Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two women who have the same last name (no relation), both from the Midwest, who did the same internship at the United Nations, one after the other. The first intern made a Google Doc to guide her replacement. Seized with new-job panic, the second intern called her predecessor for assistance. That’s when they discovered how much they had in common, and they’ve been in touch ever since—though they’ve met in person only once, for two hours. Even so, as they plan for the uncertainty of post-grad life, they’re planning to end up in the same place one day.

The Friends

Courtney Zhu, 22, a senior majoring in journalism at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois
Lilian Zhu, 23, a Fulbright scholar in Imperatriz, Brazil

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Julie Beck: So you guys met in an unusual way—through a Google Doc. Can you set the scene of how this happened?

Courtney Zhu: We both worked as interns on a team at the United Nations that oversees a procurement market for development projects worldwide. What that means is we publish a lot of postings from the world’s leading development entities that suppliers and tenders can then bid on. It’s a niche thing, and going into it, I had very little background in this world.

It was a five-person team, and I was the only intern there for the summer after my junior year of college. I interned for about three and a half months, and then Lilian came two weeks after me. We never overlapped. I had a lot of loose threads toward the end of my internship, so I created this long doc and was like, “You’ll have questions, so here’s my email and my phone number. Please call me at any time.”

Lilian Zhu: October to February—that was the span of my internship. When I started, our unit chief was visiting family back home for two weeks, and another one of our supervisors was off sick for a week. It’s the UN, so you go in and you want to do a good job, but my first week was just me sitting there being like, Wait, should I be doing something? And nobody knew what was going on.

So I sent Courtney this very formal email. I remember being like, “So sorry to bother you. If you could tell me anything, that would be so helpful.”

The problem was, even though the Google Doc was written beautifully—

Courtney: Thank you.

Lilian: —at the time I read it, I had no background about what our team did, or what I was going to be doing. And the UN is notorious for acronyms, so it was acronyms everywhere, and I was like, I don’t know what any of these mean.

It was a very thorough, well-organized Google Doc, which honestly made it more overwhelming for me, because I was like, Okay, this girl has her shit together. I need to be on top of my game. Everyone in the office was like, “Are you the new Courtney? She was amazing.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I have such big shoes to fill.”

Lillian (upper right) and Courtney (bottom) on FaceTime. (Courtesy of Courtney Zhu.)

Courtney: I pulled up the original email you sent—it’s so funny. You were like, “I’ve heard only fantastic things about you and your work, so it seems like I have big shoes to fill.”

Reading Lilian’s email, I honestly already felt like we had a lot in common, because I could tell she was just itching to figure things out. I remember I was walking to the gym when she emailed me, and I was like, “You can literally call me whenever. I’m free.”

Beck: Tell me about the phone call—how did it go?

Courtney: It’s hard to come across someone you just naturally really click with and really bounce off of. I think having a shared language, with the internship, was a part of that. But beyond that, we found we had a lot in common. At that time, I had found out that I was going to New York for an interview for a fellowship that I didn’t end up getting. Lilian was like, “Oh my God, several of my friends have done the fellowship. I’m so happy to connect you.” And then two hours after the phone call, she had made a Facebook group for all of us. I was like, Wow, this is so kind of her to go out of her way to do this.

Lilian: I forgot about that.

Courtney: I think my showing interest in that fellowship also made us talk about our Chinese heritage as well, because the fellowship was in Beijing. It’s a one-year master’s program in global affairs. We connected on the shared interest of global affairs. I was surprised by how immediately comfortable I felt being able to share all these things. When talking to Lilian, there was a special bond, whether it was rooted in just I totally feel your frustration or the fact that we have a very similar identity, upbringing, and general life interests.

(Courtesy of Courtney Zhu.)

Then I was like, “I’m going to be in New York. I’d love to chat with you and get coffee or something, because after my interview I’ll be done and just dillydallying around.” So that set the stage for our actual meeting.

Beck: How long was it between this initial onboarding call and the interview you had in New York?

Courtney: I have Lilian’s email up. She emailed me on October 19, and I literally responded to her email four minutes after. My interview was November 5.

Beck: Had you been chatting between that first call and when you went to New York?

Courtney: We got in the habit of texting each other. Anything that happened at work that was remotely funny, Lilian would text me.

Lilian: I was seriously texting Courtney during meetings, like, “Look at what’s happening right now—this is hilarious. Is it always like this?” She was my sounding board for all the idiosyncrasies that go on within the UN.

