Still No Guava

Home is a spunky house painted slate gray, a cute cross between forest cottage and ranch architecture that is quintessentially Bay Area. Home also sits smack dab in the middle of a long row of other two-story houses, all almost identical. Each clone has a front yard enclosed by the same white stucco walls and iron railing piped on top. From outside, the only visible difference is that, as my street slopes upward on one end, the yard walls grow taller and eclipse more of the houses they guard. It’s easy to drive past quickly without taking the time to slow down and try to understand.

***

My home in the Bay Area is the first home that I can really remember, but it isn’t the first home for my parents, who came from Taiwan to America for graduate school over twenty five years ago. My parents squeezed into tiny apartments as new students in Los Angeles and Virginia, then less tiny apartments in Colorado as new employees of the high tech bubble, and eventually an apartment without the “tiny” in the Bay Area as new parents — always taking care to appreciate the homes they passed through, as they searched for the next.

When I was four, ten years after my parents left Taiwan, we moved into what has become, for now, our final home. For Dad and many like him, the unspoken narrative had always been quite clear — to one day settle down in a home both cozy and spacious, a sign of success and of successfully blending in. Indeed, he felt like our family had finally reached the mythical zenith of the journey, as proud owners of a brand new house and its brand new yard, all in a model pocket of suburbia no less.

Mom, on the other hand, found the concept of being American less straightforward. For her, home had never been the true end goal; home was just the beginning. I think the reason why lies in the fact that, underneath her calm and practical demeanor, Mom will always be a true romantic at heart. She grew up with a deep love for American classics, a love she also shared with me. Although the characters had Mandarin names for her and English names for me, as a kid, I spent many afternoons chattering on and on with her about the books I’d been reading for fun. I also loved hearing Mom talk about how, as a kid, she secretly and quite rebelliously stayed up way past her bedtime, flipping through book after book. She found herself constantly drawn to the images of carefree Tom Sawyer or bright-eyed Atticus Finch running around and making mischief, chasing squirrels, and exploring in the comfort of their backyards, front lawns, and side woods. I found myself drawn to these same stories too, which we both chalked up to a mutual love for fast-paced action or for the thrill of the plot. I realized only years later that there might be something more to the pull that these stories had and still have on us.

***

If I were to close my eyes and picture home, the first thing I’d see is our front yard. Structurally, our yard today has not changed much from when we first moved in. A centered iron gate marks the entrance into the rectangular expanse walled off by prickly white stucco. About the size of a cozy coffee shop, the space is tiled throughout by a sea of large terra cotta squares, save for a cloudy gray sidewalk running from gate to front door in one bold and centered stroke. These tiles criss-cross in a neat grid of shallow cracks that hoard pollen in spring, small leaves in fall, and roly-polys all year round. In the two outer corners closest to the gate, and on either side of the walkway, sit flowerbeds the shape of a quarter-sliced pie and crimped with brick crust.

But aesthetically, our yard today is far from the same, having morphed from a tabula rasa of dirt to a dynamic canvas. During our first summer, Mom pitched to Dad and me what would become a seventeen year journey to create her dream yard. While Dad wasn’t convinced (but won’t the plants just die in the winter?) I was an eager four year old accomplice, willing to get my hands and fingernails dirty. We began first with flowers for the Walkway Pie Slices, a whim of a project that soon became our yearly tradition. Every spring in elementary school, we’d visit our local nursery and pick out the flowers. Like mother, like daughter, we optimists brushed aside any practicalities behind the distinction between annuals and perennials, choosing any blossoms that caught our eyes instead. We planted everything from bright petunias and blushing geraniums, to patterned zinnias exploding like Pollock paint splotches and daisies with happy-go-lucky attitudes. The two of us were always deeply disappointed when our seasonal visitors waved goodbye in the fall and Dad had chipped in his annual joking told ya so, but we kept on replanting. By sheer luck alone, in the last year of Mom’s floral craze, we happened to plant perennial lavender shrubs whose motherly purple blossoms still continue to pop up every August with comfortingly familiar resolve.

When Mom and I tired of the constant flower-searching and fingernail-scrubbing, we adopted bushes as our next, more hands-off project. We carefully planted our first underneath the dining room window: a baby rose bush that turned all sorts of worryingly sickly shades in its first year, but has grown like a crazy shock of unruly hair ever since. Every month or so, we always had to do some convoluted, almost ritual-like dance around its thorns to give it a trim. When we forgot, which was more often than not, a thick vine would try to scale the slate gray of my house, adding green and bubble gum pops of color to the wall. Soon after, we plopped in three more quirky bushes in the flowerbed underneath the sleek living room windows that still thrive today. There’s the droopy bush, its curly finger-like green leaves sagging downward like the hair on a shaggy, mop-like dog. There’s the fire bush, whose shockingly red leaves press up against the windows to conjure an illusion of ever-licking flames. And there’s my favorite, the positively maniacal sprinkler bush with its uncontrollably long branches that shoot up and out and left and right like water spraying from a broken sprinkler.

