I accepted the offer immediately, and we moved to Durham, North Carolina.