The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful: Moving Back Home During the Pandemic

By Fiza Pirani Mar 03, 2021

Leaving home when you grow up within a multigenerational household and collectivist culture like mine often feels like a revolutionary act, one that comes with its share of grievances and guilt—doubly so if you’re a woman. When I first left my South Asian parents’ home in the Georgia suburbs for my own studio in Atlanta years ago, my father nearly broke down. I’d lived at the college dorms during undergrad, but the thought of my not sharing the same roof for any other reason but school—to willingly live independently on my own—was unfathomable. 

Women in my mother’s Pakistani family or my father’s Indian family hopped from their childhood home to their husband’s home. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of resentment from both parties the day I told my father I was officially moving out, and we parted on quite a sour note. My new place was a mere 30-minute drive from home. Five years later, at 29, here I am, trying to survive a pandemic from my parents’ basement, contemplating the date of my return to independence.

I’m certainly not the only one. Many immigrants and next-generation immigrants in their 20s and 30s returned home to save money on rent or after leaving or losing jobs during the pandemic, while others ached for the closeness of family and familiarity during this fraught moment in history. Among the frustrations we’ve inevitably experienced—from cultural or generational barriers, to challenges to the privacy we’ve grown accustomed to—there are also new and unexpected moments of reconciliation and appreciation of our roots.

Crossing Borders to Strengthen Family Ties

Julia Sarabia, 27, moved in with her estranged father in Tijuana, Mexico, after graduating from college in California last May, in part so she could save on expensive Los Angeles rent. The two only began speaking consistently about three or four years ago; for most of her life, Sarabia’s father’s drug addiction, the stringent immigration policies in the U.S. and the geographical distance between their split family made it impossible to maintain a reliable relationship. 

Last May, Sarabia reunited with her sister, who was placed in foster care as a child and later adopted.

“I felt kind of absolved of some sort of heaviness,” she says. “And that’s when I allowed myself to talk to him.”

The first couple of days with her father and his second wife in the family home in Tijuana were definitely awkward, but it’s in the mundane, everyday moments of life that she’s been getting to know her father for the first time. While Sarabia doesn’t receive words of affirmation from him, her father communicates his love by replacing her tire’s hubcaps without her asking—or bringing her chocolate milk from the supermarket.

“I found myself being more open with who I am with my father over my mother, because there’s no expectations and no pressure, because he wasn’t there for a majority of my life,” she says. “So getting to know him, and also being able to express myself with a parental figure as an equal … It’s interesting, strange.”

Living at home with her father has also made Sarabia very aware of who can and can’t cross the border. Her mother, who is undocumented, hasn’t seen the family house and her childhood neighborhood since she first left for the U.S., 22 years ago when Sarabia was 5 years old. 

“She’ll tell me ‘Oh, when you go down on this road, you take a right and that house behind there, I used to live there.’" "There’s like this ancestral claim that people have—and now I kind of feel that bit of history in my home, too,” says Sarabia. “I live in the room where my grandpa died. I see the marble that’s been there for years all scuffed up and wonder how many feet have gone over it.”

Driving Through the American Dream

Rebecca Duras, 23, has also found reconciliation with her father during the pandemic. The oldest daughter of Croatian immigrants, Duras has been living and working away from home for the last five years. When the pandemic hit, she was teaching English in France, but a pending end to her work contract meant she couldn’t afford to support herself. In a matter of days, Duras packed up her new life and returned home to her mother’s apartment in Queens, New York.

Growing up, Duras had a very difficult relationship with both of her parents, who are now divorced. They were so strict that even her grandmother, a traditional Croatian Catholic woman, suggested they lighten up. 

“They had a certain idea of the American dream,” Duras says. “The whole, ‘You’re going to go to x college, you’re going to major in x subject, you’re going to make x amount of money.’” It was an especially big point point of contention between Duras and her father, who now lives about 10 minutes down the road. For a few years while she attended a liberal arts college he didn’t approve of, the pair wasn’t on speaking terms.

Weirdly enough, says Duras, the pandemic has led them to repair their relationship. The two often pass their time with drives around the neighborhood to alleviate their boredom.

