Why I Had To Leave My Parents In Order To Finally Call The Place I Grew Up Home

“Home is where the heart is,” sure, but my parents prefer my brother’s variation. He says “home” is wherever Mom and Dad are. I thought a lot about that as my husband and I made the move from our home in New York to the place I’d left 17 years before: my hometown of Claremont, CA. I wasn’t sure I felt the same way.

My parents are classic immigrants: They came to the U.S. from Taiwan with me, their firstborn, in the 1970s. They came for a better life, but they don’t seem able to reconcile themselves with America. Their friends are primarily other Taiwanese, and they still shop primarily at Asian grocery stores and eat out at Asian restaurants. (When we invite them out, their first question is always some variation on this: “Star Wok? Or Shogun?”) They live in a little bubble of Asia, on this side of the Pacific.

Kids in America are allowed to keep their bedroom doors closed. In the Taiwan of the 1970s, there was no such thing as a door between a parent’s life and their child’s, so mine had to be open all the time. My American friends dated whomever they wanted, while my parents hoped out loud that I would end up with nice Taiwanese boy like Dr. So-and-So’s son.

Taiwanese parents expect their children to honor their families by choosing honorable careers; my American friends had no such pressures. “My parents just want me to be happy,” they said, blithely, while I nodded, uncomprehending still, and bound by the unspoken edict that one’s family life was private and not to be discussed with one’s friends, ever. (Some of them shrugged while saying it, and I wanted to shake them. Didn’t they understand how lucky they were?)

The list goes on, stereotypical in places: I played the piano. I came home earlier than other kids. Filial loyalty, Taiwanese style, meant I let my mother dress me — until I got to school, when I’d duck into the girls’ bathroom and change out of whatever trend Mom was into to pull on denim cutoffs and a ratty sweatshirt.

Throughout high school and college and many arguments, my parents’ ending salvo was frequently this: “You may want to be an American kid, but you won’t ever be.” And yet, if they didn’t want this for me, why did they move here in the first place? I simmered, all the way through elementary school, junior high, high school, college.

Each year, I dreaded going home for the holidays. There’d be a grace period of 12 hours or so, and then it would start: Why are you wasting time just dating, lah? Why can’t you just let us find you a nice Asian boy like your brother? 

When I graduated and found a job and could go where I wanted to, I went as far away as possible: I went to New York, for a career in publishing, ostensibly.

I lived by myself and dated whoever I wanted. I found a personal style; came and went as I pleased. I took the jobs that made me happy and wrote for publications that moved me, and tried to quiet my parents’ hallmarks of success. I told them as little as possible, since they didn’t seem to be very interested in my success as a writer. 

My first publication in a supermarket glossy netted a curt nod and a brief rejoinder that I could do better than a publication so lowly it could be found at a supermarket. Publication in a national newspaper won me a note that I should really be writing about things that people actually cared about.

Each year, I dreaded going home for the holidays. There’d be a grace period of 12 hours or so, and then it would start: Why are you wasting time just dating, lah? Why can’t you just let us find you a nice Asian boy like your brother? Ai-yah, everyone else’s kids are making piles of money as attorneys/doctors/engineers while you waste your life. And the real stinger: You should just come back and live with us. You’ll be better off than you are now.

Lah, indeed.

“Home” started to feel like Mordor, or the Death Star: I went only because I really, really had to. SoCal’s car culture was something I wasn’t all that interested in. The lack of extreme weather became interchangeable with laziness. The entire population there walked, talked, moved too slowly for me. The area’s relatively short history felt shallow.

It was okay: There was always New York to go home to.

But then, there came the great road trip of 2008: My father and I drove cross-country, part of a 70th-birthday celebration that would culminate in a big party in Claremont. Over two and a half days in the car, we drove and talked sometimes, alternately experiencing stress and the occasional laughs; a snowstorm outside that matched the stormy mood in the car; a weird mutual desire to please. And when we finally got back, late for Dad’s own birthday party (see “snowstorm,” above), I stayed for a month.

It wasn’t the best month of my life. There were still the prodding questions, the incessant criticisms. Some days, I wanted to get on a plane and go home. And then one day, there was the strangest commentary of all, from my mother’s lips: “Do you have to tie your scarf like that?” She was truly exasperated, and I, flummoxed at the level of frustration in her tone, took myself off for a long, slow jog up in the hills behind their house.

I passed through charred landscape that told of wildfires I hadn’t been there for; breathed in the leaves of the eucalyptus trees in the wilderness park that had been designated while I’d been living elsewhere; ogled the number of new developments that had sprung up in the foothills.

This was not the same place I’d lived in as a teenager. I didn’t know California any more than I did Nebraska.

By the end of the month, I’d decided I had to give the place — and my relationship with my parents — another try.

That day, I confessed to myself that I didn’t know much about my parents, either. I began to see that maybe the dreadful, insulting questions were clumsy probes to see if I needed help. Maybe the Old-World assumptions they were flinging at my lifestyle were panicked forays to fit my career into something they could understand better.

By the end of the month, I’d decided I had to give the place — and my relationship with my parents — another try.

So, late in 2012, my husband Jim and I drove down I-90, running just in front of Hurricane Sandy. I felt sick, and not just from the hangover of our goodbye party the night before. I had a nearly overwhelming urge to beg him to turn the car around, to go back to where we could be with our friends, the family I’d built in New York City.

We planned to take nine days to get back to Claremont. (I couldn’t call it “home” yet, although Jim had signed a job contract and I had told my clients I’d be working out of California for the foreseeable future.)

We wound our way through five national historic sites and parks on the way, places that don’t occupy the marquee: Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes, Needles, the Black Hills; places that were nevertheless so quintessentially American that I could practically smell the cowboys, the horse sweat.

I wondered what my parents imagined when they got on the plane to begin their life in the States. Did they think of the Grand Canyon, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mt. Rushmore? Did they somehow convince themselves that their children would grow up just like the ones they glimpsed in dubbed versions of Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best; all pretty skirts, slicked-down hair, penny loafers?

By the time we drove over the last major pass to Southern California, I could see the San Bernardino Valley spread out below us. The late-October light was not unlike that you might find spilling across the streets of New York. The Cajon Pass seemed no wider than the Delaware Water Gap; Barstow felt less the no-man’s-land I thought it was as a teenager; more of a bustling way station, a gateway.

Nearly three years have passed since that trip back, and I think I finally get it: you can really only find home by first defining it for yourself. Equally important, you can make a home where there previously wasn’t one, by getting far enough away to hear the other side of the story, and to see that the road goes both ways.

Images: Yi Shun Lai

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