Jing Mai’s name preceded her.
“Have you met Jing?” “No, but I’ve heard of her.”
“You know Jing, right?” “I’ve heard of her, but I haven’t met her yet.”
“Do you know Jing?” “No, but people have talked to me enough about her that it feels like I do.”
This went on for months not long after I graduated from college in 2016, back when we were still tagging each other on Facebook. I’d just started learning bachata, and somehow through the algorithms of Facebook and the network of the Bay Area Asian American community, Jing began to appear on my feed. At one point, it seemed I’d met and befriended everyone who would later form our mutual friend group except her.
I don’t fully remember when we first met. There’s a memory that comes to mind, but I don’t know if it’s accurate or if I just wrote her into this moment because our core mutual friend group had all been present. Either way, the memory itself is too dark to unhaze the details, but it makes me happy to think of this moment as the one that divides my memories without Jing and my memories with her.
Nights out dancing in the Bay Area are dark, dim, and sweaty. Loud music indoors and a welcome rush of cold air outdoors, likely smelling like drugs. Maybe the street would have a nearby lamp to help you distinguish your surroundings and figure out who had left with you to grab late night tacos.
The night I met Jing had been my first night out social dancing. As an introvert, I’d worried that I would hate everyone and everything, but I ended up loving it. Several of my friends who were there were also been somewhat new to bachata, so our dancing had been silly and filled with enthusiasm and awkwardness that was played off with laughter.
The energetic high of the evening marked a distinction in my young adult life. I’d started going to bachata classes as means of venturing outside my parents’ house where I had moved back to after graduation, but finding so much enjoyment through social dancing gave bachata the potential to become a core hobby. And that core hobby was what led me to my first post-college friend group. And Jing was one of those friends.
Jing took me on my first ever hike. She loved being outdoors and doing things like rock climbing and camping. At the time, I had been more into my then-boyfriend than my friends, so it took her relentless diligence to convince me to go.
We set the date, she picked the hike, we settled carpool arrangements, I borrowed hiking pants. In the days leading up to the hike, I texted Jing, “How much food should I bring? Water? Bug spray?”
Our hike was a 13-mile loop in Point Reyes, and the day was a sweltering 90-degrees. Only Jing with her contagious smile and laugh could have convinced me to remain committed. “Come on, it’ll be fun! The views are going to be great, the trail is going to be gorgeous. It’ll be some uphill, but it won’t be that bad. You can do it.”
Jing was our hike mom. She loved food, and on outdoorsy trips, she liked bringing moon cakes because they were small but packed with calories, making them the perfect on-the-go nourishment. She loved the ones with salted duck yolk—the type my parents never ate, so they were not my preference—but I couldn’t turn down Jing’s eagerness to feed me. One of the few things she loved more than food itself was feeding her friends.
In an unusual twist, I rallied Jing and some friends to see Ali Wong in San Francisco one summer night. I was the fifth wheel with Jing, her then-boyfriend, and another set of our coupled friends. We’d just gotten to the door of the venue—after enjoying a dinner of Vietnamese food where Jing kept serving us all evening—when our friends realized they had bought tickets for the wrong night. Jing, her boyfriend, and I went inside but sat on our phones anxiously brainstorming, thinking, debating how we could rectify the evening.
“We can go out and give them our tickets. I don’t want them to miss the show, it’s okay, I feel really bad that they got the wrong nights.”
I did not see how Jing’s proposal would fix the problem, as it would just mean a different couple wouldn’t get to see the show. In our group chat, our friends agreed with me and told Jing to stay put, they would look for other options. But up until the moment our friends scraped together tickets off a seller on Facebook, Jing refused to let go of her offer to give up her seats for our friends.
Jing and I shared a love for reading, particularly books written by female Asian American authors. She loaned me her copy of Anna Akana’s book and encouraged me to listen to Sophia Chang’s audiobook, which she’d listened to while on her early morning runs. I bore witness to Jing’s 4 a.m. half-marathon runs on Strava. She did them several times a week, seemingly casually.
Jing, like the women of the books we shared, was a badass. She showed it quietly through her athleticism, her diligence, her intelligence, her work ethic, her intense care for people, her passion for her diverse hobbies, her sense of adventure. Running made her frame slight, but rock climbing made her muscles toned. Fully dressed, Jing was the world’s must unassuming badass. But it was an identity she did not often acknowledge of herself. In our text conversations about Anna Akana and Sophia Chang and Allie Wong, Jing more often expressed her wish to be as amazing as all these women were.
I wish I’d told her more often that she was.
We went to Oakland Pride together in 2018. I remember her outfit exactly: jeans; an old suspender in a checkerboard pattern repurposed into a belt; a strappy, cropped white tank top; a red flannel; and a pastel pink wig cut into a short, wavy bob.
