My parents bought into the idea of the American dream. The first home they owned was a bi-level with cedar shingles on a street called Big Ridge Road in a nameless middle-class neighborhood in Tennessee. The realtor shuttled us around town. She was a hearty southern woman in her early forties with large bouffant hair. She took it as her personal quest to remove us from our rental condo, located near the medical center where my father worked, and install us in a permanent home.
Our Vietnamese family must have looked so foreign to that realtor.
Johnson City was a small town, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, with a population of 50,000, of whom an underwhelming one percent were Asian. She brought me and my sister gifts—My Little Ponies and Barbie dolls—whenever she picked us up for a house showing. She called us darling and sweetheart and claimed we looked like porcelain Asian dolls with our bowl haircuts, almond-shaped eyes, and pale skin. She became like a family friend to us, the only one we had at the time. She talked to my mother about grocery stores and the local farmers’ market. She advised my father on how to bargain for a car at the local Toyota dealership. He would get a better deal if he did not disclose that he was a doctor, she claimed.
After we purchased the house, we brought her and her husband a styrofoam plate full of neatly stacked homemade egg rolls—my mother’s primary form of currency—as a thank-you gift. My mother was proud of her egg rolls. With their crispy golden skin, they differed markedly from the bubbly, thick-skinned egg rolls served at the Chinese take-out restaurants in town, which we were never allowed to visit.
While the realtor was thanking my mother profusely for her delicious treats, I was staring around the realtor’s home, amazed by its sheer size. It was a two-story colonial with red doors and matching shutters. From the foyer, I could see the matching furniture—tall, striped armchairs in shades of green, red, and navy blue, and a plush sofa, all staged to perfection. I asked my father whether our house would ever look like the realtor’s. I believed that one day the interior of our home would be complete too. Instead, he told me that she was paid to sell an ideal image of a home: it was her job.
There was nothing identifiably Vietnamese in our home, no Lunar New Year calendar tacked up in the kitchen, no serene paintings of Vietnam hanging in the hallway. Yet, our house didn’t feel American either—
at least not compared to the houses of friends I started to visit in elementary school, many of which appeared as put-together and consciously coordinated as our realtor’s home. Our home was decorated with a random mixture of items purchased piecemeal on weekend shopping excursions to Zak’s Furniture Store and Lenoir Furnishings. My father trusted us, his two young daughters, to select the items that would adorn our empty and at that time underwhelming home. We browsed the aisles of furniture, passing over paisley and floral couches, tufted arm chairs, and wooden kitchen and dining room tables.
My father collected small standing statues—a bronze Napoleon figure and a Chinese guardian lion sitting upright, snarling and smiling at once. He purchased miniature David Winter cottages, tiny representations of medieval homes. He arranged these neatly, as clusters of small villages, in a black hutch in our living room. Years later, my father finally bought his own piece of land, lot 134 in a neighborhood called The Woods in southern Indiana.
Only then did I begin to understand the dream he’d held onto in his mind: His desire to build a little castle of his own, a Tudor home carefully crafted by Amish builders and personalized to our taste.
Every spring, he watched the white dogwood he had planted in our front yard bloom. Every evening , he measured its growth as he watered it, kicking the over spilt mulch to protect the tree’s roots. He planted multi-colored rhododendrons to block the sunlight in front of our basement window. On our summer vacations to Florida, my parents would spend hours visiting nurseries, buying small palm trees and pink hibiscus plants that they tried to nurture into bloom in the unsuitable Tennessee climate. I didn’t understand then that they wanted to reproduce a small reminder of their homeland: a tropical environment framed with palm trees and soaked by seasonal rains.
When the cedar shingles began to fade, my father painted over them with a dark chocolate brown that made the house look heavy and dreary. Our carpenter neighbor, whose home was separated from ours by a row of seven sparse pine trees, and whom I watched prepare apple butter in a large black cauldron in his backyard every fall, helped my father build an addition to our deck, painted in the same overwhelming brown. In our wooded back yard, he built stairs that led nowhere except to the bottom of the hill, another neighbor’s backyard.
