Asians Moved Back Home En Masse: Then, Something Beautiful Happened
“I honestly didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.”
In the beginning of the pandemic, during a time when people obsessed about their sourdough starters and learned to knit sweaters, Stephanie Ling was also picking up a new hobby. After wrapping up the workday in her childhood bedroom where she works as a content lead and copywriter for jewelry brand Mejuri, she’d head downstairs, settle into the living room of her parent’s Markham Ont., home, prepare a wall of tiles, and promptly lose at mahjong. Her fiercest opponent? Her 90-year-old grandma.
“She did let me win a couple of times,” Ling admits.
Ling didn’t go into the pandemic as a mahjong aficionado. She didn’t even know how to play at the start of 2020, having long avoided the pastime that was popular among her family members, who immigrated to Canada from Malaysia and Hong Kong in the '70s. But learning the rules of the game became a crucial part of her time back at home, a decision she made after she realized getting stuck in her basement apartment over a socially distanced winter was too depressing to contemplate. “I honestly didn't expect to love [mahjong] as much as I did,” she said.
The 26-year-old is just one of many millennials who returned to their family homes during the pandemic, leaving behind the apartments they worked hard to be able to afford, and that had become symbols of their financial and cultural independence. In the U.S, 52% of people between the ages of 18-24 now live with their parents thanks to the pandemic (a 5% increase between February and July of 2020). Those are rates that surpass those seen during the Great Depression. In Canada, 1.5 million Canadians have moved back in with their parents. And among them are many Asian-Canadians and -Americans who have a complicated relationship with living in multigenerational households, homes with several generations who live together or in close proximity to each other.
For many, this new trend is a literal return home. In many Asian cultures, the idea of living at home well into adulthood by choice isn’t that foreign at all. “There’s a long history of many generations of people living under the same roof or in close proximity to each other,” said Dr. Tania Das Gupta, a professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University, who specializes in the South Asian diaspora.
But in Western cultures, multigenerational households are a foreign and somewhat taboo. It’s often seen as a last resort or a stigmatized convenience, and it’s rarely a long-term choice. “There’s an expectation in Western society that once kids become young adults, especially if they’re working, that they should try and find their own place,” said Das Gupta.
This duality can bring up complicated feelings for second generation Asian-Canadians and -Americans, who are — as Das Gupta said — “negotiating two sets of expectations and stigmas from both cultures.” For some second-gen people, a return home in adulthood can come with myriad feelings. For those who initially left home as a means to break out of traditions and become more “progressive,” returning home can be viewed as a renunciation of this hard-won independence, or even a failure of having done better than your immigrant parents.
But spurred by a desire for connection and a fear of isolation, as well as financial insecurity and skyrocketing rent prices in major urban cities across Canada and the U.S over the past few years means that, even before the pandemic, millennials were flocking to their childhood homes.
For diaspora Asians, making this choice presents a host of benefits: “It's much cheaper to maintain the one household as opposed to five different households because you're cooking together, you're eating together,” Das Gupta said. But the maintenance and transference of cultural practices like language and networks is an equally valuable advantage for second-generation family members who are culturally removed from their family’s homeland. “If younger kids are moving in with their parents then they also have connections with the larger extended family and culture,” Das Gupta said.
Within many of these households, there’s also an emphasis on supporting family elders. “[Even] emotionally, the older generation can feel that they have the younger ones around and the younger generation get the support from the older generation,” said Das Gupta.
It’s the built-in emotional support that initially drew Ling home, though with some initial hesitancy, when the lease on her basement apartment ended in October 2020. After a spring and summer spent in lockdown, the thought of a winter in the same apartment wasn’t super thrilling.
“It was really tough [for the first few weeks],” she said of adjusting to being back under her parent’s roof. No longer having as much personal space, identifying new boundaries with her parents (“I might be home all the time, but I’m still technically working, so you can’t just barge in and have conversations as you please,” she emphasized), and navigating living with people who were higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 meant further limiting her already extremely pared-down social circle.
Despite these concerns, it wasn’t long before Ling discovered that she actually loved being at home. “I’m Chinese by background, and like with many cultures, food is huge. Having a family dinner every night was really amazing,” she said. And not just because it meant she saved money on grocery shopping, “but because I kind of forgot what it was like to have a sit down [without] phones [at a] family dinner every single night.” After dishes of sour and tangy Malay Assam Laksa and satay sticks, with Jeopardy on in the background, “we’d cut some fruit and just sit there for a couple hours and chat,” she said. “It was just really nice.”
And she learned how to play mahjong, something she’d put off her entire life. “The first game I played with my parents and my boyfriend stands out the most,” she recalls. Her dad even made a cheat sheet for the pair, so they could understand each tile and its respective meaning.
