I Wrote Everywhere, Man

(A fuller, edited version of this post appears on npr.org)

The letters addressed and ready for delivery. My first letters were affixed with Santa stamps because that’s all I had left.

On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.

When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.

It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.

Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.

I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.

Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.

It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.

When I ran out of my personal stationery, I tried to maintain a personal touch by writing on pages of kid doodles.

I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.

And how writing these letters filled up my emotional tank, even though we didn’t know one another.

A letter than got to the other side, complete with the Santa stamp

I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.

Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.

In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”

In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.

People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”

I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”

A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.

So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.

Robert in Austin, who received my letter and wrote back to share the news he and his wife were having a baby in three days

I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This, But

Sylvia Plath’s 1956 program “to win friends and influence people.”

I really needed the last line in there: “Write — you have seen a lot, felt deeply and your problems are universal enought to be made meaningful — WRITE —” (How perfect that it ends with an em dash, pregnant with promise…)

Resolutions for 2018

The fake shrimp tempura that I sent Harper in the mail, after the international
journey to Chicago.

Last year my key resolution was to read 52 books before 2017 was out and by golly, I did it. So I’m gonna get ambitious and write down a LIST of resolutions this time. Let’s check back on these at the end of the year:

Hire a financial planner
I’ve had an accountant for a few years (hi Richard!) but no financial planner, because even though I am 35-years old and a slumlord two times over, I still have my bestie Sudeep hop into my TD Ameritrade account every once in awhile and just make sure my money is still there. He and my accountant both agree this is not a grown-up way to handle finances.

Start a book club on Slack so we don’t have to meet in real life
It’s not that I have a huge issue with the real-life book clubs of which I’ve been a part, it’s that I don’t like any structured socializing, including meetup groups, Bible studies, mommy yoga, etc. So, I want to start a Slack for my cleverest, book-loving friends to tackle a different book every month and have a running Slack conversation about it. And if you don’t read that month’s book, whatever, it’s your loss. The rest of us will be snarking on Slack about it. Hit me up if you want to do this.

Stop drinking as much flavored tea and drink more water
I don’t know that this will happen because spending $4 on a sweetened green ice tea at Starbucks almost every day is the kind of time, money and energy waste that has been written into my routine since I was 16 years old. But whatever, this is my intention list and I’m leaving this in.

Get an accurate bra measurement
I have fears that my boobs are going the way of my great-grandmother’s after she breastfed seven, SEVEN children. I realize bra technology can’t really solve for this, but either way it’s good for every woman to know what bra size she actually wears.

Write handwritten letters and cards to people for no reason
This is a perennial resolution. Last year I did a twist on it, which was “send rando packages.” It was all working out well until the unfortunate melted wax that Friend Harper received, so I’m going back to letters and cards.

Blog at least five times a month
This is my version of the clichéd “write an hour a day” resolution because there’s no way that I DON’T write an hour a day as a function of my job. But I have been trying to get back to non-work blogging as a discipline, and to have the written record of the absurdity or outrage or gratitude of the moment.

See more movies at the theatre
This is one of my favorite things to do, period, especially at Alamo Drafthouse. But in South Korea I have barely gone to the movies and I’m lesser for it. Please note this is a resolution that I’m gonna be better at keeping after we repatriate.

Other intentions:

Keep my credit card balance at zero
Spend more time in Texas
Wean Baby Luna from nursing
Have no more children


Year End Update, December 2018

Hire a financial planner
Failed: I actually started working with a guy named Bob to try and do a tax deferral thing from selling my Austin house and to get my money in order but never followed through, so, fail.

Start a book club on Slack
Failed: Took steps to start this and strangers even wrote me saying they wanted to do it but I had too much going on in the early months of this year (mainly with the Olympics and North Korea) and never got it off the ground. Now I just joined a new “Asian Americans read Asian Americans” book club in LA that has yet to meet (but we have chosen ONE book) so I think I’m giving up on this.

Drink Less Flavored Tea and More Water
Marginal, as Trump would say

Get Accurate Bra Measurement
Success: Squeezed this in before the end of the year when I realized it was a resolution!

Write handwritten cards and letters for no reason
Partially fulfilled: This is a consistent hit or miss, but a perennial resolution. Last year I gave up writing people and replaced it with the “send rando packages” thing, but now that I’m back in America it’s much less hassle to mail things to Americans. Sent Christmas cards, but that’s not for “no reason.” I have no excuses!

Blog at least five times a month
Partially fulfilled. The months I made it to five: January, March, April, December

Other intentions of 2018: Keep my credit card balance at zero, spend more time in Texas, wean Baby Luna from nursing, have no more children. ALL ACCOMPLISHED!