Jing loved changing her hair. In the years I knew her, I’d watched her hair transform from long-shoulder length black hair to slightly shorter box-dyed red hair to a traditional boy’s cut to a slightly grown out boy’s cut to a men’s cut with a clean fade to long hair again. And then there were the wigs: platinum blond and pastel pink.
Our Pride-going group did a mini photoshoot that day, as was the trend to share on Instagram back then, and I attempted to provide comedy behind the scenes to make her laugh for some candid shots. As I watched her pose, looking as effortless as she was beautiful, a realization dawned on me: Ever since Jing had graced my Facebook feed, I’d always thought she was very attractive. But it was the little dimples of her personality that I was now privy to as her friend that drew me in.
I didn’t just appreciate her as a steady, faithful friend or a person as dedicated to growth and learning beyond academia as I was. I appreciated her most for being that person in my life who seemed so unafraid to be herself, so comfortable with wearing whatever clothes she wanted, so unabashed about expressing her eclectic hobbies and tastes and interests and passion for life. I loved Jing as a friend, and I admired her as a human, a soul with traits that I wished I could emulate in my own ways.
I visited Jing twice in Sacramento while she was in medical school.
One visit we swam in and lazed along the Yuba River. Jing, wanting to protect herself from the bright sun that could cause skin cancer, slathered on sunscreen until her face was covered in streaks and patches of it. This was how she would get optimal and full sun protection. She looked like a weirdo, and yet all I thought was that I wished I could do the same and be as unbothered about my appearance as she was.
Jing felt so adept at rising above the noise. She seemed clear on how she wanted to cut her own path, so sure of the person she was, in a way that I had never known in another person at the time.
The second visit, we hung out at one of her friend’s pools (yes, there was more sunscreen face) and had a potluck before we went to a night market food festival, where we stumbled across a corner with loud music and a small dance space. Jing loved dancing. I remember her eagerly running over with her leftover food box and boba in hand to dance, by herself, her mini backpack bouncing along behind her. I don’t remember what music was playing, but I remember the sound of her laugh.
Jing had a penchant for hand-making plushies. She made medical models of chemicals and germs, little chickens in the shapes of cubes. “It’s a cock block!”
Around Christmas 2019, when Jing came down from Sacramento to visit her family in the Bay for the holidays, we set up a time to grab dinner. When she walked into the restaurant, she was carrying a giant shopping bag. Inside was a cock block. My cock block. It was made of soft grey felt – “It’s like a silkie chicken!” – and had a slightly lopsided beak. I still keep it in my bedroom.
In the early months of COVID, Jing managed a trip down to the Bay and squeezed in some safe, socially distanced outdoor visits with friends. I was grateful to be one of those friends she risked seeing. At the time, I lived in an apartment complex in Berkeley that had a small patio area with two picnic tables and several unclaimed parking spots. It became the perfect outdoor living room under social distancing guidelines.
I was preparing to start business school in a few months and realized that I desperately needed a new headshot, and who would have been better for me to ask than Jing? Beyond being an aspiring doctor, a rock climber, a reader, a runner, a dancer, a cock block-maker, a chef, Jing was also a wonderful photographer. Is anyone even surprised?
Once business school took me to LA and COVID kept travel a challenge, I stopped seeing Jing regularly. Our most common communication was replying to each other’s Instagram Stories. She would learn about my new boyfriend this way, and I would watch her scale more rocks on outdoor adventures.
One Saturday morning in February 2021, my phone lit up with her name and a photo from our Pride photoshoot that I’d set as her contact photo. Jing and I did not often call each other, so I picked up, concerned something was wrong.
Nothing was wrong. Jing had simply been at home cooking breakfast for her little brother, and she figured she would give me a call since it’d been a while. We talked for almost two hours, catching up on life and sharing how we were both stressed about school and tired. I remember feeling buoyed by her call, enjoying her laughter and the ease at which we slipped back into our pattern of friendship.
It made me feel loved that she’d thought of me to call out of the blue, that she’d wanted to catch up with me as we bustled about our respective homes on opposite ends of the state. I remember thinking when we hung up, “I’m going to call her next time.”
The last time I saw Jing was for brunch in March 2022. She’d driven from Richmond to Danville to pick me up from my parents’ place and asked desperately if she could borrow my bathroom to pee before we headed to Berkeley. My parents dislike guests, but I figured if anyone would understand the odd, mismatched state of our immigrant home, it was her. To date, she is the only post-college friend who has seen the inside of my family’s home.