“It felt like this really intimate, very involved period of time that I haven't had with my parents since I was probably in elementary school,” Ling said about her mahjong education, but also her entire time at home in general.
That cultural exchange goes both ways. “Prior to moving back home, I hadn't told [my parents] that I was going to a therapist,” she said. “But there’s just no hiding anything. They can hear everything. It made me accept that there’s no point in me trying to hold back things, and I'm not even sure why I was doing that to begin with.”
Once she started opening about how she was feeling, Ling said that she began talking about her emotions: “It really felt like I’d developed an adult connection with my parents that allows them to have a good understanding of who I am.” (It’s important to note, as Das Gupta points out, that not all multigenerational homes are inherently nurturing of this kind of open communication, and young people can struggle to live under a roof with a family who doesn’t accept them).
For Abby Albino, the decision to move back in with her parents during the pandemic wasn’t necessarily an easy one. The 37-year-old fashion entrepreneur prides herself on being independent, working in a fast-paced industry; but acknowledges that within her Filipino culture, as a woman who’s unmarried, the norm would be living at home with her parents. “I’ve always appreciated and been so proud of my heritage, but as children of immigrants, we have this need to be Canadian but at the same time honour our culture; so it’s like picking off a menu of where we want to be Canadian and where we want to be Filipino,” she said. Which leaves many second-gen members of the diaspora stuck between balancing the expectation from family that they’ll stay home as long as they’re single (and even after they’re married, especially in South Asian culture), and the expectation from their peers and larger Western society that they’ll leave the nest at an “appropriate” age.
Initially nervous about giving up this sense of independence, Albino’s reasons for moving home were purely practical. After her former roommate decided to live on her own and found a place that worked for her in Toronto, Albino considered her options. “I have my parents close by, they're increasing in age, and I didn't get to see them at all during the first part of the pandemic,” she said, “so this felt like a really good opportunity to go home, reconfigure, and figure out the financial stuff.” Plus, with the pandemic turning the city into what Albino affectionately called “the Diet Coke version of Toronto” (looks and kind of smells the same, but it’s missing all the good bits), she was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to put money into savings instead of using it to rent.
Moving back in with her mom and dad in Mississauga, Ont., allowed her to take that extra $2,000 a month and launch her own dream business, a streetwear shop named Makeway, in November 2020, a month after she moved home. While she and her co-founder are fairly risk-averse, moving back home has given her more room to gamble: “It allowed us to feel much more comfortable in our decision-making. We don't have to play it super safe all the time, because, financially, we know that we could dip into savings if we needed to.”
While having her parents’ support in launching Makeway was a bonus that came out of her time at home, spending time with them as an adult has only strengthened their already good relationship — giving her a new perspective on her culture and reinforcing her Filipino identity. “I come from a world where you take care of your parents and your family. To me, that’s beautiful. There’s an honour in taking care of your parents when you’re older.”
Albino has been supporting her parents in her own ways as well, running errands during the ongoing Ontario lockdown so they can stay at home, and helping them set up Zoom calls with friends to stay connected. The former has become especially important to Albino as anti-Asian racism targeted people of her parents’ age. “I could go grocery shopping for them. At any given moment, I knew where they were and if they were safe,” she said.
While Ling and Albino’s time at home reinforced their desires to be physically closer to their families, for Zoya Shaban, spending the past year with her parents and sister has bolstered her decision to leave home and move abroad — not because it was a bad experience, but because she had such a fulfilling time with them. While moving home was initially an adjustment, Shaban understood how rare it was to have such a large chunk of time to spend just hanging out with her family. It’s an experience that many adults haven’t had, and probably won’t have again. And this period of time has taken on an even more significant meaning for Shaban who got engaged to her long-distance boyfriend during the pandemic. “Having all that time together was really important because it solidified that I had what I needed to feel confident in this next big adult decision I’m making.”
Shaban plans to move to Dubai once she’s married. “[Living at home] was the perfect kind of preparation,” she says. “I'll cherish those experiences forever, because it was our last time just being the four of us.”
With vaccines starting to roll out across North America comes the inevitable “return to normal.” Ling initially considered this when she first moved home, anticipating how it’d feel for her parents to experience being empty nesters once more. “Would they feel sad or upset that I wanted to move back out once the pandemic is over? There were a lot of questions that I had.”
Ling moved back to Toronto in April, returning to the city with a new perspective and appreciation for her relationship with her family. “One of the things that I definitely want to do is just go over for dinner more. It's as simple as that,” she said. And, of course, she’s going to keep playing mahjong. Like so much about living at home, Ling found mahjong to be, at first, something to avoid, and then a challenge, and finally, an utter joy.
Albino initially insisted that she’d only be home for a short period of time. But now, she’s open to the idea that it could be more long-term.