In 2015, Angie and Kristan turned 30. The milestone was both more and less momentous than they expected…

ANGIE

Last year, Kristan, Mengfei and I went on a wonderful girls trip to Europe to commemorate the big 3-0. Traveling from different cities, I landed in Berlin first, too early for anyone to be awake and functioning. Though I arrived well prepared with maps and directions to our rented apartment, the subway line I needed to transfer at was unexpectedly closed for construction. Jetlagged, with no idea where I was, I started to panic. Thankfully I spied two men walking to a bus stop nearby and ran towards them.

Together we navigated the bus route to a different subway. My new companions sleepily chatted with me and shared recommendations of their beloved city. The older man rode with me the entire way, even escorting me to a local bakery where I could eat and wait for my friends.

As he dropped me off at the bakery door, I offered to buy him coffee and breakfast. He politely declined, clasped his hands together and said, “I’m happy to help. Just pay it forward.”

My friends and I had an amazing trip afterward, but when I returned home, I didn’t practice the kind man’s words. Instead I spent the first half of my 30th year doing the opposite. Experiencing a period of deep vulnerability, I sought and took any support I could get.

The man in Berlin turned out to be a precursor for the abundance of time, love, wisdom and generosity that my friends and family would bestow upon me through a difficult time. So I began repairing myself — and in a symbolic parallel, finished putting together the apartment that I had moved into over a year earlier. My new home. My better me.

Now, I have finally begun to reciprocate, when I can and as much as I can. In the second half of my 30th year, I am trying to pay it forward.

When I was still in school, I thought women in their 30s had their lives together. It seemed like they all had a strong sense of self, and knew what they wanted and how to get it. Now that I am one of them, I know the truth: we definitely don’t have everything figured out. But we have learned a lot about ourselves and about the world, and we’re just trying to hold true to the one while navigating the other.

I’m still trying to figure out that balance, amidst career politics and heartache. I’m learning that some things just aren’t important. You can skip the gossip and the negativity, you can ignore misconceptions about yourself. You should take responsibility for your actions and be wary of those who don’t. Practice empathy, and sometimes help a complete stranger, just because.

While I miss some of the free spiritedness of my 20s, I’m embracing the maturity of my 30s. There are still so many adventures to take, now complemented with full nights sleep. It’s worth figuring out how to navigate work, the world, and your own heart. At 30, you are stronger than you know.

KRISTAN

On a recent flight back to Houston to visit my parents for the holidays, I sat next to a very chatty man. Normally I tend to keep to myself on airplanes, sleeping or reading or working, but this guy clearly needed to discuss his troubled relationship and stuttering career. I didn’t have the heart to shut him down.

So we talked, and at some point I realized that I was offering advice and encouragement to a man 10-15 years older than myself. It’s not that I had all the answers for him — nor have I accomplished all of the goals in my own life. But somehow, over the years, I’ve turned into one of those worldly and insightful adults that I used to look up to.

And it’s not just me. Over the holidays, I caught up with several high school friends (including Angie), and it was such a delight to see how everyone has matured. Our 20s were sometimes turbulent, both personally and professionally, but that’s what taught us how to fly smoothly.

For me, I think the biggest lesson has been letting go of what I imagined “success” should be. I’m not rich or famous, and I don’t look like a supermodel, but that doesn’t make me a failure. My life is delightfully boring, with a husband, a dog, and a house in the Midwest. My writing career is still in its early stages. But rather than money, beauty, or fame, I’ve decided that what matters most to me is fulfillment and impact. As long as I remain a positive, nurturing influence to others, then I am successful. Whether I affect 10 people or 10 million.

We are smarter and stronger than we know. And maybe part of turning 30 is just taking the time to reflect on that. To realize it. To embrace it. And as we move through the next decade of our lives, to build on it.


I cried right before Taylor Swift came on stage. I did, I really cried. A grown woman with no kids and a corporate job, I was crying. And when I did, my best friend Kristan was sitting next to me with tears in her eyes too.

The 1989 World Tour was starting its Saturday night show in Chicago. “#TS1989” flashed on the Jumbotrons, and pop hits blasted in the background amping up the crowd. Pre-teen girls were bobbing their heads, grinning and singing all the lyrics, and their moms were busy snapping photos of their little girls. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be here.

