A scream erupts from Max’s throat.
He won the lottery!
Well, the next best thing.
Max reads the first words of the email again:
We’re pleased to offer you the Executive Assistant position with our company. If you agree, please sign the attached offer of employment, and we will let you know the next steps regarding the onboarding process.
He couldn’t believe it. He finally got a job.
Footsteps thunder down the stairs. Max’s cousin, Ella, searches the kitchen with frantic eyes. She grips a pen in her hand, positioned to stab the nearest threat. “What’s wrong? I heard you scream.”
If he wasn’t so giddy right now, he would make fun of Ella for her reaction. The BTS sweater with all of the members’ faces she wears is even more ammunition, but he ignores it. “I got the job!”
A look of sheer murder flickers in her eyes upon hearing there isn’t any actual danger. It transforms into joy when she processes his words. Ella lets out a scream of her own. “Oh my god!” She drops the pen and hugs Max, the two jumping around the kitchen.
When they let go, Ella claps her hands. “We have to celebrate. I’m taking you out. When are you free? When do you start? What are the next steps?”
Max laughs at the flood of questions. His cousin talks a mile a minute when she’s excited. “I’m free until the job starts. The email said I start in two weeks. I have to sign their offer letter, and they’ll let me know what to do after that.”
Ella sits at the kitchen table, and Max joins her. The sunlight streaming through the windows can’t compete with the brightness of both their smiles. “Have you told your parents yet?”
“Not yet. I just got the email, and you’re the first person who knows.”
“I was the first person last time, too.” The light dims from a cloud passing over the sun.
Max leans back in his chair. “I can’t believe that was five months ago. I was such a different person back then.”
His mind drifts back in time. He is brought back to the moment his quarter-life crisis began...
“Ready for our meeting?” asked his boss, Whitney.
“Yep, let’s do it.” Max unplugged his laptop from his desk to bring with him.
“We’re going to stop by Annette’s office first.”
The head of HR? He didn’t know what role she had to play in this meeting, but she was fun to talk to.
Max followed Whitney to Annette’s office. They passed by empty desks. Their company had just moved to a new building. All of the departments were still getting settled. Cubicles were half-built, chairs were stacked in corners, and plants were waiting to be put to use as decoration. The space smelled of plaster and newness, ready to be replaced with coffee and routine.
They arrived at Annette's office. The smile that normally played along her face was absent. Tension hung in the air. A kernel of dread formed in his stomach. Something was wrong.
“Please, sit,” directed Annette. Max and Whitney took the seats across from her desk. “You’re probably wondering why you’re here.”
“We’ve decided to let you go. Your skills aren’t what we need at our company right now…”
Max didn’t hear the rest. His thoughts came to a screeching halt. What did she say? Let go?
Was he being fired?
The sound of paper cut through his thoughts. Annette handed him a document. “And here are the termination papers that go into more detail. If you choose to sign them, we can offer you a severance package. Do you have any questions?”
She might as well have been speaking in a foreign language. Max’s brain short-circuited. His mouth was dry. His first instinct was to run out of the room. However, a small but firm voice in the back of his head stopped him and asked him a question. It was just enough to get him to ask the same question out loud.
Annette blinked. “Excuse me?” As if she was surprised he actually had a question.
Max turned to Whitney. “Why are you firing me? How did you come to this decision?”
His boss averted her gaze. She couldn’t even talk to him directly about it. “There are two main reasons.
The first is that you were taking a long time to finish projects. The second is that you don’t seem happy at the job anymore.”
His confusion ignited into anger. Of all the reasons… The irony was that Whitney wasn’t wrong in what she said. Yes, he had been taking a long time to finish his projects, but that was because she kept assigning him projects that weren’t related to his job and didn’t offer him any support. She did this to her other employees, too. They were left to fend for themselves and got blamed when they didn’t meet the unrealistic standards expected of them. The other employees, now Max’s friends, shared their frustrations during his first week. He tried to show initiative and produce quality work, but it was the equivalent of floundering in the ocean without a life jacket. Max tried to talk with Whitney to communicate his concerns, but she always dismissed them, insisting he would figure it out.
Anger bubbled to the surface, ready to erupt and call out Whitney. However, he knew that would just make him the disgruntled employee who couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job. He would be stereotyped as the angry brown person.
Stay calm, Max. Be professional.
“Was there a reason why we couldn't have had a meeting to discuss my performance before you came to this decision?”
Whitney straightened as if she had been preparing for this question. “I tried talking to you, but nothing seemed to be working.”
Max didn’t have to analyze their past interactions to see the flaws in her statement. “Are you referring to the one time you interrupted me during my lunch break and asked if I was okay because I ‘seemed down’?” He put the last two words in air quotes to emphasize his point.
