While I was struggling with career direction in my mid to late twenties, another important decision emerged. Who should I marry? How do I find him? How do I know if he’s right one? Clarity in this area always seemed elusive. How do people solve this mystery, my friends and I pondered. My path from single to married– like my search for career– was not a simple one.
First, some background
It was an early Easter morning. I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood near my grandma’s house in Garden Grove. I lived many of my growing years near that home and had long moved away, but I was feeling nostalgic. It was a cool morning with the sun just beginning to peek in. I basked in its surprising warmth and was in good spirits. So I began to talk to God. How will I know who to marry, I asked Him. I had a few possibilities in mind, but was not really expecting an answer. I knew these things were not so simple.
The answer came quickly : “You will know because he will put Me first and that’s the only way you will feel secure.”
I knew it was God speaking to me because the words were too wise to come from me and I did not have such self-knowledge. I felt the peace that only comes from being in the presence of God. I don’t experience it often, but when it happens, I know what it is. I lingered in that walk and cherished those words in my heart.
How Steve and I Met
Fast forward a year or so. I was in my mid-twenties. I had my first real job and had just moved into my own place. (For career context see my blog titled First Year of Teaching.) My friend Andrew Lee was in town from the Bay Area and invited me to dinner one Friday night with a group of mutual friends. We were going to meet at his friend Steve’s apartment at UC Irvine.
When I first met Steve, he was wearing short sport shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops; and seemed quite nerdy. Andrew said Steve was an MBA student from Taiwan. I was surprised he was not more dressed up because we were going out to dinner at a nice restaurant. As we we were walking to the restaurant, Steve asked me if I went to church. (As we spoke I realized he was actually quite American. He didn’t have an accent, had spent his childhood in the U.S. and had attended college at UCSD.) I told him I was going to visit an Asian-American church called Newsong for the first time. Steve said he was attending Newsong and he’d look for me on Sunday. Andrew was planning on going too.
That Sunday I met up with Steve and Andrew at Newsong, and the three of us went out to lunch afterwards at Rubio’s. In line waiting to order, Steve asked for my phone number. I remember him wearing a blue polo shirt, jeans and a fanny pack with the technology company Adaptec on it. How quirky, I thought, that he wears a fanny pack. For an introverted, nerdy guy he seemed quite forward. I was not thinking of dating him, but I gave him my number because he was quite nice and a friend of Andrew. (He later told me, to my surprise, that I was the only girl whose phone number he ever asked for. )
A couple days later, Steve left a message on my answering machine. He invited me to small group for young adults that was just starting up in Irvine. I had another message from one of the church pastors inviting me to the same group. I was curious about the small group and the church, so I went.
During small group, Steve would sometimes sit up tall and show off his very good posture. We sat in a circle on the floor, so his straight posture was particularly pronounced. It always made me laugh, but I never thought I’d date this funny guy. I did notice he was very kind.
Steve called me often. He’d invite me to small group activities or relay small group related information. I assumed he was the social coordinator for our small group and remember thinking it was very nice that he always included me. Somehow he’d stretch out his calls into conversations. I can’t remember what we talked about but I remember he had a very calm, soothing voice. The phone calls became more frequent and eventually, somehow, we started hanging out.
I was open to getting to know Steve better. We would have dinner or we would go on an outing; it was very casual. I felt very comfortable around Steve. Our parents were both Taiwanese and we shared many of the same values. The items he had in his apartment –the Ritz Tours tote bags, the plastic containers of pork floss, the imitation leather house slippers–were very familiar. He had all the cultural accoutrements of a Chinese immigrant family. I felt oddly at home.
A Rough Start
About spring/summer we started to officially date. Somewhat. He was serious about me and but I was not as sure. I liked him, but I had reservations. The issue for me was communication. I wanted to have long talks about spiritual matters and deep conversation with him but he was not wired that way. Steve lived in the physical world of information and I in an abstract world of feelings and ideas. When I asked him how his day was, he recounted the schedule of what he did from morning to night. I wanted to know how he was, not exactly what happened in precise chronological order that day. I couldn’t tell what was going on in his inner life nor could I feel that he connected with what was going on in mine. But at the same time he was kind, attentive and growing more cute. I knew he was a good man.
To complicate matters, Steve had just graduated from business school and had accepted a position in Utah with Iomega Corporation, which meant our relationship would become long-distance and communication would become more difficult.
We wrote letters and spoke on the phone (this was before email) but the disconnection persisted. Then his position was moved to Switzerland, which meant we were in opposite time zones. I would speak to him after work or late at night. He sounded tired when we spoke. I was teaching fourth grade (See blog post Can I Have My Job Back?) and was exhausted. My career wasn’t working out and I felt the same way about the relationship. But each time I’d express that sentiment, Steve’s comforting voice would somehow talk me out of it.
