Nonfiction from Yoon-Chan Kim
To Call This Home
Dad never calls Virginia home. Even when I sneak in questions to learn more about his childhood he prefers to leave that past for places more darling, like the galleries Mom leads him through or the gardens she shows him. If I asked Dad where home is today, he would probably say, “wherever your mother is.”
Mom, though, would say something else. Dad grew up in the states, but Mom lived in Korea until she met him. She still visits Korea from time to time, switching between Korean and English and stumbling on peculiar differences between two very different worlds.
In Korean, for example, there is no linguistic difference between a “house” and a “home.” Both constructs are represented by a single word. One could reconceive the same question about home, then, and feel lost, or puzzled. Understanding both cultures, Mom would probably first pause, reimagine “home” in whatever linguistic framework suits her answer, then start in with a few stories.
I live in northern Virginia now, just a few miles from where Dad grew up and minutes from where he and Mom first bought a house. Having learned to wed geography to identity, I have come to adopt this place as a part of my own.
Still, I wouldn’t call Virginia home. I’m not sure I have an easy answer, but I know the idea of home never felt so simple. It always felt heavier, and much more involved, loaded with a weight better felt than articulated.
Every couple of months, I fly out of Dulles International Airport to meet students from around the country and visit the schools they attend and the places they call home. I remember, on a long drive through rural Kentucky, the road curled around a grove until the neighborhood broke the horizon. The pocket of houses seemed sewn together by the children chasing each other outside. I squeezed into a driveway next to a battered pick-up truck and approached a door I will never forget: brown and unadorned, it looked worn and weathered, like it was tired of waiting for someone it could belong to. I knocked and two warm smiles welcomed me.
The student and his mother showed me to the living room and invited me to sit on a bulky couch. I noticed the walls behind them, barren and empty, almost clinically white. Maybe they kept their pictures in boxes.
They moved to the “home of the brave” to start anew and chose Kentucky for its housing prices. The student told me that the town was okay, though definitely far from perfect: people here don’t know what to make of the color of his skin, so they rely on racial epithets instead. They hoped to move soon, maybe to a bigger city. I said I understood, remembering my grandfather’s immigrant narrative and wondering what a family needs to make this country feel like home.
A few weeks later, I visited California to see another student. She lived in Los Angeles, just west of my alma mater, so I decided to visit a former professor whose kindness I had always admired. When I surprised him in his office, he seemed genuinely happy and invited me to lunch. We walked through town and talked about family before slowing down to turn to someone on a bench.
Most of us would call the man “homeless,” but my professor knew him by name. He asked the man how he had been. The man, delighted less from the question than my professor’s sincerity, began to share. I watched as my professor listened, attending to the man as if he had been a lifelong friend and nothing else mattered. Before leaving, my professor confessed that he had no material things to give the man. The man simply smiled and gestured the notion away. My professor waved a friendly goodbye, and as his attention returned to me, I felt a sense of failure knowing my hands were in my pockets searching for change. I thought a homeless man wanted things his hands could hold.
A week later, I returned to northern Virginia where the real estate market was alive and well. Stories about houses and homes echoed along the office hallways, so I listened and learned from those who knew more: someone’s offer on a house was accepted; my boss stressed over negotiations with her agent; a young associate became a homeowner, inviting congratulations tinged with both admiration and jealousy.
As the stories unfolded, though, I continued to hear the raconteurs switch between the words “house” and “home” with grace and aplomb. Listeners remained unfazed and stayed attuned to unsaid differences between two very different words: assess the “housing market” and “sell the house,” but embrace “homeownership” and enjoy “going back home.” Everyone seemed to know that a house is not a home.
Conversations about other houses and homes seemed to reveal as much. Whenever we walked into the office kitchen and turned to headlines on the newspapers strewn about the counter, the silence seemed to sit for longer stretches: Hurricane Harvey and Maria devastate thousands of homes; millions of Syrians remain displaced; foreclosures increase as urban centers continue to tear down shelters for new developments. We sighed, and shook our heads without a sound, respecting lengthy pauses as if we were repenting. We saw images of rubble and broken windows and felt our hearts buckle under the weight of all they stood for. The act of possessing and losing mattered, but I still walked away amazed that a single word could command so much hope in one sentence, then devastation in the next.
When I think of “home,” or “going back home,” I do more than visualize the brick and mortar from which a “house” is built. I remember details and little moments that words fail to describe, like the expression Dad made when I surprised him at the door, or the soft sounds Mom murmured when I made her cry. I think of postcards and pictures that adorn the walls, and how we point to them to launch into the stories we really want to share. I see blankets and comfort pillows laying on the couch and recall less their contours than the laughter and tears we left there. Even when I think of my grandfather, I think of someone who plumbed his pockets so his loved ones could learn to appreciate something more than things their hands could hold.
I try to remember, then, that when one speaks of home, there is always more at stake than material fullness or devastation: the man most of us would call “homeless” belongs to stories that come alive when I choose to listen; a mother and her child looking to make this country feel like home may choose to forget about the house they lived in because they would rather not remember all that it stood for; and countless others will start in with a few stories with real ruin in their hands.
So when years ago Dad said he wanted to sell the house, I know he had only the best in mind. He wanted to save the business so he could protect us, and had arrived at the idea after exhausting every other measure. Giving us the best was all he had ever known.
I just don’t think he remembered that in Korean the words for house and home are the same.
Mom cried a lot that day.
To her, selling the house meant more than selling the home. In fact, it may have felt worse than losing it. To Mom, selling the house meant trading away the stories that make us feel alive, just so we could hold a few more things in our hands.
The last time I was in California, I was sitting on the couch reading a book while Mom sat beside me in the morning calm. She gazed out the window, listening to the birds sing and watching the crab apple tree sway. She seemed comfortable and at peace, like those portraits by Vermeer she always so enjoys. But I also noticed a heaviness to her air, a gravity I could not describe. She held onto a faraway look, like she was reconciling herself to some inevitable thing.
Without turning her gaze, attending to the scene as if it were some masterful painting, Mom spoke in soft tones when she told me that for many years now, she had imagined how wonderful it would be to call this home her final resting place.
My heart buckled. The world paused. I didn’t know what to say, so I turned to look out the window with her.
I’m not sure how he did it, but Dad worked some of his best fatherly magic then and kept the house. The crab apple tree that was once only a bud is the same one Mom rests her eyes on today.
As a child, I always thought that the tree in our backyard was a cherry blossom tree. After all, the name was pretty, and the tree was pretty too. Mom would always gently remind me that what we have is a crab apple tree.
Now whenever I see cherry blossoms here in northern Virginia, I remember a quiet morning when Mom shared a few stories while watching the crab apple tree sway and birds sing sacred songs.
Yoon-Chan Kim has previously been published for his creative nonfiction pieces in Infusion magazine. He graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, and is an avid patron of the performing, literary, and fine arts. He currently lives in northern Virginia and works at a national scholarship organization.