All of us – all 55,000 piled high and low in the stadium – eagerly awaited the moment our souvenir LED bracelets would light up to signal that Taylor was coming on-stage. Bracelets that Kristan and I had to hunt down, running from our upper-level seats all the way back to the entrance because someone had neglected to give them to us when we first entered the venue. Forgoing the LED bracelets was never an option. We wanted the full experience.

That day in Chicago, there had been spontaneous, severe downpours, and even tornado warnings. With a heavy heart, I feared that the concert would be cancelled. I would have been devastated, especially because I had flown in from New York to see Taylor live.

But magically the skies cleared and the show went on. In our seats that towered over most of the audience, with excitement and anticipation building, I let my eyes water and some tears fall. I was really here! I had made it!

That night marked one month after walking away from a difficult relationship. There would be no more returning to our terrible cycle of fighting, breaking up, missing each other, and then allowing all the problems to resurface as we cobbled our relationship back together. It had taken me a few tries, but this time I was really done, and I was here to move forward with my best friend and with Taylor.

Like in her “Bad Blood” music video, when my ex and I ended things, I sought my army of friends to help me fight the battle inside myself. Don’t call him, they said. Don’t respond to his barrage of phone calls, voicemails, emails, text messages. Be ready for when he shows up at your door. They made themselves available to me whenever I felt weak or needed support. They helped me pack up my belongings from his apartment, leave my key behind, and even rescued me when he did turn up at my place unannounced. They reminded me of who I am and that I had the strength to make this time different. To make it stick.

A wise, older friend also told me that many women have gone through one of these types of relationships. The kind where you learn about your tolerance and your limits. During my time with this guy, I questioned myself a lot. I felt small and guilty about my own emotions. I felt pressure that shouldn’t have been there. I absorbed the names he called me, believed his interpretations and manipulations, and thought I deserved the actions he took against me. I lost my confidence.

Shortly after the breakup, when I told Kristan that I felt I had nothing to look forward to, and I was worried that I might lose momentum and regret being alone, she suggested we see Taylor Swift in concert – something I wanted to do but wouldn’t act upon without a catalyst. Now I had one. So why not? It would be a celebration.

And celebrate we did. We sang along to every song, especially her older country hits, dancing as much as we could in the small space in front of our seats. We cheered for and felt inspired by the empowering words and genuine emotions that Taylor shared in between songs. We shook our lit up bracelets in the air and had a wonderful time.

When I came back home to New York, I gushed about the experience to friends and colleagues. I joked with them that I teared up when Taylor Swift appeared. But truthfully, I cried because I’d been so happy to be there with my best friend, safe and whole and healing. It’s because even though I was sad, I had finally given myself the gift of self-respect.

P.S. Taylor, if you read this, know that you are a great role model, and going to your concert was once of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Let me know if you ever want to hang out or bake in New York.


Call us what you will — BFFs, kindred spirits, or soul mates — Kristan and I are very lucky to have each other. Months ago, when New York City was feeling overwhelming, I made a quiet escape to Cincinnati. Kristan didn’t ask why; she just welcomed me with open arms. Her dog Riley did, too.

One might think I would be bored in Ohio, coming from a bustling city that never sleeps, but that was not the case. A recent National Geographic article highlighted great attractions in Cincinnati, and by coincidence, Kristan took me to a majority of them. All just to put a smile on my face. We dined at the tastiest restaurants, munched at the sweetest bakeries, admired the trendy contemporary art, browsed the farmers markets and antique malls, and even took day-trips to nearby places.

My favorite attraction was hiking Hocking Hills, a scenic park with trails and ancient hills. Kristan prepped everything, including carrying the backpack of supplies, while I just gaped at the views with my camera. We mustered our way through a forest blanketed with leaves, up and down small stone stairways, and over several bridges, as I snapped away. Finally we reached our destination: a vast half-walled dome called Old Man’s Cave.

The caves in Hocking Hills have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. History hypothesizes that the region was a meeting point for nomadic populations, who then settled in the area because of its natural resources and food supply. Now it’s a state park that draws visitors from all over, withstanding the test of time, just like Kristan’s and my friendship.

What’s our secret? We accept each other for who we are and communicate honestly. Being best friends means offering support, but also challenging each other and pointing out flaws. We’re both stubborn and opinionated, and we don’t always agree, but that is the perspective we seek from one another. And whatever decision we make, we always help the other fulfill it.