Fast forward about a year. It was summer, 1999. Steve told me Iomega was laying off employees, that he chose the layoff package, and that he was moving back to Orange County to work on our relationship. I told him I had decided to go to graduate school at Stanford and was moving to the Bay Area. I had already found a room in a lovely home with two roommates near campus. Steve said he’d move to Palo Alto with me, stay with Andrew, our mutual friend, and look for job. We would finally be together.
Except that I wasn’t sure things that’s what I wanted. By the time we had both moved to Palo Alto, Steve was sure he wanted to marry me and was serious about our relationship, but I had reservations. I had just finished an exhausting second year of teaching and my career was not working out. I went to graduate school to start over. I needed to rethink our relationship too. Even though we communicated through phone, mail and sometimes email, I still felt disconnected and wasn’t sure I wanted to proceed. Because it was not fair for him to be in this type of relationship, I told him I wanted to break up. This time I couldn’t be convinced. I just didn’t feel good about it. Steve agreed with me and decided we wouldn’t talk to each other for six months. Maybe time would make things more clear. We lived just ten minutes apart.
So while I was in graduate school trying to figure out my thesis topic, what I wanted to research, whether to pursue a Ph.D in Education, which internships to pursue, and what type of work I wanted to do when I graduated, I was also trying to decide whether or not Steve was someone I might want to marry. At the end of six months I would either tell Steve yes, I am serious, I want to see if our relationship will lead to marriage or we would go our separate ways. Steve, of course, could decide to date someone else if he wanted to.
I prayed and prayed and heard no answer.
Then one evening I went to a singles’ service at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, the church I was attending in Menlo Park. The pastor wanted to encourage single people who he acknowledged were sometimes marginalized in a multi-generational church. At the end of the service, he invited anyone who had anything heavy on his or her heart to walk up to the front of the sanctuary for prayer. My six-month deadline was approaching and I was desperate for direction, so I stepped forward. I can’t remember what was prayed over me, who prayed over me, or what exactly happened, but I remember my prayer to God. I said something along the lines of God, I cannot figure this out but I surrender this relationship to you. Whether I stay with Steve or lose him, I trust you.
Suddenly, I felt the peace of God. I did not hear an answer either way whether or not I get back together with Steve, but I didn’t hold it tightly either way. I wasn’t afraid of making a wrong decision. God was going to work it out.
A short time later, I had a revelation. I realized I had never given Steve a fair chance from the beginning. I had always been critical of him in some way.
So with this knowledge I gave Steve my answer. I wanted to give the relationship a fresh start and not be so critical. I wanted to start dating again. Steve’s answer was the same.
It was spring and Steve and I were officially back together. I enjoyed having a boyfriend and without having a cloud of uncertainly hanging over me. The birds were chirping, the flowers blooming. Was this how it felt to be in love?
Unfortunately, this easy, blissful time didn’t last very long before we had our big first fight. Kind of. I don’t remember the details, but I became mad and frustrated at Steve about something, expressed it, and Steve had no response. He just sat there and didn’t say anything. This made me even more angry. I understand now he was scared and paralyzed and not used to resolving conflicts, but for me then it meant we could not have a difficult conversation. He would just shut down. It was very frustrating. We had worked so hard to get to this place in our relationship, things were rapidly falling apart, and for the first time Steve seemed to doubt whether or not he could make the relationship work. He looked so sad, I felt sorry for him and couldn’t be mad at him anymore.
Having invested so much time in our relationship and not wanting to let it die so quickly, we both decided to ask for help. I reached out the the pastor who did pre-marital counseling at my church and we set up an appointment.
Steve and I both believe in a courtship model of dating. It sounds old-fashioned, but it simply means that we only wanted to date with the prospect of marriage in mind. This is why there was so much stress in the early stages of our relationship. We explained to Pastor Wayne, who was in charge of marriage counseling, our long convoluted story and asked him if he could help us figure out if our relationship had a chance or if it he thought it was bound for serious difficulty. He agreed to what I suppose was pre-pre-marital marriage counseling.
First we met separately. I told Pastor Wayne all my misgivings about marrying Steve, especially about our communication problems. He said difficulty communicating was definitely a red flag. I knew it, I thought, the pastor agrees with me. I am not sure what he and Steve talked about.
