It was a rare Christmas dinner at my house when all of my siblings were under the same roof. All three sisters were married with children, living in different states. Seeing them together made my parents happy, just like old times but with sons-in-law and little grandchildren. With my siblings being within two years of each other, they chatted nonstop at the far end of the table. I was relegated to a seat next to my parents, close to the kitchen to help my mom serve dishes. I was no longer in school. I was working a job. Wasn’t that enough life experience for me to finally chime in with them despite being eight years younger? Somehow the conversation always seemed beyond my reach. I wasn’t married yet. I didn’t have kids yet. I wasn’t old enough yet. I would always be a step behind.
Desperate to interact with my siblings, I sometimes sat at the table pretending to eat even though my mom was in the kitchen prepping the next course and could use my help—until inevitably she called my name and I had to go help her. When I was younger and knew I was too young to join in with my siblings’ conversation, I used to proactively hop down to the kitchen to help my mom. That was where I knew what my mom needed—cut up the cilantro and green onions, separate the pho noodles into bowls, put meat in everyone’s except for my oldest sister’s, top it with cut cilantro and green onions, and bring the bowls one by one to my mom so she could ladle broth. Now, in the kitchen, I couldn’t help feeling bitter and excluded. When would my siblings ever see me as being one of them? Why didn’t any of them help my mom besides me? Why didn’t they try to include me too?
By the time I finished with the next course and came back to my seat, my siblings had moved on to yet another topic, and I found myself silently eating my food, the smallest and quietest sibling of them all. I used to wish I’d been born two years after my youngest sister. Then we’d perfectly span 10 years, and the gap wouldn’t be so big. They sometimes remembered me every now and then, but it was not enough to stave off the loneliness. Sometimes I felt more like an only child surrounded by big cousins.
I was visiting home for Lunar New Year. M had to work so it was only me. His extended family always held dinner at his paternal grandmother’s house, and this year was no different. Except it was. M and I were married, but only I was there.
I wasn’t completely alone. I had come along with his sister, R, and his parents. I followed R, hoping if I traced her path I’d say hello to everyone I needed to and end up where I was supposed to be. But R was her own person with her own relationships with her family. So was M, to be honest. Even with M at these family gatherings, I normally felt like a shadow at the edges.
The folding tables were organized into one long banquet setup. I sat at the middle, at the edges of the younger generation and the older generation. I was too far to talk to the cousins, and even if I had sat at the heart of the group, what would I say? I hadn’t grown up with them. I ended up talking to the girlfriend of one of M’s younger uncles. We tried to have a conversation, but the truth was, she was too Vietnamese and I was too American. My stilted Vietnamese clearly revealed an American upbringing. As soon as another young aunt whirled in, effortlessly switching between English and Vietnamese, the uncle’s girlfriend immediately latched onto her and twittered away. I was in the wrong spot. I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the young kids, and I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the older crowd.
And I wasn’t sure if his family had completely forgiven me for breaking up with him at one point in our relationship. We were married. The breakup had happened four years prior. Surely I had proved that I was here for the long run? I wrung my hands at an invisible entity, everyone and no one in M’s family at once. Would I ever feel at home? Was it my fault or was it theirs? Did I make the wrong choice? But I never felt like it was the wrong choice when I was in M’s company.
I was relieved when the night ended and I found myself in the comfort of my own bed in my parent’s house. I wanted to visit home for Lunar New Year every year, but not if it meant I’d also have to endure uncomfortable gatherings without M.
A month later, Covid took care of that angst by canceling travel for an unforeseen number of months. I didn’t have to pretend with people I didn’t feel comfortable with, but I also wouldn’t see my parents for a long time. Suddenly not having a choice made it seem obvious that I’d have to visit home at the next opportunity. It’d be worth it to see my parents, but would anything change?
My middle sister, T, and I both flew home for a week in June. We stayed at our brother’s house because there was more room there. I would do work during the day and do personal projects at night in the dining room. T would be right next to me with her laptop. Our parents would come whirling in for dinner, several dishes in tow, and we’d all have a meal as a family. At night after our parents left, my brother would sometimes drop by the dining room and do one of his late night chats, and the three of us would talk about this and that. At night, T and I would share the same bed and continue chatting until the two of us were too tired to form a coherent sentence. My dear mom had prepared two different bedrooms for us, but it was a rare moment when sisters could have a sleepover, just like when we were younger.
On Father’s Day we celebrated with an elaborate brunch. My oldest sister arrived and gave us heartfelt hugs. Normally more reserved, she was the most excited I’d seen her in years. We were all happy to spend time together in the brief respite during the pandemic. Chatter continually flowed around the table. When my mom needed help serving the next dish, my brother, T, or I would take turns bringing down plates or clearing the previous ones away. After dessert, my oldest sister lingered for a bit instead of dashing off immediately to run weekend errands.
I didn’t want the trip to end, but inevitably T and I had to fly back to our respective places. How many more chances would we get to spend time together like this, as sisters and as friends? It had taken me a long time to finally find this balance. I was married—no kids yet, but at least I was married. When I ran my Kickstarter campaign for a Vietnamese-themed deck of cards, T had cheered me on and served as my primary sounding board for everything from naming the deck, pricing the deck, creating the promo video, and more. When she participated in a mask competition, I helped proof her written application, created diagrams, and watched other pitches to give her tips for hers. All of this brought me one step closer to where my siblings were in life. It helped me realize that adults are human too, and they don’t always know the right answer. Somehow, somewhere, I had finally grown up enough to join my siblings.