As an only child, I spent much of my time playing outside in the yard. Tasked with watering duties from early on, I quickly settled into a longtime routine, always tackling the rose bush first, then flower pies  #1 and #2, and ending with droopy and fire and broken sprinkler bush. In return, the yard shared many secrets with me: tile crevices were not very fun to scooter into, for one, but perfect for creating frames of chalk comic strips or playing horseshoes with hula hoops. And every year, when the Japanese plum trees lining my street turned a dusty pink in otherwise dreary Februaries, I liked to sit and watch the blossoms drift lazily into our yard and into my lap.

Over time, I grew older and the yard grew more colorful. It wasn’t noticeable until many years in, but Mom always squeezed the newest floral additions into the few already thriving flowerbeds, somehow managing to make more room from no room while leaving the empty ones be. By the time my Taiwanese grandparents visited our home for the first time, only the two outermost corners closest to the street remained bare. My eleven year old self didn’t know why, and didn’t think much of it to ask either. Yet Grandpa took one look at his daughter’s carefully constructed life, and somehow knew why Mom had left these two flowerbeds empty after so many years. Mom and I were thrilled when he proposed to plant his favorite trees, tea flower and guava, both ubiquitous in Taiwan but less so here. Dad, a bit more practical, cited tropical Taiwan as a far cry from the mild Bay Area but dutifully scrounged up the seeds anyway. One sunny summer afternoon, Grandpa and I dug two holes, plopped in our roots, and crossed our fingers.

***

Only recently, after leaving home for the first time, have I started to piece together why Mom was so drawn to these stories of Tom and Atticus as a kid, and to the new front yard of her own to explore. Growing up, I’ve loved and admired my parents for their proud resolve to weave in their traditions from home in Taiwan with our newer traditions from home in the Bay. On the outside, it didn’t take long for Mom to craft a sufficiently manicured yard that still reflected our family’s own Taiwanese twists on whatever the elusive American dream may mean. But on the inside, I think my parents still grapple with how best to embrace the Taiwanese alongside the American in Taiwanese American. They’ve tried not to let it get to them. But despite having called this place home for all these years, I sometimes sense that Mom can still be shy about her accent at the grocery store, and Dad may subconsciously avoid speaking in Mandarin if we are the only people of color around.

Only recently have I also begun to really see why my parents’ resolve has always meant so much to me. On the outside, I too didn’t take long to find my place at Yale in my first year, with new friends, clubs, and a limitless space to learn that I adored. But on the inside, I too sometimes felt like I didn’t always fit in. Like I was some exotic non-white specimen, for my stash of Taiwanese snacks, my confusion over utensil placement, my proposed but dropped no-shoes-indoors policy. Like I suddenly had to defend so many parts of my Taiwanese American self that had always been easily accepted and appreciated back home in the Bay, even if not shared.

And in these moments, when someone tries to box me in by pitting the Asian in front of American against me, I too try to draw comfort and pride instead from our roots. From the red Mazu medallions we hang in our cars or keychains as blessings for safety, the tang yuan we hand-roll for the Winter Solstice. From the values for community and resilience and courage and justice that they’ve taught me to uphold, whether in confronting xenophobic insults in public or calling out model minority stereotypes on Yale campus. From the love I can feel through the phone when I call home once a week, as if they were in the room with me to cheer on my still confused but increasingly comfortable college self.

From growing American for Dad, growing a yard for Mom, and growing up for me — a journey that has been a lot less homogeneous than expected, but maybe a lot more meaningful because of it.

***

Dad was right about that guava tree. For the longest time, no matter how much I watered it or what my mom coaxed it with — magical fertilizer, words of encouragement, frustrated threats to chop it down — the tree stubbornly refused to bear fruit of any considerable size. Every year, Grandpa would call and ask if we’d been able to taste a guava yet. And every year, up until I left for college, we’d laugh and switch topics, as I kept on watering.

One wintry February day, as I trekked through slush back to my dorm room, I picked up a spontaneous call from Mom. As my mom’s excited voice filled my ear with quick breaths of plum blossoms! and our street! and finally here! I stopped to look up at the barren trees above, and could almost imagine the Japanese-turned-Californian plum blossoms shivering on these bare but brave Connecticut branches. But what about the guava? I asked. And then, with a growing smile, I laughed.

Hailing from San Jose, California, Erica loves hot tea, long walks, Taiwanese milk toast, IgE and allergy (but not her own to sea urchin), and insisting that 50 degree weather is really cold. Send her a hello! at erica.lin@yale.edu. 

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