Next we all met together. Steve and I drove separately and met at the church. It took both of us about an hour in Bay Area traffic. Steve brought me a Subway sandwich for dinner and one for my friend Nancy, who also happened to be at church. When Pastor Wayne saw Steve with the sandwiches he told me: “Can’t you see, Tina, how much he loves you?” That was a big eye opener for me. Taking care of me was how he showed his love for me, not so much with words. From that point on, I think Pastor Wayne was on Steve’s side. He explained that I am looking for a perfect finished product but what I should be looking for in a mate is good marble and Steve was good marble.
We met with Pastor Wayne about once a month or so for about a year. We went through a pre-marital counseling book and made a lot of progress. We found that most of our values were similar and that we had similar goals. The most practical training we received was how to communicate during arguments. In the past, I would win every argument because as soon as a conflict arose, Steve would disengage. Pastor Wayne taught us to communicate through writing when we had a disagreement. This leveled the playing field, caused me to be more civil and quickly revealed the misunderstandings. It worked!
We graduated from counseling with Pastor Wayne’s blessing. I remembered what God spoke to me– you will know because he will put me first and that’s the only way you will feel secure. Steve was a godly man and put God first but I still did not know for sure.
How I Finally Figured It Out
Steve and I have almost been married 20 years, so it’s obvious how this story ends. But how did I finally “know?”
Winter of 2000 Steve and I attended a week-long Christian conference in Chicago located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I imagined a week of Steve and I attending workshops and seminars together and maybe doing some dreaming about how we would serve in ministry together. Boy, was I wrong.
As soon as we arrived the huge sports arena, we were briskly sorted like cattle into men’s and women’s living quarters. I waved goodbye to Steve and soon lost sight of him in the sea of heads. I didn’t know when I would see him again.
I checked into the dorms. My roommate was a nice lady from Florida. I noticed she was wearing a dress under her coat, nylons, and leather flats. I considered my own thick jacket, socks, and hiking boots, and in a moment of impulsive charity, gave her my sweater hat.
I wish I had not done that. My roommate never complained of cold and told me she was fine with the weather, while I was incessantly cold and miserable. I didn’t know to buy waterproof boots, that winter jackets need to be form-fitting (mine was too big), the warming properties of wool vs. cotton, and how important a hat was to keep warm. Outside, my fingers and toes felt frozen.
There was unsatisfying respite from the cold in the dorm because although our dorm room was heated, our window had a hole in it and a constant current of frigid air blew in from outside. I made the difficult decision of stuffing the hole with one of my t-shirts (a precious layer and we couldn’t do laundry) but there were still remnants of cold air. The bathroom windows were always open so I had to make another difficult decision each night. Should I attempt taking a shower knowing the water would sometimes be hot (this would feel good) and sometimes cold (the water temperature often fluctuated) and the windows were open in the bathroom; or should I just skip the shower all together?
Shuttles took us from dorms to several campus stops but because I am genetically-directionally-challenged, I kept getting lost. I wandered around campus freezing cold, walking seemingly in circles, constantly asking for directions, and not being able to find my workshop locations. I remember slipping on ice, landing on my backpack and not being able to get up until someone lifted me up only to start wandering again. Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate being cold.
I thought I would be spending the conference with Steve, but because we lived in separate dorms, our meals were in our dorms, and we had no phones, it was difficult to coordinate meeting up. Steve and I had walkie talkies with a limited range and I’d press the button now and then and speak into the emptiness, Steve, Steve are you there?
During this time I managed to see Steve once at a day at our evening session. Our shuttles would take us directly to the arena where everyone gathered together so at least that time I wouldn’t get lost. I was so happy to see him.
I soon caught a cold which turned into a high fever and flu and spent the last few days of the conference in my dorm room shivering in my bed, counting backwards on my fingers 4, 3, 2, 1 until the conference was over and we could finally go home.
On the way home, Steve bought Chinese takeout for my roommates and I. See how he’s taking care of me again? That night after Steve went home, I finally “knew”. If I was so miserable all week without Steve, how could I live my entire life without him? As long as I were with Steve, everything would be okay. So that’s how I decided to marry him.
The Bible verse Steve and I chose for our wedding was I John 4:19: “We love because He [God] first loved us.”
It describes God’s love for us and our response to his love; and also and my love story with Steve. Steve’s love had always been constant. It took me many years to discover how faithful and enduring it was. Each year I still discover more of more how much Steve loves me and I love him more. A friend asked me recently, what is your secret to being happily married? For me, it’s that principle above. Steve keeps loving me and I keep realizing how much he loves me and then I love him more.
I took time out from writing about career to show another area of my life where I struggled with direction. While my career journey would continue to twist and I’d continue to encounter failure and disappointment, I did find clarity and peace about who I would marry. My marriage has had many trials and troubles which I could document in another blog, but unlike the area of career, the marriage part of my was life settled within a few years and I am thankful for that.