My parents immigrated to America in the late 80s. My father’s family were fleeing precarious business dynamics in Taiwan and my mother’s were fleeing the increasingly tight grip of the Chinese government. They were privileged exiles who traveled across the world with a single suitcase and dreams for their future family.
They met in graduate school, happenstance classmates who were pursuing the same degree. They shared desks, fume hoods, and notes. My dad made sure they kept studying together even after my mom switched programs. They met and studied in small cramped apartments, filled with more roommates than probably was permissible. Between dimly lit kitchen tables, and fire escape conversations, my father discovered he was smitten. In rented apartment units and borrowed space, my mother admitted that my dad was “alright.”
They studied together, planned for their futures, and when my mother’s father had a layover at JFK International Airport, she insisted my father go and meet him. Alone. My dad was, understandably, nervous to meet whom he hoped would be his future father-in-law. They met briefly, and as a broke graduate student paying rent by working two jobs, he had nothing to bring as a gift. So instead, my father told my grandfather about his American Dream. My father wanted kids. He wanted them to have a big beautiful house in the suburbs in a good school district with a view of the Long Island Sound. My father wanted to build a Home in a new land.
They saved for over 30 years and meticulously watched the market. They each worked two jobs, often bringing me to work as a toddler, and started a small business when I was in elementary school. They worked tirelessly toward their American Dream, and it all finally paid off.
When I was in college, they bought a piece of land in a decent neighborhood with a house that was quite literally crumbling, bulldozed it and then started building something new. They looked at architect sketch after sketch, finally visualizing a dream they’d had for over three decades. Finally they chose one. It took two years and almost everything they saved, but it was finally finished. Their American Dream Home.
What I find fascinating every time I visit my parents is how distinctly Asian American the house is. From the outside it looks like every single other home in our neighborhood. A modern two story brick and wood home in a colonial style neighborhood. Yet the inside is decorated with cabinets from my father’s close friend who is a Taiwanese carpenter, tables that have Chinese folktales etched into the sides, and vases from my mother’s family in Shanghai. The home has an American exterior with an Asian interior.
A house often tells the story of a family. It seems fitting that my parents built their story from the ground up. Their house is a story of both creation and loss.
My parents have lived in America for over 30 years now. They left China and Taiwan when they were in their twenties. They left the continent they grew up in to travel halfway across the world. They left behind friends, family, hopes and dreams for new ones. They left behind a life that they can’t access again. Their old home has changed radically in the three decades of absence. My father often tells me that moving back to Taiwan would be like moving to a new country all over again. The home that they once knew is gone.
Yet in their new homeland they are seen as foreigners. Their accent, their culture and even their food preferences are seen as “oriental,” “foreign,” and distinctly “not-American.” My parents have lived in America for 30 years yet their neighbors will continue to ask them “where are you from?” There are constant reminders that my parents will never be seen as Americans because they are not white.
So my parents built a house. In their reality, there was no place to call Home. So they created it. They built and filled a house with new memories, and new hopes. My dad bought a new wok in the hopes of learning how to cook 麻婆豆腐 (mapo tofu) and fills the house with the smells of his childhood. My mom took up flower arrangement to fill the house with gentle reminders of Beauty.
My family’s story reminds me of the Israelites in the book of Jeremiah. I’ve always found it amusing that people quote Jeremiah 29:11 in graduation cards “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future.’” What they don’t mention in those cards is that the prophet Jeremiah is writing to a people in exile. He is writing to a people who have been forced to leave their homeland and are not seen as citizens in their new land, regardless of how long they have lived there. They are people who know multiple languages, not by choice, but necessity. They are people who left in search of a safer Home only to be denied. In the midst of exile Jeremiah tells the people of Israel to settle down. He tells them to build houses and plant gardens. He tells them to find partners and spouses for their children. Jeremiah tells them in the midst of exile, of forced assimilation, of spending decades in a land being seen as foreigners and strangers, that they are to build a Home.
The Chinese character for home is 家 (jia). But 家 is used for much more than a description of a physical home. 家 is used for phrases like 家庭 (family unit), 儒家 (Confucian ideology), names of occupations like 科學家 (scientist), and so much more. It makes me wonder if my ancestors understood that Home is so much more than just a structural house. We are creating Home every day in our relationships, ideologies, theologies, and vocations. As Asian Americans, we are building a Home for ourselves in spaces where we are not welcome.
So like the Israelites in Jeremiah and my own family, I am learning what it means to make a Home or 家 in the world. My 家 is in my chosen family, in these friendships that stretch along telephone wire and show me what healthy Godly community looks like. My 家 is in my journey of reclaiming what it means to be an Asian American Christian who engages with her Taoist and Confucian roots. My 家 is in discovering that Moses and other biblical people also struggled to fit his experience in the binary society he lived in. My 家 is in the Asian American community and my career in educating and mobilizing college students for Kingdom Justice and Reconciliation. Each day I am learning what it means to find Home in the world.
Created by: Cal Hsiao
About the Author: Cal is a part-time campus minister, barista, and seminarian based in St. Louis, Missouri. She loves books, film, photography and sometimes other humans. In her free time (when she has it) she freelances as a wedding photographer/videographer, goes on long hikes, and quietly plots the end of the world.