Going Home

February 11, 2024

December, 2024
Sydney, Australia
View of my childhood home from the backyard

Coming home is looking at a familiar object through a glass prism. It’s knowing what the Eiffel Tower looks like after a lifetime of looking at it through Google Images, the cartoon Madeline and in the background of Emily in Paris, only to get there and realize it’s both kind of the same but also just a mere facsimile to the version that exists in your head. In my childhood home in Sydney, the glass jugs of boiled tap water still sit next to the sink. There’s still a bowl of cut fruit (this time, honeydew) in the fridge nestled in a bowl, a thin layer of plastic cling wrap waiting to be removed. My name is still scrawled in childish handwriting across each of the nine drawers of the in-built closet, labelled to make sure everyone knew they were mine. To return to a place like your childhood home as an adult is to stitch a memory suspended from the most fragile silk with the reality that so much has changed. 

What has changed: the fifteen tanks full of fish my dad used to illegally breed and sell in the abandoned granny flat out back has been reduced to just two (overrun by snails?) in the living room. The 4 for $4 champagne flutes my mother purchased from Kmart specifically for Christmas, the first we have ever owned as a family, bragging about how cheap they were the same way other people might brag about having Riedel glasses. What else has changed: the relationship between my parents and I, one whose sharp edges have eroded through years of talk therapy. It’s been softened by the simple effect of what we commonly know cures all but don’t really believe until we ourselves can be old enough to witness it: time passing. A laundry list of complaints and questions from growing up in a low income immigrant household with its requisite physical and emotional abuse has fallen through the filters of being examined a thousand times and coming out frayed and faded, a receipt in the back pocket of a pair of jeans gone through the wash.

  I have lived on the other side of the planet for almost a decade now. The previous trips I took home were defined by either indifference, active chaos, or quietly felt like chores, my penance for deciding to put 10,000 miles between myself and the place I was born. Last trip, my ex-boyfriend of eight years broke up with me sixteen hours into quarantine, leading to a month of full fledged, unhinged chaos: almost breaking my knee, constantly driving into the wrong side of traffic, scream crying to Florence and the Machine in the car, and a rebound romance with a 23 year old I met at the climbing gym. I was feral with main character break-up syndrome, and I experienced that trip as though everything was muffled through four layers of glass. Sydney was the backdrop for a huge, unexpected heartbreak that I was struggling to stay on the surface of. My family were secondary characters in the background of that drama, people who existed on the fringes of my panic. I wasn’t present, I was incapable of it.

Going home this last December was the first time in my life that I returned feeling somewhat normal, the grievances that I checked alongside my bags poofed into thin air, able to see my home and my family clearly for the first time. Instead, I brought a golem that I created here in Brooklyn. It was a fantasy of what family and home was meant to be,  moulded in the vacuum of Brooklyn therapy culture and through the anecdotes of my friends and boyfriends’ families, far far away our rented home in Yagoona, Sydney. I wrote and spoke and thought and dissected all of this stuff as a 30 year old woman living in an apartment that costs triple what my entire family pays, until I was blue in the face and convinced I had looked at it at every possible direction. I did the ayahuasca ceremonies, started writing the book about immigrant trauma. I participated in TikTok conversations about what it all meant to be a second-generation child of immigrants, and I brought all of this home eager to bask in fruits of that labor. To simply return home for the holidays without complication or the sticky residue of childhood trauma. I wanted to come home as someone healed.

  My first time home on this trip, my American boyfriend and I drove from our custom designed beach-side Airbnb to the suburban sprawl of where I grew up. Over dinner, my parents asked him what he does, and were polite but confused at his answer of “Artist”, deflating the pride I felt about him, and what it must mean about me. Although everyone spoke English, I had to translate between the fast clip of Cody’s American accent and my parent’s Vietnamese/Chinese accented English. There was so much I had projected onto this meeting - of this man representing so much of who I am now, walking and breathing inside the house I grew up, interacting with the ghosts of the person I used to be, in the place I became her. I watched them try to connect with each other over plates of oysters and noodles. I watched my parents lean over the table to arrange the food on Cody’s plate as though he were a boy and not a 40-something year old man. 

I had brought so much expectation back about what it meant to return home, of what a clean and tidy version of family and the holidays meant. That idea dissipated almost immediately, replaced instead with surface-level dinner table conversation, the jokes my boyfriend didn’t understand, my mother telling me that she has checked my GPS every single day for the last five years, including when I went to The Dolomites and the month I spent in Mexico City. I imagined her zooming into foreign places at my blue little dot, not understanding any of the context of where I was, just comforted by the simple fact that I was alive. It became my dad forgetting the ingredients for my favorite Vietnamese dish, banh uot, and walking 30 minutes back to the grocery just to get them, even though he hates the dish himself. It was repeating everything I said three times to make sure they understood, slowing my speech down, removing parts of stories that seemed too complicated. None of it was part of the starry-eyed, one-note fantasy I had built, constructed from cliche and self-absorption.
Both of my parents would allude to me moving home one day, and then backtrack by smiling and saying they’re joking, when we both know they’re not. They say they’re happy as long as I am, and they don’t need me to be home. I know that’s a concession that they make for a daughter who decided that she needed to leave, and has built an entire life away from them. I smile and say maybe, knowing I won’t, that the person I have become doesn’t fit into the sunny rocky shores of Sydney anymore, and the cultural, language, and geographical divide between myself and the love that exists in my parent’s shrinking bodies is one created by and perpetuated by me. I’m a visitor now. 

On the morning of our flight home, I cast a shadow over our hotel room, irritable and snapping at Cody. I said I was annoyed I didn’t get to go to the beach on my last day, but that gave way to tears by mid-afternoon that I was actually just devastated that I had to leave. My next visit would be after another year or two of changes in myself, in my family, ones that would have to be reconciled over and over again with each return. A sudden grief descended, knowing that it took this long to enjoy my family, to see them clearly. That they are happy for me but barely understand what it is that I do, that they have never seen my life here in New York, that it is so different in so many ways. Grief for the calls I didn’t make, the interest I never took in their inner landscapes, instead writing them off as one dimensional characters in my life. That I can invest so much time in the process of healing but it will not measure up to simply sitting next to my mother to watch TV with her. That I now ache for a place that I couldn’t wait to leave a decade ago. The reality of what it looks like when I return home, and I don’t live there.

The world that I’ve created in my head does not compare to the one that exists within those fading, marked walls with my name written on them in Yagoona, Sydney. This world may not include the animated dinner table conversation on political views or shared memories I get to have with my boyfriend’s family. There is little to no curiosity about my creative practice, or the life I live on the other side of the world. The movie hallmarks of what it is to return home to family are completely absent. Instead, in this world, the wine glasses are cheap, there is always a place to return to, and there are people who check my GPS every single day to make sure that I am safe, even when I do not call. One fantasy has been laid to rest in place of another that I watch recede on the flight map as my plane climbs its way into the sky to take me all the way back to my life in Brooklyn.