In Berkeley, I took her to eat at Mezzo. It was the first time she’d gone, the n-th time I’d gone. I was thrilled to show her one of my favorite Berkeley spots, a place she might be able to frequent more regularly once she’d moved to Oakland to start her residency in a couple short months. We spent a few hours sitting out on the back patio, enjoying good food, morning sun, and our conversation.
I remember feeling a slight disconnect between us that day. It was clear first from how we dressed. LA had made me be more conscientious of the clothes I wore, the age I appeared. Jing remained fond of her worn athletic gear and warm beanies, particularly when her hair was cut short as it was then. It became clearer the more we talked, the different mindsets we’d adopted about our upcoming post-graduate school futures. In just three months’ time, we would both be graduated with our secondary degrees and setting off onto new life paths as first-generation students.
We didn’t argue or butt heads about anything in particular, but I could sense that neither of us fully agreed with the other. It was the first time this had happened for us, and I recall parting ways with confusion. We’d never been this misaligned before, and I hated conflict. Was this a sign that our friendship was drifting? I didn’t want it to, but the differences felt new, unusual. I didn’t know how to navigate them yet, and in my doubt, I didn’t ask her to take a photo to commemorate our once-in-a-long-while hangout.
I wish I hadn’t hesitated.
I was in Dallas, sitting in my partner’s home office, when I got the news in the first few days of September.
Jetlag had made it difficult for me to wake up that morning, and I was just logging onto my work computer a little after 9 a.m. Central Time when the Facebook message came in. It was from one of Jing and my old mutual friends. He and I hadn’t talked in years, and I typically don’t respond promptly to messages, but his words were chilling.
“Do you know what happened to Jing!?!?” “No! What happened??”
I lunged to Facebook, typed her name into the search bar. On her profile was a wall post from her father. I didn’t believe it. And then I read the comments.
Jing was gone.
Our mutual friend group picked back up briefly in the weeks and month or so that followed Jing’s death. We turned to each other, filled with grief and shock and sadness and loss and anger and other emotions we knew little how to express. But we spent most of our time discussing logistics.
Had anyone heard anything about the memorial? What about the funeral? Were we going to be allowed to go, or should we arrange to say our goodbyes somewhere else?
It became clear to me that Jing had been the glue, the connective force that had brought and held us together. The first time she’d left the Bay to start medical school at UC Davis, our group had splintered into smaller groups. Now, the second time she left us, we managed to find our way back to each other. But I think this happened because we were, in our own little ways, hoping to find ways to get back to her, and this group was one of our last connections.
Jing’s death went viral. Her boyfriend’s Instagram post was reposted and reshared on Reddit and TikTok and within hours, the GoFundMe for her funeral had amassed more than $50,000.
Jing had been in her first year of medical school residency. She had commit suicide.
Objectively, I understood why her death had spread through the medical community and why this community had gone up in arms to transform the moment into one of advocacy, of speaking against the broader systemic issues that had been at play.
Personally, I was angry. The tens of thousands of sets of eyes, the attention from strangers, the reposts of her photos felt like invasions of privacy. While the conversation was important and one I knew Jing would have also advocated for—it felt so insensitive to mention it at this moment. The space that I had wanted, the space our mutual friends had all wanted, to grieve and be sad and feel our emotions and express our confusion felt blown open by these strangers who felt comfortable co-opting our space to turn it into a public teaching moment. What gave them the right to step into our grief and turn it open?
And as I sat in my anger, I realized that just about every conversation about social justice that had been brought to national attention over the past two years had been born out of one family and community’s grief. I too had partaken in the blowing open of someone’s private space of grief. My anger sank into guilt and slipped into loss. Loss of words, loss of understanding my emotions, loss of my friend.
In the end, I couldn’t make it to Jing’s memorial nor funeral. This reality broke me. I had a panic attack. I called my mom, sobbing to her over the phone in that choking way where one completely loses their words and ability to breathe or swallow or think.
I’ve attended one celebration of life for a former school librarian, one memorial for a loose friend from middle and high school, one funeral for my paternal grandfather, but I’d missed a few other moments. The funerals of my maternal grandparents. The funeral of my beloved violin teacher.
For some of those moments, they felt understandable. Forgivable. I hadn’t been invited to my violin teacher’s funeral. I had not been particularly close to my maternal grandparents, having only met them twice in my life before their passings, and their funerals were in Taiwan.
But this was the first time the funeral was for a dear friend, a human I knew and loved dearly and hoped to grow old with. This funeral, this memorial—they felt like the last moments in this earthly realm that I could show up for her. Living out of state and trying to navigate the last-minute announcements of updates with booking plane tickets and preexisting travel plans I’d had with my long-distance partner who I desperately wanted in-person emotional support from while living alone in a new city made showing up feel impossible both logistically and emotionally.