When Duras’ father was laid off from his restaurant job, he told Duras during one of their rides that the experience forced him to reckon with what he considered false promises of the American dream—that all hard work will pay off. 

“He told me ‘I don’t care what you do anymore. Just be able to feed yourself and be happy.’”

As the first person in her family to go to college, Duras feels obligated, even without any external pressure, to accomplish enough to be able to financially support her parents, both of whom are essential workers. It’s a burden common among young immigrants and children of immigrants who have witnessed their parents make personal sacrifices.

Moving Backwards to Move Forward

Paula Chirinos, 22, also the first in her family to graduate from college, can relate to the pressure Duras and others feel to succeed. Born in Peru, Chirinos immigrated to the U.S. when she was 4 years old and grew up in a traditional Spanish-speaking Peruvian household in New York. Since graduating last year, she’s been working virtually from home, under the same roof as her parents and younger brother.

“I feel like the freedoms that I had outside in the real world as I would call it, were so different and so shocking for me,” Chirinos says. “Just having that all ripped away, it feels like I’m moving backwards.”

While she feels grateful for family, Chirinos says communication has been especially difficult at home, particularly when she’s stressed about work or her future. When she gets anxious or depressed, she has a tendency to distance and isolate herself, a coping mechanism her family doesn’t always understand.

Chirinos says she tries to tell her parents that some days she’s just not at her best, and that she might need a break from everything. 

“There’s a disconnect when it comes to mental health, seeking treatment and bringing attention to my needs. My parents didn’t have those types of discussions about mental health growing up,” she says. “They were just taught to kind of brush off those feelings.”

But in speaking about her own experiences with stress, Chirinos may have  inspired her mother to do the same. In a recent discussion, Chirinos’ mother revealed for the first time that she felt lonely in the States; 90 percent of their family still lives in Peru.

“She said, ‘I feel like, you know, I just don’t know what to do sometimes, and I’m lost and I make mistakes,’” she recalls. “She didn’t say anxious, but she said something in Spanish that kind of means the same thing,” Chirinos says. It was a conversation she’d been waiting to have with her mother for years.

Eating, Praying & Loving Down South

For Mitali Chakraborty, who moved into her mother’s house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at 39, staying put feels new—but surprisingly comfortable. Before the pandemic, she was always jumping from city to city and country to country. 

“I was eating and praying and loving before Elizabeth Gilbert was eating and praying and loving,” she jokes.

When the pandemic struck, Chakraborty decided to forgo her Bay Area rent and move in with her widowed mother to be close to family. Her brother joined her, as well as her sister, who lived in Atlanta and recently gave birth. Chakraborty jumped at the chance to help cook meals and babysit her new nephew.

Chakraborty states that multigenerational households are common within Indian communities. The past year, Chakraborty says, took her back to the two years she spent at home taking care of her late father.

“This pandemic has reaffirmed what happened when my dad got sick—that there’s so much that’s unsaid, but we all show up in the same way in the sense that we all show up. We will physically be there. If something bad were to happen, we will at least be together.”

Sure, her friends and family are shocked when she says she’s not constantly itching to hop on a plane, but much of who Chakraborty is, she says, is rooted in family. 

Family State of Mind

In times of strife, Esther Kim of New York has also found comfort in being with family. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up not far from Koreatown near Flushing. Just before the pandemic, she returned home for a temporary stay after completing graduate school. Then, in March of last year, her father was diagnosed with cancer.

For the first time in several years, Kim, her sister and their parents lived under the same roof as her father underwent treatment. Amid her father’s illness, minor clashes in the kitchen with her mother or sister faded into the background.

“We just had to quickly figure out how to work together and be caregivers for my dad,” said Kim. “We had to bond together to try to muddle through.” And bonding for the Kims involved a whole lot of cooking. 

After months of treatment, her father is now happily cancer-free. But Kim is already dreading the family goodbyes.

For Kim and other immigrants or next-generation adults like myself, moving back in with family after finding our own rhythms in the world seemed daunting. Many of us likely resisted the idea at first, scrambling to find any other alternative. Though the clashes remain (and often intensify), getting to spend this time together during some of the worst months of our collective lives—some of us might even consider ourselves lucky.

Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and founder of the award-winning newsletter, Foreign Bodies