Courtney (upper left) being FaceTimed into their UN team’s office party. (Courtesy of Courtney Zhu.)

Beck: Paint me a picture of the meeting—this is the only two hours you guys have ever spent together?

Courtney: In person, yeah. So I got to New York that Sunday, had my interview on Monday, and then I went straight to Grand Central, and we got bubble tea there.

Lilian: I remember being so excited. I remember telling the whole team, “I’m going out early today because I’m meeting Courtney.” And they were like, “Oh my God, you guys are going to hit it off.”

This is super cliché, but it was like Courtney and I had been friends forever and we were just grabbing bubble teas because it was the normal thing to do for us. At some point, I was like, “Oh wait, this is my first time meeting you. You should probably tell me about your life. Like, where are you from? What is your life story?” But if anything, during that meeting we talked about what we wanted to do in the future because it was like we already knew each other up to then, and it was only natural to talk about where we were going.

Courtney: I remember we would have to constantly be filling in the gaps. We would talk as if we’d known each other forever. But then I’d be like, “Wait, where are you from again?” When I first meet people, I’m usually straining to make conversation or find things to talk about, but that was certainly not the case. And that’s not a common thing for me.

Beck: What happened in your lives after that, and how did you keep up with each other?

Courtney: I think what continued to solidify our friendship after that were the FaceTimes we had. We would FaceTime for several hours. And one thing that was really cute—there was an office party, [and] Lilian FaceTimed me and I got to say hi.

Lilian: I was supposed to be interning until right before the holidays, and I had a little crisis where I was like, “I’m leaving New York in a week, and I don’t want to leave New York in a week.” So I called Courtney in a panic, like, “Ah, what should I do? Should I go home and spend time with my parents before I go abroad for a year because I never spend time with them and I feel like I’m being a bad Chinese daughter? Or should I extend [my internship] and stay in New York because I love it here?”

Courtney: I think that was one of the first times we really connected on similarities between our families. I grew up in dominantly white neighborhoods, and I didn’t have any Chinese friends growing up. I would always tell my parents, “I’m finally going to make Chinese friends in college.” And as a college senior, I had maybe three Chinese friends. Lilian’s the fourth.

Talking about that with her made me realize there’s another level besides being in our early 20s and being confused and whatever. I grew up in a very different world than my parents did. They both grew up in China, and I spent my formative years in the U.S. There are certain things I don’t tell them, and there are certain things that they just don’t get about me. Talking to Lilian about that was a clarifying moment. I was like, Wow, it feels so good to get this off my chest.

Lilian: I also didn’t end up with that many Chinese friends. I’m first-generation here, and it definitely is a really different experience. It’s not something that weighs heavily on my mind, but it is there. Having someone who is at a similar stage of life, who identifies as American but has that background, who gets it—that was huge for me. Having conversations about things that have nothing to do with being Chinese, but also knowing that there is that little factor to consider.

(Courtesy of Courtney Zhu.)

Beck: You have that context regardless of what the conversation is, right?

Lilian: Yeah. It was amazing not having to explain that guilt of, Should I go home and spend time with my parents because culturally that’s what I feel I should be doing? And my parents, for the record, were like, “No, go to New York. You love it there—this is good for you.”

I ultimately ended up renewing my internship until early February right before I left for Brazil.

I was planning to move abroad for a year, and I was figuring out how I could make my life continue in New York when I came back from Brazil. At this point, Courtney was studying for the MCAT, arguably one of the most important tests in her life. We were both in very transitory periods of our life, where we were preparing for the future but also working on cool, important things in the moment.

Courtney: I think it’s rare to come across friends who remember dates of things, and she texted me the day of my MCAT, “Best of luck.” She’s been such a rock for me during this time—we’ve been in these weird fluctuating stages of life, trying to figure out what we’re doing next. We actually FaceTimed before we got an email from you, about her life in Brazil right now and what I’m planning to do after graduation, etc.

Beck: Do you have a plan, Courtney, for what you’re going to do after graduation? And Lilian, what’s coming after Brazil?

Courtney: Lil and I joke that we’re both going to find ourselves in New York at some point in our imminent lives.

Lilian: That is very much not a joke for me. I am going to be back in New York. I would love to find a good organization to work with when I come back from Brazil, and hopefully Courtney will be there, and then she will get into NYU med school, and it will be great.


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