But I wasn’t ready for the moment when not showing up would become my truth. The moment when I had to actively choose to not go, to let go of this last moment I felt I could connect with my friend in this world.
My mom tried to comfort me through my tears. “Jing is your friend. She will understand. She will understand why you can’t be there. She would want you to take care of yourself. She wouldn’t hold it against you.”
On the weekend of Jing’s funeral, my partner came to visit me in Seattle. I made plans for us to take the water taxi to Bainbridge Island where there are nature walks aplenty and farmer’s markets galore—two things Jing loved.
At the farmer’s market, I bought a small bouquet of wildflowers. On the island, I found a small forest near the center where we could take a quiet walk. The walk was flatter than I’d hoped it would be. I had wanted something close to the 13-mile monster Jing had taken us on to remind myself of those memories, to strain my body until my mind could no longer think nor feel. But the little forest offered gentle slopes and hills, small clearings with benches where you could sit to listen to your thoughts. And it was in one of those off-path clearings that I found the stump of a large, old tree.
The top of the stump was uneven, its back taller, its front lower and a little flat, forming a shape similar to an altar. It was a place where you could lay flowers and pay your respects. It was here that I chose to place those little wildflowers I’d bought, to say my final goodbyes to my friend, to wish her peace and self-acceptance and happiness and love.
In Seattle the weather is less ideal than it is in California, but the day-to-day scenery is arguably more beautiful. At least once a week, far more than I ever did in the past, as I live in the quiet, everyday moments of driving to make a return at Eddie Bauer or commuting to work or back home across the 520 bridge or watching the sun rise over the high school pool I swim at on Friday mornings, I think of Jing.
I think of Jing when I imagine all the nature hikes and national parks she would have found for us to adventure through when she came to visit. I think of Jing when I discover the food places I would have kept on a list to take her to enjoy. I think of Jing when I breathe in and witness the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the commonest of places because she loved watching them.
She is a constant thought, a quiet manifestation of how much her friendship meant to me, a deep regret at not having been less foolish in my youth to invest more in a human who I will always wish to have known for the rest of my life.
During the week of Thanksgiving 2022, I visited Jing’s grave. Her gravesite sits close to the top of a hill in a cemetery in Oakland. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful views of the Bay Area, and I have my favorites, but this one is, without a doubt, one of the best. On a clear day, like it was the day I visited, you can see both bridges crossing the Bay, the UC Berkeley campus, and South Bay if you squint hard enough. Jing would have loved it.
Walking up to the site, I felt composed. After two-and-a-half months of intermittently sobbing in my living room, I felt ready. I had sobbed all my tears out, I had already said my first set of goodbyes. I was ready. But standing there, looking down at the sight of the freshly laid grass in the shape of the hole they’d had to dig to lower her coffin into the ground, I broke. That patch of grass. That was my friend.
My parents, who had driven me the 40 minutes out to Oakland to visit her grave, left us alone for a while. When they came back, my dad, in his quiet but caring and meticulous way, knelt to pick the dead blades of grass and dried flowers off the tiny metal plate that marked Jing’s resting site. They hadn’t put her tombstone in yet. I watched as he tossed aside plant matter, insistently brushed aside the grass that grew over the plate, trimmed with his fingers the stems that stubbornly refused to be moved.
Something in his actions made my brain connect his motions here on a hillside in Oakland to the cleaning he might do at the graves of his own family on a hillside in Taiwan. The image made me want to cry, thinking about my dad who had given up so many years of tending to his family’s graves after he moved to America, now giving this care to my friend, someone who had been just a single day younger than his own daughter.
I thought of Jing’s dad then, and my heart broke.
I regret not picking up the phone to call Jing sooner after our respective graduations and moves. I regret pushing this off because I’d felt too tired, too overwhelmed, too stressed by the newness of everything to even send her a text.
I regret not taking a photo with her on the morning which would be the last time we’d see each other. I regret questioning if our differences meant our friendship was faltering.
I regret not accepting her offers to hang out more through the years we lived together in Berkeley. I regret seeing her so infrequently, even if I knew sometimes that infrequency was because we sometimes sucked at texting each other.
But there was so much more of our friendship I wished we could have explored, so much life I’d wanted us to live together.
Every year since I met Jing, I made it a point to write her birthday in my planner. Her birthday was exactly one day after mine in the same year, and having seldom had friends with winter birthdays, I made it a point to always wish her happy birthday because it felt special to me that we were so close in age.
I currently use a six-month planner, and my cadence got thrown off, so my current planner spans the six months spans from September to February. I’d written her 2023 birthday into my planner months before 2022 ended, barely a week before she left.
At the beginning of 2023, when I finally flipped to January, there were those small pink words I’d written in the box of January 27.