My father bought an above-ground swimming pool from Toys-R-Us, and only after he purchased it did he realize that our hilly, wooded back yard was not flat enough for the swimming pool. He put the pool on our concrete driveway, ignoring the fact that the pool needed to sit in a hole in the ground, a few inches deep. As he waded in the foot-deep water, he assured us that it was fine to set an above-ground swimming pool right on concrete.
My parents didn’t sleep in the same bedroom. This, I felt, more than anything was what made my home different from my friends’.
My mother, sister and I shared the master bedroom, and my father slept alone in a twin-sized bed in the room next door, which functioned as both his bedroom and his office.
My older sister and I in 1984
I was fairly certain that all of my friends’ parents slept in the same bedroom. Whenever my friends came over, I would scramble to cover up my parents’ sleeping arrangements by shutting the door to the bedrooms and telling my friends my parents’ room was too messy to see. I would also hide any foreign-looking foods, so I wouldn’t seem different from my friends. I would force the hot sauce behind the milk carton and move the banh cuon, a rolled rice paper dish, my father’s favorite Vietnamese dish, to the back of the refrigerator.
I did not want to be different from my friends, or hear them say mockingly at recess that the only person I would be able to marry when I grew up was Phillip, the only other Asian boy in my class. Phillip was Chinese and I was Vietnamese, but they did not make a distinction between us, they simply lumped us together as Asian and different.
I asked my mother why they didn’t share a bedroom like normal parents. She told me that it was because she feared I might become ill in the middle of the night. She reminded me of the time I was hospitalized because of an asthma attack, when we lived in Salt Lake City. My sister later told me that she thought my mother didn’t want her two daughters to die like our older brother had done in Vietnam. I could not believe that I had once had a brother. I had never heard this poor child’s name uttered by my mother’s lips nor seen any evidence of this lost older sibling’s existence.
I could not imagine my parents having had another life in another country once. As a child I didn’t understand that just because I couldn’t imagine that life didn’t mean it had never been.
Even after we were settled on Big Ridge Road and my sister and I had sunk well into our childhood routines, we continued to drive around new neighborhoods with expansive streets, wide lawns, and newly-constructed homes. We attended open houses, although we were never in the market to buy a new home. Somehow, I bought into the idea that there was a better house out there for our family of four, a bigger one, a more beautiful one. I used to ask my father when we were going to move. He would respond that we were just looking.
I would peruse pictures in Southern Living and Architectural Digest, copies of which were scattered throughout our house, trying to create in my mind an image of the ideal home, a southern home, with four grand pillars in front and a double grand stairway in the foyer. I would imagine deep crimson-colored walls, and wooden floors instead of the brown carpet in our home, and a beveled mirror adorning the working fireplace. The furniture would match, unlike the odd mixture of items in our living space. My parents did not explain to me that a well-appointed home like the ones I had seen in the magazines, with their warm, blazing hearths, was not necessarily the same as a happy home.
But I was also imagining what I believed was a true American home, with parents who slept in the same bedroom, and who didn’t speak an unfamiliar language that sounded so harsh, like cats screeching at each other in the middle of the night. A language that I found so unpleasant, I decided I would ignore it, I would never try to decipher the language through which my parents were connected and, more importantly, bound to their homeland.
I did not want a house that felt not-quite-Vietnamese, although I did not really know how to define that quality at the time, but I also knew ours was not a fully American home either.
Back then I could not identify the conflict within me nor my parents’ longing for identity. I did not see that they were trying to locate themselves, somewhere between their Vietnamese origin and their American dream, seeking some safe, fertile ground where we could put down roots.
Christina Vo is a writer who previously worked for international organizations in Vietnam and Switzerland, including UNICEF and the World Economic Forum, respectively. She currently rides in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of The Veil Between Two Worlds coming soon in early 2023. Connect with her on Instagram @Stina_Vo