There’s nothing more thrilling and terrifying than staring into a blank page as a journalist.
That’s the part about journalism that I both love and hate—the moment when I had done as much research and interviews as I can to exhaust the topic I’m supposed to write about, and now all I have to do is put the knowledge I amassed into coherent words and sentences on a page.
Sometimes I know exactly how the story will be structured before I begin writing. Someone might provide me with a vivid anecdote, or I might be so clear about the nut graf that the words just flow from my fingers to my laptop to the Word Doc.
Other times, I sit staring at the white blinking screen. I blink back, gulp dark coffee, and pray fruitlessly that the caffeine will magically inject me with inspiration. I am certain it’s an intensive form of workout, because I get exhausted after an hour of sitting there staring into space. During those moments, I always gape at the insurmountable project in front of me: how the heck do I build a publishable story of significance from a page that screams blankness? How do I organize the gazillion facts and random quotes I’ve scribbled on ratty notebooks into a neat, readable structure of 800 words? How do I create a masterpiece out of scraps and snippets?
These similar thoughts were on my mind as I graduated on May 17, 2013.
Yes, it finally happened. I waited seven years to graduate from college. Then on the day I was finally graduating, I waited about four hours before I walked the stage and received a blank diploma.
I made several mistakes on my graduation: I was late. I didn’t have time for coffee (Bitch alert!). I didn’t bring bobby pins to keep my graduation cap secure, so it kept flopping down my ears. I lost my tassel. My sash kept fluttering away. I hugged the dean when I didn’t have to. I slipped as I walked down to have my picture taken. I walked out of the bathroom with the back of my skirt tucked into my stockings (thankfully I caught it in time).
The commencement was finally over. And what I had at the end of these four years in college was, quite literally, a blank page (well, and some thousands of dollars of loans).
All of us graduates got blank pages. Every commencement speech alluded to the uncertainties and fears that each student feel as we look into our bleak future of crushing loans and unceasing recession. It is a bad time to graduate, especially as a journalism major. Many of us don’t have a full-time job lined up. Already some of my friends are busy preparing for grad school. Some are leaving the States to teach or travel. Some are frantically applying for jobs. Some are taking it easy, recuperating before they start their “adult” life. And we all really need a drink.
I’m one of those lucky, lucky graduates who have definite plans for the near future. I’m interning for three months as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s features section. WORLD Magazine has offered me a full-time job when that internship ends. I’m somewhat more secure than many.
But still, we’re all entering a new chapter in life. There’s a gloriously empty page in front of us, itching to be filled with fresh stories. But I also feel like I’ve been taught how to fish, and now I’m cast out into the ocean with two fingers crossed and not much supplies. It’s exciting. And also slightly intimidating. But thankfully, not terrifying.
I shut myself in a Korean spa one early morning after my graduation. I felt like I needed some quiet, personal space, and there’s no place better than a Korean spa (jjimjilbang) for blissful seclusion when you live in the city. Seriously, if you haven’t been to a Korean spa, you’re missing out on a special oasis. Yes, you have to be buck naked, and yes, you’ll be surrounded by old Korean ladies with sagging breasts and stretched out tummies. But for just about $15-25, you get a full day of solitude, plus amenities such as magazines, Anime, sleeping bags, fresh towels and hot jade tubs.
As I steamed and boiled, I closed my eyes and prayed. At first I got a bit panicky thinking about whether I’ll do a good job at the Chicago Tribune. I begged God not to allow me to make any stupid, humiliating mistakes. And then I re-thought my prayers and asked God to help me pray a more detailed prayer. How do I pray about my future in a way that is most pleasing to Him? I didn’t receive brilliant insights that morning, but I did tune myself to think more deeply on how best to pray and meet my “blank page” future.
God showed me answers in the details. Before my graduation day, my parents came to visit a few days earlier so we can take a mini family vacation to the Grand Canyons. My brother couldn’t take days off work, so I had my parents all to myself.
For the first time in my life, I was the main driver during a family vacation. I picked my parents up at Las Vegas, cruised us to the Grand Canyons, sped us back to Las Vegas.
One day we were spending about 10 hours on the road, and my dad being my dad, he used up all those hours preaching, teaching and lecturing. We were stuck in a tin car speeding through a 100-degree desert so I had to listen to it all…and I received a lot of grace. I think now that I was cast out into the ocean of adulthood, I really hungered for some form of coaching, and I can’t ask for wiser coaches than my parents.
The Grand Canyons is…breathtaking. I had seen those rocky striped hills in pictures, but it’s quite another to gaze at the ancient landscapes in real life. I have to say though, I was missing Starbucks iced coffee about 20 minutes after we arrived, especially because the inn’s coffee tasted like burnt toast. At least something about my future is clear: I’m staying in the city.
