I owned my first house when I was 10 years old.
My art teacher back then taught my class about different styles of houses, and let us design and make our own out of clay. Mine was a two story Victorian with a steep roof and a fat gothic tower, with lacy white gingerbread trim that adorned the eaves.
A few months after I brought my little house home, my parents decided we were leaving small town Missouri for a New Jersey city with a great school system. Typical of first generation Chinese immigrants, my parents were going all in on investing in my education.
We piled all of our belongings into our tank-like 1987 Oldsmobile sedan, and everything that couldn’t fit was to be discarded. I remember standing on the curb, cradling my house as I watched my parents negotiate the diminishing free space in the car. My stomach grew heavier with dread as the car sagged more and more under the weight of our effects.
“We can’t bring this with us,” my mother said matter-of-factly, pointing her finger at my little clay house. “You can make another one later.”
I never did have another house until last month, when my husband and I closed on a slightly beat up circa 1900 currant-red colonial. After living in 20 rented units over 24 years due to school, work and various financial constraints, I was suddenly a homeowner.
On the day we moved in, I walked the bare halls of my new home, feeling oddly removed from this major life milestone. It didn’t feel different from moving into a rental, not really.
I thought back to all my move-in days past.
The first order of business upon entering a new unit was always to survey the space. This told me the hard constraints within which I must work to arrange my things and establish my routines. I never bothered to look closely at whatever shabby, stained carpet might have covered the floor, whatever yellowed Venetian blinds that might have hung in the bedroom, whatever poorly sealed windows might not open all the way. It was what it was.
You must understand, neither my parents nor I were ones to spend the big bucks on rent. The apartments we chose were invariably unsightly and strange, designed without real consideration for human comfort. We were also very interested in getting back the security deposits we put down, which meant no changes to the apartment, no matter how minor, were ever made.
There was the Houston ground floor unit where massive flying roaches regularly zoomed over my bed; the Shanghai lane house where mushrooms sprouted from my door frame during plum rain season; the New Jersey apartment that had four layers of carpet and debris one on top of the other. Knowing that I’d eventually leave gave me the resolve to put up with it.
When it came to settling in, the guiding principle was to systematically insulate the apartment from wear and tear, with the goal of leaving it like we were never there. This was what informed the distinct aesthetic style I dub “transient immigrant”. I learned from watching my parents to seal the stovetops and the wall behind it in shiny aluminum foil, wrap knobs and remote controls in plastic wrap, and pad the bottoms of the tables and chairs with foam sheets and tape. I learned that drilling holes in the wall was sacrilege.
For furniture, my family favored folding tables and chairs, clear plastic dressers and shelves, mixed with desks and bed frames that always seemed to appear by the dumpster like magic. Everything had a use, nothing was decorative, and it was all completely disposable.
Looking back on all those years of keeping myself to even want to get too comfortable in any of the places I’ve lived, I realize that I always viewed them more as “shelter” than “home”. A door that locked, a light that turned on, a stove that burned, a space that held my things until I needed to leave again.
I was always fiercely proud of the way my apartment was free of frivolities, the way soldiers might be proud of their neatness and discipline. I felt tougher and more discerning than my peers in my aloofness about homeyness. It was a kind of resilience that is the birthright of an immigrant: the ability to keep moving without being hurt by the process. I’ve already crossed an ocean to be in this country, no move would hurt me like that again, I wasn’t going to let it.
Three years ago, my parents bought their first property, a little two bedroom condo in Queens. It was a fixer-upper, previously owned by a senior who let it fall into disrepair. For months I listened to my mom eagerly tell me over the phone about hiring a contractor, redoing the bathroom, putting in new floors, new cabinets, new everything. I wondered if I was going to see my parents’ personal aesthetic at last. Was it going to be sleek and minimalist? Farmhouse chic? I imagined it to be a little cluttered and overly colorful, but cozy and bright.
When I finally visited, I had to hide my disappointment. It looked exactly like one of the numerous nondescript apartments we’ve rented in the past, sans peeling paint and water stains. The furniture was too big and mismatched, the chairs were more suited for an office setting, the accordion folds of cellular blinds had no personality to speak of. In the kitchen I spied the familiar sight of a folding table with matching folding chairs, the burners all wrapped in foil. Through the open bedroom door I saw a clear plastic dresser against the wall, and smiled to myself.
They put a large wire rack in every room, piled with knickknacks, books, snacks, and framed family photos. A few of my paintings from art school were propped against the wall, just like old times.
“Why don’t you hang these up with nails, mama?” I held up one of the canvases against the wall, “It’s not like you’ll get fined for doing this anymore.”
My mother shook her head, “It makes your dad anxious.”
To be honest, beyond wanting to drill holes in the walls, I still don’t really know what I want to do to our new house. But my husband, who grew up in a spacious house where his parents have lived for forty years, is full of ideas for how to spruce up our fixer-upper. He wants to install custom shelves, repartition the bedrooms, knock down a wall, retile the kitchen, move one of the bathrooms, and reroute the stairs going up to the attic. When we first talked about this, my eyes glazed over, Is he talking about our house? My mind couldn’t keep up.
We ended up starting small with selecting curtains, but even then, the different header styles, fabric, length, light coverage overwhelmed me. I tried to ask myself, What kind of curtains are “us”? It sounded like a completely absurd question with no sane answer. It was so much easier when I rented.
In the weeks after I moved in, I forced myself to really see the house the way I have never looked at any other place I have lived. These creaky stairs are my stairs, I thought, these big bright windows are my windows, these new curtains were chosen because they please us.
When we started to talk about what color to paint the walls, I was proud to discover my partiality to the cheerfulness of Robin’s Egg Blue, rather than defaulting to white the way my parents ended up doing. My husband encouraged me to paint a mural in the living room with a design of blooming peonies that I love, and for a moment I wanted to cry.
My superior disposition of complete emotional detachment with where I live is falling away, because this isn’t just where I live, it’s my home – an extension of me that I’m slowly remaking in ways that give us comfort, that is beautiful and safe and right for us and only us. In these weary times, a real home trumps a transient shelter a thousand times over.