A petty fight taught me how much I actually do love multigenerational living

This First Person column was written by Calgary resident Thao Nguyen. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My brother Dai threatened to evict my beautiful tropical plant from our living room.

“Take it to your room or I will dump it.”

I was livid. Could he not see it was the perfect spot for a philodendron selloum? Sure, I had assured Dai when I bought the plant that it would live in my room, but it had grown and needed more space.

We were two adults fighting over a plant and this — sometimes — is multigenerational living.

I’m 30 and I live in a two-story duplex house in Forest Lawn in Calgary’s southeast with Dai, who is 27, my husband Josh, my three-year-old daughter, both my parents and our two dogs.

And I love it most of the time. 

“Do whatever you want!” I yelled in frustration.

Without saying another word, Dai carried my plant out the back door, then disappeared into the basement.

More than 10 years ago, I moved to Canada from Vietnam to attend college and met Josh. Then Dai arrived a year later and the three of us lived together until I sponsored my parents in 2018, making it five. Dai and I are now proud Canadian citizens.

We still live together because multigenerational households are the norm in Vietnamese culture, and are becoming more common in Canada, too. My husband has European ancestry, and was born and raised in Saint John. When we married he embraced this living arrangement as well. Both of us really value family. 

Three generations of Thao Nguyen’s family live together in a two-story duplex. From left to right, her father Huu Nghia Nguyen, her husband Josh Bettle holding their daughter Morgan Nguyen-Bettle, Thao, her mother Nga Nguyen and her brother Dai Nguyen. (Joseph Tuan Pham)

We share costs, including the mortgage and groceries, and save time by sharing house chores. 

My mom cooks breakfast for the family before work; my dad loads the dishes in the dishwasher, prepares dinner and cleans the main floor; Dai, Josh and I take turns preparing lunch for the next day. We each do our own laundry and clean our own rooms.     

Living in a multigenerational household is not for everyone. For example, it can lead to a gendered division of roles. In some Vietnamese families, women often do all the house chores. And sometimes, family dynamics can involve control or abuse.

But that isn’t the case for our family. Our squabbles are usually over things like how we share the common living areas, like putting a plant in the living room.

I stomped upstairs and laid alone in my room. Josh had taken our daughter Morgan to her swimming class. My mom was working, and my dad was out playing tennis with friends. 

“Honestly, it’s just a plant,” I defended myself in my head. 

The philodendron was my dream plant. I bought it at Costco for $20. 

A woman grins at the camera, framed by two large tropical plants.
Nguyen with her prized philodendron selloum on her left. (Submitted by Thao Nguyen)

The problem was the plant flourished and produced humongous leaves that were twice the size of my head. It tripled in size in two months. But for Dai it wasn’t the plant, it was that I was going back on my word. He’s a stickler for people keeping promises.

I got off my bed and found the plant in the backyard. Hugging it, I ran through my non-options in my head: Not the garage, not my room.

But maybe I could pay my brother rent for the plant until I sell it.

And that’s when I laughed out loud. When is paying rent for a plant acceptable?

That laughter dissolved my anger. I grabbed some string and tied the leaves close to the stem.

I reminded myself that this was a small squabble and living with my family is an incredible privilege.

When our daughter was born, Josh and I struggled in our new role as parents. But my mom was always there, even staying up late when Morgan had a fever so I could catch up on sleep. And Dai is a close friend, my devil’s advocate and personal barista.

Two seniors sit at a table with a young girls looking at bowls of noodles. The young girl has her tongue sticking slightly out of her mouth with an eager look on her face.
Thao’s mother Nga Nguyen serves noodles to her daughter Morgan. Nga and Thao’s father Huu Nghia Nguyen, right, often help with child care. (Submitted by Thao Nguyen)

When I told my family I wanted to attend law school, they were nervous that I might have to move to a different city. But again, they were there for me. They watched Morgan while I practiced for the entrance exam and celebrated when I got accepted at the University of Calgary last December.

I don’t know how long multi-generational living will work for us in the long-term. We could move when I graduate, my brother might get married, Josh and I might have another child, or my parents might want their own place. But we’ll figure that out together when it happens.

And as for my plant, that night its leaves gleamed in the sunset as it sat back in its old spot in my bedroom.

Josh and I snuggled on the bed and admired the plant. He whispered, “This is my favourite plant, you know?”

My eyes twinkled. Living with family means compromises but this time, I guess my loss was a win.


Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. These pieces came from a workshop held at the Village Square library in east Calgary.

Check out our workshops and sign up for the waiting list, or pitch your story directly to the national team.

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