January 2, 2008
One of my wife's aunts just bought a new house in one of those pre-fab subdivisions that seem to be taking over middle America, a McMansion. The subdivision is still brand new. The streets aren't on maps, and most of the houses are half-finished, or have that just-moved-in look. But there is one house with green grass and trees outside. It's the model house, and that's the one they bought—fully furnished. To give the illusion of the perfect life, the model house has fake family photos in each room—the pictures always feature a handsome couple with one or two kids. The couple would vary from room to room, but you wouldn't notice if you didn't look closely. The mom was always blonde, the dad, muscular, occassionally shirtless. In the kid's room a framed drawing titled, "World's Best Dad" was carefully hung in the corner while the master bedroom was decorated with glossy travel magazines, and books in bookshelves that invitably carried the word "success" in the title. In the living room a pretend television displays a serene ocean scene.
My wife's aunt and uncle and their daughter will move into the new house leaving most of their old furniture behind, walking into a readymade life. In truth the new life looks pretty similar to the old life. The new house is virtually indistinguishable from the old one which is also in a pre-fab subdivision. Inside the house feels the same- miles of beige carpet, huge windows with plastic sills, and a sense of complete anonymity. The cherry veneer furniture and bland paintings on the walls are indistinguishable between the homes. But in the new house the rooms are all one or two sizes bigger, there's a third door on the garage, and the basement is graced with a media room. A year from now little will have changed in the model house. The furniture will not have been moved, the paintings will stay exactly as they are, and my guess is it will take months if not years to replace all those family photos scattered around. Even the plastic TV will stay put.
It is easy for my wife and I to be horrified by all this as the house and everything it represents is pretty much the opposite of how we believe life should be lived, but for my wife's aunt and uncle, immigrants from Korea who were both children of war who arrived here with nothing, the house is tangilbe evidence of a life of unbelievably hard work— year upon year of labor without vacations or government holidays often in dangerous neighborhoods where they are mocked and threatened. The house will remain chilly in winter as they would never waste money on something as frivoulous as heat, and it will feel empty to visitors, but out in the back Jenn's uncle will plant a vegetable garden with seeds sent from Korea. He grew up on a farm and still sometimes refers to himself as a farmer. He'll complain about the soil, but he'll make it work and before long the garden will be overflowing with tomatos and squash and chilis. In the summers he'll host barbecues complaining about the expense of such a big house, but enjoying hosting everyone in it, and dreaming of a bigger one.