Being at the Grand Canyons made me think about how puny a human’s life really is, compared to the vast beauty and mysteries of the universe. Not that nature is infallible and all-powerful either—during my trip there I learned that the Colorado River is starving, drained of its resources due to burgeoning human population and persistent drought. But as a reporter it’s easy to get spiraled into the details and the now—it takes experience and wisdom to gain a fuller, richer understanding of the world’s happenings and then be able to hone the abstract into the individual. That’s one thing I’m starting to pray for: better judgment and sharp worldview.
The very next day after we returned to Los Angeles, I had my graduation.
Those two bouquets I have holding triumphantly above my head? Symbols of the two families I cherish: my flesh-and-blood family, and my spiritual family in Christ.
I call them my church friends, but I really think of them more as my brothers and sisters. My graduation pictures were taken by Chris Reyes, a church brother who is an amazing photographer. On my right is my young pastor Isaac, and on my left is Hannah, one of my favorite people in the world. I don’t know how I got to know such cool people.
The next night I had my graduation party at Next Door Lounge, a 1920s-style speakeasy, where waitresses flounce in flapper dresses and bartenders stand sharp in suspenders. One of my closest friends, Tracy, surprised me by showing up from San Francisco.
It was yet a different group of friends, a different sort of celebration, but ah yes, totally essential. These are the group of friends where crazy is relative and loudness is infectious. We disagree about many issues (in fact we just had a big email conversation on feminism), but we aren’t afraid to voice our opinions out. Most of the time we aren’t able to change the other’s opinion, but I love that we have strong opinions, and that despite our differences, we share genuine love and respect for each other.
That night (morning?) I got home, napped for two hours, and then hopped out again for a three-hour, blistering drive into the California desert with my intrepid co-reporter Angela.
The trip was sobering in all sorts of ways. I stupidly didn’t bring my sunglasses, so I was crying and crying and crying, blinded by the sun’s unrelenting rays. It was so hot that the car still steamed with the air-conditioning on full blast. We guzzled tons of water and fueled on fruit strips, beef jerky and Graham honey bears so that we won’t die. All this for the sake of one story.
We stopped in the middle of Nowhere, Godforsaken. It’s this off-the-grid piece of forgotten land called Slab City, where transients, artists, musicians, bums, addicts and preachers camp out in trailers and RVs and subsist without water, electricity, sewage, and other nifty public amenities we take for granted. I learned that no matter how far you travel out into the barren land, so long as there is more than one human being, there’s always going to be drama. Angela and I somehow found ourselves invited into a tarp behind a trailer, where a cozy of interesting characters (ages ranging from 21 to 67) dished wild gossip and sniffed marijuana buds.
The experience was an immediate answer to my prayer asking for both a comprehensive worldview and detailed judgment. I’m so grateful for Angela’s company. We discussed, debated, agreed and disagreed about what we gathered from that flabbergasting day, including what it means to be a Christian journalist. It put some things into perspective for me, and gave me several topics to mule over.
My last week in Los Angeles before leaving for Chicago was a whirlwind of saying goodbyes, drinking goodbyes, and frantic last-minute reporting for World Magazine. I had one last BBQ with my church family (home-smoked beef and pork ribs, potato salad and chicken chilaquiles), two AYCE sushi feasts with friends, a bachelorette party in Las Vegas, Sam Gye Tang with a best friend, several coffee and brunch meet-ups with fellow graduates, another AYCE Korean BBQ with friends, a very awkward club experience (have you ever been in a club where the only person dancing is the over-enthusiastic DJ?)…and then on my last night, two of my church brothers stayed up till dawn just so they can give me a ride to the airport at 5:30 a.m.
I was squished into an uncomfortable middle seat on my flight to Chicago, so I was sliding in and out of restless sleep. But I smiled a lot to myself, thinking about how much grace I have received the last four years as a college student in what I think is the best city in the world. When I arrived in Chicago’s Midway airport, I was received by old family friends, who battled hours’ traffic to pick me up, take me to Target, warm me up with Pho, shop at a Vietnamese market, then drop me back to my apartment in Rogers Park. And the whole time, as much as I enjoyed their company, I kept thinking, “How will I ever repay this grace?”
Grace is, in Christian terms, a gift of love that is utterly underserved, wholly free and purely good. It is not mere kindness, but the kind of all-encompassing, divine agape love sourced from Christ. It is a beautiful concept that forms the foundation of Christianity.
I’ve been subsisting on grace these past four years. Emotional debt has stacked up so high that I’ve given up trying to “repay” grace. So I receive, with great gratitude, for the undeserved grace it is. I was writing an email to my parents (they’re in Asia on a mission trip right now) about all the grace I have received just in this past week alone, and tears welled up my eyes. Grace doesn’t just fill you with thankfulness. It feeds you power, confidence, and this brimming joy and zest to share that grace with others. After all, there’s plenty to go around.
I start work tomorrow. I count it as my first real page of a new chapter. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to be written on that page, but I have a feeling the overall theme will still be grace: Grace received, grace shared, grace given.