During the trip, as we walked Riley around a local park, I thought about how serene I felt with us just chatting away, contemplating life and our goals. Turns out, despite all the activities we did, what made me happiest was simply talking to my best friend in person. I might not get to see her often, but I feel very lucky when I do.

Angie's visit 054


Ten years later, there we were. Somewhere between 100 and 200 members of the Bellaire High School class of 2003 had gathered in a dive bar near the Southwest Freeway, overtaking the regular customers. Red and white banners staked our claim and announced our continued school spirit. Camera flashes kept going off. The entire night was dedicated to mingling and catching up, drinking and sharing stories, shouting to be heard over the other voices and music.

Like true best friends, the two of us stuck together for much of the night, trying to spend time with each other, while also wandering around and reacquainting with our old peers. Despite people’s newly acquired beards, changes in fashion, or extra pounds gained here and there, everyone still felt vaguely familiar. It made us wonder: Were we mostly the same too?

A sense of curiosity had us talking to everyone we passed, whether we recognized them or not. Former boyfriends, dance team buddies, tag-along spouses, and even one lovely girl who remembered us far better than we remembered her. Like a choreographed dance, the crowd kept splitting into pairs and small groups, then swirling around and dividing again. In each new configuration, we laughed over fond memories, reminisced about old teachers, and marveled at all the things that had fallen between the cracks, waiting until that night to be unearthed again.

Once or twice we were ignored by people who we approached or waved to, which was puzzling more than offensive. It seemed to go against the whole spirit of a class reunion. But it didn’t matter — such petty matters were left behind in high school — and only showed us who our friends really were, both then and now.

Overall, the reunion was enjoyable in an inessential way, like eating a slice of cake. It tastes good in the moment, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t nurture or fulfill you in any way. On the one hand, it didn’t really matter how our classmates had turned out. They had been absent from our lives for a long time, and as soon as we walked out the door, they would disappear again, with no impact on us one way or another. But on the other hand, it was nice to look around the room and think, “Hey, we did all right.” As a group, we’ve experienced such interesting things over the past decade — like working on Wall Street, studying volcanoes for NASA, becoming parents, chasing and living our dreams.

At the end of the night, we felt a sort of collective pride — and honestly, a sense of reassurance. We had all survived, and maybe even thrived, in these first ten years after high school. That meant we were probably in good shape to do the same or better in the decades to come.


Kristan

I can’t believe it’s been a decade since Angie and I graduated from high school. It seems like just yesterday that we were learning how to drive, editing the school newspaper, and studying for the SATs. But time flies, and now the infamous 10-year reunion is upon us.

Our class president has scheduled the reunion for Thanksgiving weekend, when out-of-town alumni are more likely to return. As one of those out-of-towners, I appreciate her consideration, but I’m still not sure I want to attend.

The thing is, I don’t feel the need for a reunion. The people I care about, I already keep in touch with. We email, chat, and post on each other’s Facebook walls. We tweet, text, and occasionally even call. Of course it would be nice to see them in person, but we could arrange to do that in a different, more intimate way — without name tags, cocktails, and a room full of other people that we barely remember.

All of this leads me to wonder: Am I just not the reunion type? Or is technology eliminating the need for reunions?

Angie

There’s nothing like a 10-year reunion to make you feel old. It’s a big tradition, idealized by media and society, and that’s on my mind as I plan to fly home for Thanksgiving and possibly attend.

Part of me feels indifferent because, like Kristan, I will see my friends when I go home regardless. Also, we went to a large school with hundreds of students I never knew — and still may never know. But part of me is curious to see those I lost touch with, the ones I remember as being good people in high school.

I can’t help wondering: How have we transformed? Do we all look the same as we remembered? Will we try to show off our jobs? Spouses? Other status symbols? Or will we just reminisce about old teachers? First kisses? Senior prom?

As my peers and I have grown from teenagers to adults — breaking past high school archetypes — there are so many stories to share, pains to learn from, and achievements to celebrate. For me, as with most events in life, I will never regret going, but I will always wonder if I don’t.

Your Turn

Do you think we should attend our 10-year high school reunion? Did you attend yours? Share your thoughts and experiences with us at JBUcolumn@gmail.com or www.jbucolumn.com.