Any doubts he had about Whitney’s leadership were confirmed at that moment. There had never been a formal sit-down meeting to review his work. If Max had to guess, it seemed like Whitney didn’t want to go through the effort of giving him a fair evaluation.
Instead of addressing what he said, she moved on, much to Max’s annoyance. “We’re letting you go before the holidays to make it easier.”
Max took in a controlled breath. Easier for who? Christmas was two weeks away. He still needed to finish his shopping for his family and friends. But if he didn’t have an income… How could Whitney possibly think any of this was helpful to him?
“And I’d be happy to write you a letter of recommendation while you search for your next job.”
That was the last straw.
“With all due respect, Whitney, I don’t want a letter of recommendation from you. I can’t trust that what you’ll say will cast me in a good light, given the reasons for why you’re letting me go.” His voice cracked at the end. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, but he wasn’t going to give Whitney the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
His boss didn’t have the same control over her emotions. Whitney sniffled and wiped at her eyes.
Are you kidding me? Max was upset because he was getting fired, but Whitney had the audacity to be emotional? Unbelievable. He shook his head, grabbed the termination papers, and stormed out of the room.
When he got back to his desk, he started packing his belongings. Since he had only been there a short time, he didn’t have much in the way of decorations or mementos.
“What happened?” one of his co-workers asked. “Are you okay?”
“I just got fired.”
“What?” exclaimed the rest of the group.
Max slung his backpack over his shoulder. “I’ll tell you later. I’m going to miss you all.” As much as he wanted to get out of that building, he couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to the friends he made. He hugged each of them.
Whitney returned to the office. Despite being the boss, she couldn’t have looked more out of place if she tried.
Max approached her. “If one of the reasons why you’re firing me is because I didn’t seem happy, maybe you should ask yourself what it was about the job that made me unhappy.”
He didn’t wait for a response. Max speed-walked out of the building and didn’t stop until he was inside his car. The moment he shut the door, he let the tears fall.
New year, new me. That’s what people said, right? Max was never one for resolutions, but he had every intention of finding a new job.
After he was fired, he didn’t immediately start searching. He had been given a break—albeit under less than preferred circumstances—and he used it to recharge. Most companies were off for the holidays, anyway.
Christmas was an ordeal. When his cousins and aunts and uncles asked him how the new job was going, Max lied and said that it was great. He knew they would have supported him had he told them the truth. However, the thought of having to explain why he was fired and the inevitable follow-up of what he would do next exhausted him. Max also didn’t want to see the pity on their faces. He didn’t need his relatives feeling bad for him.
The first person he told was Ella. Besides her, the only people who knew the truth were his parents and best friend. He told his mom and dad out of obligation on the day it happened. Max was worried his parents would blame him for not meeting the standards of his former company. Being immigrants, they always emphasized the value of hard work, even with people you don’t like. But they were surprisingly understanding and told him he would find a better job. They even agreed not to tell the extended family, which was a marvel given their family’s tendency to spread gossip like wildfire.
Max waited for his laptop to turn on. He sipped his honey and lemon tea to soothe his nerves. A storm raged outside his window, the snow caught in a fierce dance with the wind. He was perfectly content in his pajamas with a throw blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
It had been three weeks since he lost his job. During that time, he had reflected on what he wanted from a new job. No, not wanted. Deserved.
Looking back, there had been a slew of red flags that should have set off all the alarms in his head. The job was in-person Monday through Friday, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if the world wasn't in the grip of a pandemic. Other companies learned to adapt and found higher productivity rates when their employees worked from home or at least adopted a hybrid format. During the interview process, Max was given a salary range with a $15,000 difference. Based on his experiences and qualifications, an offer in the middle of that range would have been more than fair. However, when he was offered the job, the salary was the lowest amount in the range he had been given. He had to call the president of the company to negotiate for a higher salary that would pay his bills and keep him fed. When Max broke down the pronunciation of his two-syllable last name, that same president replied with, “Oh, that’s too hard.” She didn’t even attempt to learn how to say his surname and respect his heritage.
As terrible as all of those things were, they showed Max what not to look for in a new job. Silver linings and all that.
He checked the clock on his desk. 9:00 AM. He was going to spend the next two hours doing everything related to job searching. The first step was creating a space that would motivate him. He silenced his phone. He lit a lavender candle to help him focus. A granola bar was stashed in his drawer for when he needed a break and a snack. Next, he pulled up his resume and cover letter. They were overdue for an update. Lastly, he pulled up his profile on LinkedIn, the doorway to the world of job-seeking.
