When she still lived in Singapore, Sophia Lee always wanted to climb trees because it seemed so American. But she’d climb up there with a book and then she couldn’t read it. She’d be concentrating on staying in the tree, and fire ants would crawl all over her.
“I challenge you,” she said. “No one really reads in trees. You can’t do it.”
At the time I was sitting at the Olasky dining room table. The sun streamed in the window onto my bowl of cereal and some coffee in a black mug with a white image of Leo Trotsky on it.
Sophia had just come downstairs, sleepy in her striped red pants. The two of us had become fast friends during the two phases of our WORLD internship, first in Manhattan and then in Asheville. Sophia came via Korea, then Singapore, then the University of Southern California. Devoted to city life and a great food connoisseur, Sophia lived contented in an LA apartment, taking restaurant excursions with friends and photographing food. When we met, a strange ignition took place.
In many ways, our priorities could not have opposed more. A country girl and comprehensively romantic, I hated the idea of living alone in a city. I was homesick and I saw journalism as a threat both to my literary bent and to my desire to stay home and raise a family. I went to college in perhaps the least independent way possible. I hung out with homeschoolers whom Sophia’s boldness and coarseness would have shocked. My homemaker conservatism, conversely, would have perplexed Sophia’s urban friends.
But we had a few things in common. We were writers. We both cooked like madwomen. We dressed up like Julia Child and perfected boeuf bourguignon in the Olasky kitchen. Both artists, we spent our evenings with colored pencils and acrylic paint. We even shared a sacred Myers Briggs letter aggregate: ESFP. Two things bound us closest, though: our Christianity and our willingness to say whatever came to mind. Combined with the Olaskys, we made a small, strange family for four weeks.
Sophia and I had many talks as we walked through downtown Asheville or jogged in the hills. I found her splashed, face down, against the sheets in the early morning. I woke her up to run in the Carolina heat. I hoped the sun would make me browner while Sophia hoped she would become whiter. Neither seemed likely.
After many, many miles and many, many words, to an extent we shared each other’s wounds and triumphs. We changed each other by telling our stories. Sophia pressed my homebody self to contemplate nations, lifestyles, and sufferings beyond my own. After listening to my tales of love and heartbreak, Sophia at last conceded that she might try falling in love within the year.
When I was a little girl, I used to pray to God, “You are big enough for me and the Asians to see.” I meant that God was global and huge and kind to His people everywhere. When God sent Sophia to me, He put flesh on that lesson. These kinds of friendships you cannot plan. They come from heaven and take the roundabout route through Singapore, Korea, New York, and LA.