My family used to have a swing set in our backyard. I remember the metal beams, the red seats of the seesaw and “love seat,” and the rubbery swings with blue plastic over the chains to protect your hands from getting pinched. I remember helping my dad place stickers on the swing set to make it look cool. I remember the metal slide that I would happily climb, trying to reach for the sky before I slid back down to the world.

I played on the swing set almost daily, sometimes alone, sometimes with my sister or friends. When I was older, my long legs had to be crammed onto the steps of the seesaw, but I still eagerly pushed back and forth to see how high I could go. I could feel the swing set shift out of its setting in the ground from my force. It never failed to make me happy.

Eventually my dad had to remove the swing set because the braces started to crack and the metal rusted, making it unsafe. I was lucky that my schools and neighborhood had other playgrounds to play on. But I was also growing older, and by high school I had moved on to more mature afterschool activities.

Nowadays I sometimes wonder why only children are allowed to play and run around. They’re encouraged to imagine all sorts of adventures. As adults, we instead have structured alternatives such as team sports or choreographed dance. They’re still enjoyable, but each move is calculated and constructed. It’s about control instead of freedom.

Recently, I visited my friend in Queens and suggested we take a walk around the neighborhood. She informed us that there was a park nearby with a playground. One of our friends immediately lit up and asked, “Are there swings?”

When we got to the park, a group of middle-schoolers was already there, so we hovered awkwardly, waiting and hoping for our chance. Once they left and no other young children were around, we pounced on half of the swings. The four of us took turns swinging, and the feeling was instantaneous bliss.

There we were, a group of grown women who couldn’t control our laughter over a pair of swings. It didn’t matter whether we were the ones swinging or the ones watching, the laughter continued to roll out of us. The sheer joy of movement, and the brief return to childhood, affected us all.

When it was my turn, I walked backwards as far as I could go, all the way onto my tiptoes. Then I heaved up and gave myself a large first push. With each back-and-forth, I swung with more force. My legs kicked higher and higher, until I could see my feet flying towards the clouds. So high that I wanted to touch the sky, before I came back down to reality.


Though Asia has a reputation for being inexpensive, the truth is that prices for most things in Taipei were not that different than other cities. The food, however, was phenomenal and a bargain.

For breakfast my mom and I typically went to a stall in the food market, where the line was constantly out the door. They served the traditional greasy carb breakfast: fried pork buns, vegetable onion buns, lots of different types of dumplings, fried breads, and beef “sandwiches.” Of course, as any Chinese person can attest, you must have doufu nao (soft tofu soup), but it’s your choice between salty (my pick!) or sweet. No matter what we selected, my mom and I always arrived hungry and left happy.

My grandmother’s housekeeper also shopped at the food market early each morning to buy groceries for our lunch or dinner. I trailed behind her with my camera to capture the daily produce, which included not just vegetables, but also lots of seafood: seaweed, clams, shrimp, sea bass, and more. As part of every meal, she would pick indigenous fruit that could not be purchased in the U.S., such as liuwen (known as wax apple) and bali (a native guava). With these fresh ingredients, she prepared feasts for our family, often using my grandmother’s recipes. One popular Taiwanese dish is a thinly-sliced braised beef shank, served cold. She made it everyday for us because it was a favored treat.

When visiting Taipei, eating at a night market is a must! The streets are packed, and you shuffle along the herd of people with no personal space. When you find a food stand you must try, you crowd around and order. My cousins and I went to Raohe Street Night Market, sampling the most infamous dish, stinky tofu. (I still am not a fan.) We washed down the tofu with corn that was prepared like a blacksmith molding iron, fried Japanese octopus balls, and Asian pastries with red bean or ice cream. However, we shied away from the grilled crustaceans. Everything at the night market is cheap, which makes for a filling “second dinner.”

Before leaving Taipei, I went by Chia Te Bakery to buy their famous pineapple and cranberry “cakes” to share with friends back in the U.S. The ones baked in Taiwan are much better than the packaged supermarket kind, and Chia Te is considered the best. Lucky for me, I could walk there from my grandmother’s home. Every mouthful of the buttery soft crust, and the sweet-and-tart combination filling, was heaven.

I’d like to think my puopuo is enjoying a few Chia Te cakes in heaven as well. While it look grief and sadness to bring our family all together again, we celebrated her life and our bonds during this short trip to Taiwan – smiling up to the sky.

taiwan3a

taiwan3b