This was his chance to find a better job, and the bar was set pretty low. He was ready to dive in, knowing he was on a somewhat strict deadline. Max’s 26th birthday was in four months. He would be taken off his parents’ insurance. His mom and dad didn’t hide the fact that they were worried he wouldn’t find a job in time, but he let that motivate him. He still had time, and he still had hope, two luxuries that would bolster him in the months to come.
Everything was going to be fine.
Everything was most certainly not fine.
“I want to curl up in a ball and stop existing.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “Stop being dramatic. Did you submit it?”
Max clicked the button on his screen. “Just did. I have officially filed for unemployment.”
He hoped this day would never come. But three months in and one month away from his birthday, his clock was nearing its end. Max’s parents had suggested he file for unemployment the day he told them he got fired. He dismissed the idea, saying he would be fine. He was raised by parents who made him neurotic about saving money. That resulted in him having enough to live comfortably and pay what he needed to pay. Not having a job meant only buying the necessities and forgoing splurges and personal purchases. That was apparently what responsible adults in his situation did.
His parents had indulged him the first time, but even their patience had its limits. Yesterday, they ambushed him with a talk about his life and what he was going to do if he didn’t find a job in time. They essentially told Max to get his head out of the clouds and file for unemployment because he wasn’t exactly being swarmed with interviews. His parents were always great at popping the bubble he had erected around himself, the bubble, of course, being denial. Now here he was, at his cousin’s house, relying on the government for assistance.
The steady rhythm of rain matched his current mood: Sad with a capital S. But if these April showers were indicative of his life, then the May flowers would bring something good, right? Max didn’t want to get his hopes up, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to banish them altogether, either.
Ella patted his back. “I’m proud of you. How does it work?”
Max peered at the instructions sent to his email. “I have to do four job contacts each week, a contact being an application, messaging a recruiter, et cetera. I just have to show that I’m putting effort into finding a job. Then the government will give me, like, four hundred dollars a week.”
“That’s not bad at all. Now you can get paid for what you’ve already been doing.”
She wasn’t wrong. Max knew he should have filed for unemployment earlier if only to have spending money. Unfortunately, his pride–the trait that will be the downfall of him and his entire family–got in the way. He didn’t want to be “officially” unemployed. It made him feel inadequate. Like a failure. There was no shame in filing for unemployment, but Max thought he would have gotten a job by now. Instead, he had received dozens of rejection emails. Each one slowly chipped away at his confidence.
He was so much more than a piece of paper that listed his experiences. All he needed was an interview to show off his personality and work ethic. All he needed was a chance.
A week ago, Max had been brutally attacked by an existential crisis that tore into his self-worth. It hit him that he was jobless and single and nowhere close to where he thought would be in his life. His parents crossed an ocean and made a new life for themselves. Meanwhile, he graduated college with a degree and elevated levels of anxiety. He felt like a “bad Asian” for not being able to find the same stability his parents had. But that wasn’t even the entire picture. He felt like a bad adult. His friends had well-paying jobs and/or long-term relationships. Even Max’s younger brother, who was about to finish his first year of graduate school, was doing better than him.
Max didn’t want to go on dates right now because he didn’t want to meet any guys while unemployed. Even if his situation wasn’t his fault, there was still a stigma toward people without jobs. His best friend pointed out that society told people they only have worth if they’re making money. Max knew it was absurd, but a part of him still fed into that toxic belief.
He was cursed to watch everyone around him lead the lives he couldn’t. The realization ached with a hollow pain that left him numb.
His stupor only lasted a day. When Max emerged from the fog of his insecurities, he acknowledged that his emotions might have been hyperactive, but he didn’t feel any less lost. Filing for unemployment did bring him some comfort, though. He was doing what was necessary, pride be damned.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do with the apartment?” Ella asked.
Oh, right. Max’s apartment, or as his parents called it: the money sucker. His mom and dad had been pressuring him to move back in with them. They made it abundantly clear an apartment was a bad investment. What they failed to realize, however, was the personal significance it held. Max loved his parents, but he couldn’t stay with them forever. He had moved out three years ago, and doing so came with a newfound sense of freedom and independence. Sure, his apartment was in a basement and the air conditioning didn’t work in the summer and there were a ton of bugs, but it was his. Moving back in with his parents would mean he couldn’t handle life on his own.
“Nope,” he replied. “That’s future me’s problem. Ask me next month.”
“You can’t avoid it forever.”
Max made a face. “I’m not avoiding it. I’m just rescheduling it for a later date. It’s called prioritizing, El.”
The lease on his apartment ended in June. If he didn’t have a job by then, renewing the contract would just mean losing his money to rent. Max shoved the thought aside. He could make a better decision about it if or when he got a job. That was his primary focus.
