The Chinese New Year that Gifted me a Sense of Home after a Natural Disaster

Never in the sixteen years of my life could I have imagined what happened on the night of January 14th, 2022. As I finished a fun Friday game night over Zoom, I heard a loud gust of wind howl through my window. The electricity went out, and blackness filled the room. I rushed to my mom in the living room with my flashlight. She was about to go to the kitchen to get some candles when all of a sudden, the sound of shattering glass echoed through the house. I felt the floors shaking. 

We quickly ran to get my sister from the other room. I pointed my flashlight to the kitchen, where a large plume of dust crept through the kitchen into the living room. 

“Call 911!” my mom said.

We dashed outside and jumped into the car. That’s when I saw the full scope of what had happened.  A big tree had completely fallen onto a part of our kitchen, leaving a big hole in our house. As my mom drove us out of our neighborhood, we had to drive around the road, which was filled with tree branches and leaves.  The howling wind progressively settled while we drove, but my heartbeat still echoed through my ears. My thoughts were all knotted in my brain with no sense of direction. The sound of my mom’s trembling voice echoed through the speaker with the 911 operator on the other end of the line.  

We returned after a few hours when the winds had calmed down. The slow rustling of trees filled the silence of the night. When we were about to go into the house, I asked my parents if we should take off our shoes, a practice we have always observed. This time, though, my parents said to keep them on. 

Shivering, I pointed my flashlight at the dusty floors. The floors in the kitchen, once shiny and clean, were now covered in glass and debris. Our leftover dinner from Din Tai Fung was still on the table, this time littered with remnants of our ceiling. Our chandelier was hanging lopsided by a few exposed cords from the ceiling. My mom’s puffer jacket lay on the overturned kitchen chair and glass, dirt, and installation material sat in her place with an air of entitlement. Despite all of this, my mom’s three dimensional framed decoupage from 2006 survived the disaster unharmed in the pile of dust, lying there in defiance. 


Neighbors came to our front yard and took pictures. One neighbor said, “This is your house?!”

At the time I didn’t know how long we’d be out of our home, so I opened my drawers and scooped up handfuls of my clothes into bags, hand-me-down jeans from my mom, my “Westridge 2024” sweatshirt,  various t-shirts and sweatpants–whatever I could easily pack. I lugged all of this outside while the sound of the cold wind blowing on the tarp that covered the hole echoed through the house. By the time we finished packing, it was already 3am. 

Over the next month, we lived in three different Air Bnbs. Each time I arrived in a new place, I dutifully hung my clothes in a closet that was not mine and walked in a neighborhood I didn’t know. The second Air Bnb was the most special to me because it was near our family’s favorite boba place and movie theater. Walking happily with Passionfruit Green Tea boba in one hand and dumplings from Noodle Street in the other with my sister and mom, was something I never got to experience in our house since we had to drive everywhere. For a while, I got to feel what it was like to walk to our favorite restaurants from our so called temporary home. As the end of January neared, texts from relatives of “Happy Lunar Chinese New Year just around the corner,” appeared on my phone. 

That year, undeterred by disaster, my mom decorated our second Air Bnb with Chinese New Year lanterns and plated a feast of dried plums, fresh apples and grapes, jasmine rice, fresh crab, abalone, scallop, jumbo shrimp, lobster, peking duck, sea cucumbers, broccoli, and noodles —nine courses from Full House, our local Chinese restaurant on the dining table. But the chairs and tables did not feel like the soft, white comfortable ones at home, and I could not see the reflection of myself on the wooden floor. 

I heard the shuffling of Mahjong blocks on the wooden table as I finished up dinner. Part of me wanted to go back to bed and replay the events that had led me to this Air Bnb, but I got up and set my priorities straight. I made myself study for my AP European Semester test that was the next day, but for a break, I went to play Mahjong with my family. I took my notebook, textbooks, and laptop and placed them on the red tablecloth my mom used to decorate the dining table.  


While my “The Making of the West” AP Euro textbook lay open, I heard my sister telling my dad, “I’m going to beat you, again” in the next room. I looked back at my laptop, my browser open with tabs covering “The Triangular Trade” and a Google Document with diagrams.

My mom called out to me, “Verena, come play for a bit. Dad needs to take a break.” Finishing the last paragraph of the page of my textbook, I came over. “Pong!” my sister called out when she got three identical Mahjong blocks. How did she get so good? Maybe she got it from my dad. I studied the Mahjong tiles with their Chinese characters. I was grateful I could read them and that my mother had insisted on speaking to us in Mandarin. Ever since my feet could hardly touch the floor, I remember getting to touch Mahjong blocks on the table. When I matched two of the same blocks to each other, I would feel a sense of pride. As I got older, I started to get curious about how to play. During family and friend events, I would see groups of adults gather in the living room around tables with Mahjong blocks. The click and clack of the smooth blocks and the laughter that this game brought my mom, dad, and relatives intrigued me. In my first game of Mahjong, with the guidance of my mom’s friend, I got my first “Pong” and eventually ended up winning my first game. Now, every time I catch sight of Mahjong blocks, I am the first to sit at the table and organize the blocks.  

Playing Mahjong with my family at the Air Bnb. (Verena W. )

That night after we finished the Mahjong game, I noticed that even in an Air Bnb, we continued our tradition of taking our shoes off indoors. Shoes were piled up at the door and red pocket envelopes were stacked neatly on the table. My mom made sure we were not wearing black, since it was bad luck. She gathered our family friend Amy, my sister, and me to take a photo in our old Chinese New Year outfits holding red lanterns. My dad’s familiar laugh rang through and my mom’s smile appeared as she snapped a picture of us. 

Even though I had an awkward smile in the picture, I was still smiling. It was a moment of joy and laughter. The aromatic dishes filled the atmosphere, the decorations hung festively, and I was happy, the accident far from my mind.  Yes, the fallen tree had destroyed a part of our house, but it did not destroy my sense of home.  That was rooted deep down inside of us.We had suffered tragedy, but I took comfort knowing that we had everything we needed to keep going.  After all, that night after the accident, as we packed our belongings, my mom did not forget to bring the Mahjong case hidden in the back of the closet. She remembered.