It was easier, though, to feel more connected to siblings. We had shared parents, a shared childhood, and shared experiences. We’ll laugh about the time one of my sisters got so mad she threw a slice of pizza down the hall. Or another time a different sister stayed out so late, she got locked out of the house and slept in the car overnight. Or agreeing that the best Haagen Dasz flavors are coffee and rum raisin. I’m glad I finally feel like one of my siblings. Would I ever feel this level of comfort and familiarity with M’s family?
M and I flew home the weekend before Thanksgiving. He had to go back before Thanksgiving. I stayed, which meant I’d go to M’s extended family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner to be a good sport. Like last time, I came with R and her parents. I followed her again, saying hello to M’s paternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles.
“You representing M?” said an uncle.
A cousin I hadn’t seen in a long time came over to say hi, and we launched into an extended conversation, cut short when we took seats for dinner. Instead of being a shadow, I was my own person, circulating from group to group, finding things to say to different people.
“How’s living in Dallas?”
“How do you make your reels on social media?”
“You’re gonna play Lost Ark when it comes out? Which subclass?”
“About the business logo. What changes did you want to make to it?”
“Have you drawn anything lately?”
I mentally checked off who I had spoken with and who I had yet to speak to. I was proud of myself for taking the first step and saying something to either initiate or bring myself into the conversation. What was different this year? Did Covid make us all appreciate the people in our lives more than before? Had I honed my small talk skill through making online friends and starting a new job remotely? Had I done enough online interaction throughout the year to make me seem like a fellow cousin? Maybe it was nice M wasn’t here or else I would be overshadowed by his golden charm. Hey, I understood his magnetic pull—he had reeled me in after all. But I wanted to build my own relationships with his cousins too.
“Hey,” a cousin said, “we’re going bowling tomorrow. You coming?”
“I wish, but I’m flying out next morning,” I said.
“R! You didn’t tell me she was leaving. Tomorrow. Morning.”
R, mid-bite, shrugs. The bowling date had changed multiple times. “It’s hard to find a time when all the cousins are free.”
I was a little sad I wouldn’t be there to join in the fun, but I understood how difficult it was to bring people together. It was hard enough getting all of my siblings together again, much less many more cousins. If anything, the exchange warmed me knowing they wanted to include me.
The cousins drifted to talk of getting boba, which then ramped up to bringing the hangout to R’s house for games. The boys went to get boba while the girls headed directly to the house, where R heated up cookies instead. While we waited for the cookies, we talked about this and that.
“Did y’all see Eternals? Who was the lady at the end? She looked familiar.”
“Oh, her? I don’t know if she’s been in another movie before, but she’s the actress from VEEP.”
“Julia Louis-Dreyfus! I love VEEP!”
“Yeah, her! That’s probably where I’ve seen her.”
“Is VEEP good?”
“It’s one of my favorite shows. I think you’d like it too.”
The doorbell rang. R jumped up to get it as well as to save the cookies from the oven.
From the door, I heard one of the cousins say, “Did LT leave already? I didn’t see her car.”
When he walked in, I waved. “I’m still here. I parked my car on the opposite side of the street.”
“Ohhh, that’s why.”
Then, the boy cousins saw the towering display of a Batman board game, and they all oohed and ahhed over the giant, gleaming boxes. R had brought it home with her. No one had claimed the package at her apartment complex. It couldn’t be sold, so she took it home. The board game was brand new, still in its factory packaged cellophane, but it was probably too complex to learn in a short time.
“So what game are we gonna play?”
“Oh, I can’t play with y’all,” I said. “I have to leave in 15 minutes.”
“That’s okay. We don’t have to play. We can just catch up.”
“Hey R, can we just unbox the Batman game?”
Immediately all the boys jumped at seeing the Nightwing figurine in all of its glory. R happily got down in the middle of the carpet and started tugging the cellophane off each box. Sometimes the cousins were focused on the unboxing. Other times they chatted amongst each other, showing off a funny TikTok video.
By the time I finished eating my cookie, 15 minutes had passed, and R still had several boxes to unbox. I reluctantly stood up.
“Think it’s time for me to head out. Gotta finish packing.”
R looked put out and picked up another box. “You can’t go yet! We’re not done unboxing. Oh, the next one has a dinosaur. You gotta see the dinosaur.”
“See?” said a cousin. “She doesn’t want you to leave.”
I didn’t want to go either. I wanted to stay longer too, but it wasn’t a matter of me losing sleep. My parents were waiting up for me at home.
I sighed. “Just one more box.”
R excitedly ripped off the cellophane and opened the box to reveal a giant figurine of a dinosaur from the Batman universe. I snapped a picture of all the cousins crowded on the floor. I’d send that to M. They all couldn’t wait for M to read the rulebooks to teach them how to play the next time he came to Houston.
I made my way to the door.
“Bye, LT!” said R’s voice, bright but already distant in the next room as she unwrapped the next box.
That night in bed I had a hard time falling asleep. The evening had been such a bright memory, I couldn’t help but keep recalling it, turning over the golden bauble in my mind, enjoying each conversation I had. I excitedly recounted it to M over the phone. He was happy for me, though it was obviously bittersweet that he could not be there in person.
How different it was from February 2020. I was proud of myself for stepping out of the shadows. Maybe I didn’t have a place at first, but slowly I could continue to weave a place where I felt comfortable and at home. Somewhere warm and bright.