His parents’ words echoed in his head. What are you going to do if you don’t find a job?
He hated that he didn’t have an answer.
But there was one thing Max knew for sure–he was not going to give up.
“And nevertheless, I persisted–with two weeks left before my birthday!”
Ella laughs. “You sure did. I swear, you experienced a year’s worth of stress in five months, and you have the gray hairs to prove it.”
Max frowns. “Ugh, don’t remind me. The stress was killing me.”
“How many jobs did you apply for?”
He goes to his LinkedIn account and clicks on his list of submitted applications. “Twenty-seven,” he says after he finishes counting. “Most never got back to me. Three sent me generic rejection emails. One gave me a phone screening and an in-person interview but never contacted me afterward. And then I had the two interviews for this job.”
“It paid off in the end?” asks Ella.
Max nods. “It paid off in the end.”
“What’s the job again?”
“I’m going to be the Marketing Coordinator for a non-profit. It surprisingly pays more than my last position, so I’m not complaining.” He did a little dance in his chair. “All of the drama aside, I’m way more excited about this job than I was when I got the last one—that has to be a good sign.”
For the first time in months, he feels like he can breathe again. The pressure of needing to find a job before his birthday had weighed on his shoulders for so long. Now Max could go out and buy his own meals instead of splitting the cost with his friends. He could buy gifts for his friends and shower them with the love they deserve via materialistic means. Money may not buy happiness, but having a steady income comes very close.
“I’m just glad you’ll be making your own money again,” said his cousin, echoing his thoughts.
“More importantly, I’ll have insurance, so I can properly deal with our messed up healthcare system.”
“Gross. Remind me not to become an adult.”
“I do not recommend it. Zero out of five stars.”
“Speaking of adulting, have you decided what you’re going to do with your apartment? It is now present you’s problem.”
Max leans back in his chair and sighs. “Yeah. I think I’m going to move back in with my parents.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, and he had given a lot of thought to it. He had even made a pros and cons list because it helped him organize his thoughts. A month ago, Max was completely against the idea of moving back in. Failure of any kind left a bitter taste in his mouth. Moving back in was so… un-American.
And that was when he had his epiphany.
Yes, the American part of him hated the idea, but he was also Asian. Culturally, it was okay for children to stay with their parents. The fact that Max’s parents didn’t convert his childhood bedroom into an at-home gym when he moved out spoke volumes. The message was clear: there would always be a place for him in their house. (At one point, his dad did say he could stay with them, even when he was married, and that was a hard pass for Max.) He wouldn’t be charged rent, he could use all of the amenities provided, and—one of his top reasons—he could always have a front-row seat to his mom’s cooking. He was lucky and extremely grateful to have parents who were still willing to support him, not that he ever should have had any doubts in the first place.
He thought of some of his older cousins who had stayed with their parents until their early 30s. They were able to save money, buy their own houses, and lead successful lives. Max wanted to follow that same path. Doing so meant sacrificing the short-term benefits of moving out for the long-term goals of a comfortable life. What was adulting if not making those kinds of decisions?
Giving up the apartment meant losing his autonomy and independence from his parents. Max loved them, but he still needed to establish a life for himself that wasn’t attached to them. Having his own place made that easy, and now, he would have to find a new way to make it work. Moving back in was the smart and practical choice, and Max was nothing if not those two qualities. It was the best thing he could do for himself at this point in his life. He had finally found peace with the notion and was ready to carry it out.
Ella pumps her fist and shouts, startling Max. “Yes! I knew you would come to your senses. Mia owes me ten bucks now.”
Max arches an eyebrow. “You had a bet with your sister on whether I would move back in?”
Ella shrugs. “Yeah. We were originally going to bet on whether you would find a job before your birthday, but we didn’t want to put those vibes out into the universe. You’re welcome.”
Max rolls his eyes. “I hate both of you.”
“Love you, too, cuz.” She blows him a kiss, and he swats it out of the air. “Let me change, and then we’ll go get sushi for lunch to celebrate.”
As she heads upstairs, he calls after her, “I’m going to order the most expensive rolls! Your treat!”
The clouds drift past, allowing the sun to cast the kitchen in a warm glow. Max shifts his gaze out the window. His aunt’s colorful tulips sway in the breeze. A family of birds chirp in a tree. The neighbor’s kids laugh and scream with each other. He’s still riding the high of being offered a job. A spark of hope ignites inside him. He had survived the winter of his unemployment and was now ready to spring forward into a new beginning.
Editors: Nadine R. Nikki J. Emily X., Zoe L., Joyce S., Sam L.