Why You Should Never Go Home

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer Kevin Nguyen tells us more a recent family reunion.

Family reunion: 13 people in a 3-bedroom house with 1 bathroom.

— Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) May 24, 2014

Kevin! So what happened here?

I was in Sacramento for Memorial Day weekend to visit my mom’s side of the family — aunts, uncles, cousins (SO MANY COUSINS) visiting from all over California. I hadn’t seen them in about four years, and I forgot how we cram ourselves into our grandparents’ house and sleep on shared beds and couches. (One young cousin, Jeremy, said he wanted to sleep on my air mattress so he could wake me up in the middle of the night with his screaming.) At least the bathroom situation worked out because there was no hot water, so no one was in the shower for more than a couple minutes. You could tell if someone was in there because they’d be yelling “COLD, COLD!” In hindsight, there was lots of shouting that weekend.

Like many families, mine has a lot of criticism to give. Some examples:

• Seeing that I had a Mac, my 16-year-old cousin Brian said that I should get a PC instead, which he considers “the master race” of computers. When I told him that was a reference to the Nazis, he said, “No, it’s a good thing.”
• Tyler, who is in seventh grade, called me out for having only 200 Instagram followers. He seemed really disappointed in how few likes I get for my photos. (Apparently it’s “embarrassing” to get fewer than 50 for any picture.)
• Khoi was even more disappointed in my Flappy Bird high score. He opened the app on my phone and, on his first try, scored 104.
• My grandfather asked when I was going to get my master’s degree (doesn’t matter in what).
• My grandmother asked when I would meet a nice Vietnamese girl (doesn’t matter who).
• Even my mom suggested I date a girl who doesn’t like books, so I’m “not always talking about books.”

Why don’t you visit your family more often? And what are some of the challenges you run up against when you do see them?

I live in New York, so it’s a bit far for me to travel. But my grandfather had a stroke a few months ago. While he’s actually recovered from it remarkably well, it was definitely a moment where we realized he wouldn’t live forever. The day before we arrived, he hurt his back trying to lift something — somewhat ironically, in an attempt to tidy up for all his guests. So he was stuck in bed, unable to move, for most of the time we were there. He thought it was a herniated disc or something more serious. We would carry him out to the living room and lay him on the coffee table so he could be around people. It was strange seeing him like that. This is a guy who was a colonel for the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. Dude seems invincible.

Visiting is always a little jarring for me. I don’t speak Vietnamese well enough to keep up when my grandparents, aunts, and uncles are conversing. So I spend most of my time hanging out with my cousins, who are all a bit younger than me — most of them are from middle school through college age.

We basically sit on the floor and play this Vietnamese card game called Tiến lên (Thirteen) for hours on end. It’s sort of like Poker meets Uno. It’s a little strange, though, because my mom’s side of the family has a severe gambling problem that goes back to my grandmother. She is 4-foot-6 and exclusively wears muumuus. She also knows more about the NFL than anyone I’ve ever met. She made a lot of money betting on the Cowboys in the ’90s, though has probably lost as much since then. And though she barely speaks English, my grandmother can talk about football player statistics all day long. I’m also told she used to disappear for days at a time to go gambling, and no one is quite sure where she went.

Anyway, Tiến lên is the single activity that everyone can relate on. For some of the family members that only speak Vietnamese, playing cards is the only way I can engage with them. It’s both the biggest obstacle and the greatest unifying thing our family has.

Lesson learned (if any)?

Like the rest of my family, I too am very critical, especially of my younger brother, Jonathan. We’re very different. I sometimes disparagingly refer to him as a “brogrammer,” but really, he’s a very smart, thoughtful kid. Growing up, our parents compared us a lot, even though Mom said we were like “night and day.” I always did better at school, sports, whatever. My brother underachieved for a long time — he just didn’t really figure stuff out until after college.

Now my brother is a software developer and does very well for himself. I’m thrilled everything in his life is lining up the way he wanted. He’s good at his job and makes a lot of money.

But he can also be kind of insufferable about it. The whole weekend, my brother kept talking about the job offer he was going to get from a startup. It would be $100K at least. He said this over and over — I kept count: nine times. (In his defense, though, my family likes to talk about money.)

I had to bite my tongue when my brother told me the offer was from a startup that lets you make bets on sports. I pulled my dad aside and said I had misgivings about Jonathan working at a company that preys on the weakness that has really hurt our family. Dad asked why I couldn’t just be happy for him. It was a good question.

Jonathan is great. We just don’t see eye to eye on everything, and I think we’re finally accepting it. I guess that’s the thing with family: You don’t have to like them, you just have to love them.

Or just quietly roll your eyes when they brag about their $400 beanbag chair.

Just one more thing . . .

When my grandfather finally went to the hospital, it turned out that he had gout. Nothing more. When you eat a meat-rich diet, especially when you’re older, you end up with gout. (And trust me, my family eats a lot of meat. The night we arrived, my grandmother prepared chicken, pork, and salmon — all in one meal.)

When he got home from the hospital, we all gathered in the living room, opened a bottle of champagne, raised our glasses, and toasted, “to gout!”

Then me and the cousins went back to playing Tiến lên.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.