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On the Idea of Home: Reflections From Another Covid-19 Summer

I’m writing this to remember another Covid summer. Today, Saigon continues the second round of social distancing.

I only go out once a week these days because I live with my parents who are in their seventies. As I can’t go out to sketch, I turn my attention to the objects inside my house and think about the idea of home.

Home is, first of all, family, my parents, the sounds they make, their scents, their silhouettes. A day at home means waking up with the rattle of mom cooking in the kitchen, the creak of the drying rack as dad brings our clothes down before lunch, the high-pitched chatter from a Korean soap opera in the dining room when dad and mom measure their blood pressure while crunching melon seeds. I did make a few sketches of my parents, but some looked dreadful, while the others looked a tad too crude, such as the one where dad is collecting dried clothes with my mom’s and my underwear in the background — even though I think that scene looks genuine and lovely. My parents tend to scamper away whenever they see me turning to them holding a pen or a camera.

Home is, first of all, family, my parents, the sounds they make, their scents, their silhouettes.

Home is my parents’ house with all their clunky junk and ancient objects.

Left: A corner of the kitchen with lots of dishes and racks not shown here.

Right: Corn plant, Japanese honeysuckle, jasmine and paper flower plant on our balcony. There is also an osmanthus that I bought for dad on his birthday; its blossoms have been perfuming the air ever since.

Left: A corner in our dining area. The table was crammed with bottles and jars which I removed from the sketch.

Right: Dad bought this treadmill in 2000 for VND6 million, which was a lot at that time. Now it looks more like a clumsy spaceship residing in the corner, hardly ever used in its decades of residency. Mom and I kept asking him to give it away, but Covid months like these when gyms are closed make the treadmill a useful object again.

Home is my own room.

Because I had worked and lived far from Hanoi for almost ten years, my room is filled with my parents’ furniture and whatever they had bought for me. A dressing table that stood for sixteen years in our old apartment. This swivel chair still has hundreds of scratches from the two cats we had when I was in university. As I touch the back of the chair, I think about a summer evening in 2006 when my two silly kitties were mauling the chair and looking at me to see when they would be chased away. They have been dead for years. I wonder whether some of their claws might still be stuck in the back of my chair.

Home provides a cool and safe window from where I can freely savor the view.

I love the bedroom’s view. The buildings around ours are mostly three- or four-story and the high-rises lie much further in the distance, allowing me an unobstructed piece of the sky. A precious piece! In the summer, Hanoi is free of its usual gloom and pollution; layer upon layer of fluffy clouds spread their soft shadow on the azure sky. Every summer morning when I wake, I don’t get up right away, but stay in bed and look up to the crystalline sky outside.

Outside my window is a world of greens: a sapodilla tree dangling its russet fruits, a blazing muồng hoàng yến casting its pulpy clusters to passersby, a palm tree and its dishevelled leaves, a flamboyant tree tossing its few early red flowers across the feathery leaves and a sữa tree blinking its slender leaves like green eyes. There is enormous pleasure in looking at this summer scene, like eating a juicy berry while soaking my feet in a cold mountain stream. There is nothing else I could want.

Home is not only a shelter for people, but one for other creatures as well

In this sketch, I drew a lizard frozen on the wall as I suddenly walked into the bathroom. It was a funny scene (probably not for the lizard) — a fat lizard paralyzed in the corner of the wall, too scared to move even its tail. He was still there even after I went back to my room to get the camera. It took him a while to pull himself together and scutter away.

The little reddish brown spot under the soap stand is the resident spider. I don’t like spiders but always try to resist my temptation to kill them. The spider does me no harm, but it doesn’t feel great seeing it dangling near me everytime I use the toilet. And so every moment in the bathroom is an instance of self-restraint, an effort to suppress the temptation to kill and restore order.

With COVID-19 outside, I have to stay inside and home becomes a suffocating box: safe and smothering at the same time.

In times like these, I still feel fortunate to have a life without much to worry about: my parents are relatively healthy, I don’t have any child to feed, and a few months of unemployment is not a big deal for me.


Our home used to be in nhà tập thể

My family moved often. Our home used to be in Kim Lien, a large area of old Soviet-style residential blocks, or nhà tập thể; my room used to be a “bird nest” — a slang for facade extensions — like this.

After the Kim Lien apartment, we moved to several other locations, but it was always a residential block and my room was always in a bird nest. Because of those years, I often find myself drawn to residential blocks which usually emit an air of peaceful chaos via protruding plants and facades, rather than the cold straight lines and predictably grey flat surface of modern condos.

Ironically, when I moved to Singapore, I chose a comfortable condo on a quiet street in Toa Payoh even though the area was the heart of HDB residential blocks, a form of state-developed public housing, in Singapore. I guess comfort and big glass windows won, however much heat they trap.

On weekends, I still found myself wandering through the lively corridors of the HDBs around my condo, like a nostalgic fish making the rounds in its old pond.

When I was younger, home was the place of imposing rules.

When I was younger and brewing a lot of excess internal energy, I just wanted to get out of my house. Home was the place of imposing rules and perpetual scarcity of space and silence when all I needed was a quiet place to hear my own voice. When I was twenty, I decided to take an internship in Saigon. I just wanted to leave. I left home to escape expectations, but I myself cling on to all the “should” and “must” that society imagines for me.

A few months ago, I was obsessed with finding an apartment for myself. I wanted to find my own place because I thought a thirty-something needed her own home. When life feels disrupted and unpredictable, the idea of home ownership gives me purpose and a glimpse of stability. Everything would be alright and fall into its place once I had my own home, I thought. Later, I realized that it was merely a fallacy. My intention to buy a house didn’t come from a true need. I wanted to buy a house because of peer pressure — everyone my age has their own house and owning a real estate sounds better than being able to purchase one.

As much as I would like to convince myself into believing that I have an independent mind, in retrospect, I’m certainly influenced by social values and stereotypes. Society stitches an individual’s maturity to their separation from their parents’ house. Home ownership is also a mark of wealth and success. Once I crunched some numbers to weigh renting and buying, and wrote down my needs, I realized all of these drives — the values, the labels — are merely imagined. They are all in our heads. Just because many people appreciate that same value or label doesn’t mean I have to think the same. To me, home ownership is not a mark of maturity. Neither does it say success in my terms.

I think about the months and years living far from home; even now, I still like to move somewhere and stay like a local for a few months. My job allows me to work remotely so I can easily move. Last year, I spent a few months in Gia Lai to escape pollution and COVID-19 and give myself some space. For such a trip, home is neatly organized into two suitcases, condensed and mobile — but bringing a rice cooker is a must.

In recent years, I often bring along several small objects which make me feel like home whenever I move. The first object is a plastic Maruko clock, a white, smooth and square trinket which has been tik-tak-ing quietly ever since I got it from Muji. The second is a Vietnamese rattan box — rough, honey yellow like woven sunlights. Later I added a Hei-Tiki wood-cut art piece which was a gift from a Kiwi client. Whenever I open my suitcase and place the clock, the rattan box and the wood-cut piece on a shelf, their natural material and squareness breathe warmth and tranquility into the new space. The room, once a stranger’s room, starts to feel more like home.

My life these days feels quiet. No trips, no busy fieldwork or deadlines, these are summer days of solitude and quiet joy of doing exactly what I like: sketching, writing, reading, listening to podcasts, thinking and reading some more. This period feels like a moment last year when I was sitting in my Pleiku studio, watching the sweet highland sunset ripening outside my window; I’m slowly relishing the feeling of being at home — being myself, doing what I like, savoring what I love.

Linh is an independent researcher who has been rediscovering the joy of looking at the world (and being a part of it) through sketching. When she’s not doodling, Linh writes essays for O mai sau Hanoi, a blog she’s managing with two other friends.

This essay was first published on O mai sau Hanoi and was adapted with permission from the author.

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