I like to imagine relationships as houses. When I meet a person and begin to build on that relationship, I also build a “house” for them in the expanse of my mind. Some houses I’ve built are less developed, several are abandoned, and others are destroyed completely, left as rubble and vague memories.

Some houses are slowly breaking apart. Still standing, yet eroded by time. These are the relationships that I’ve had for years, but never worked on because I’d assumed they would never change. I only realise how wrong I was when the house has already been eroded too much, to the point no amount of hard work could restore it to the way it was. 

One such house is the one I have for my father – made from clay and brick, a replica of the miniature model I made with him years ago.

When I was eight, I built my first house with my father. It wasn’t too big, just a brick house measuring 50 by 30 centimetres, but my father and I had expended a good amount of time and effort on it. 

Honestly, most of the house was completed by my father, although he did try to include me in as many aspects of the building process as possible. I sat by his side, helping him where two pairs of hands were needed to hold down clay or cardboard. When I told my father that I felt like deadweight, he assured me that my presence contributed greatly to his efforts. I didn’t understand what that sentence fully meant back then, but since he claimed I was aiding him, I decided to stay where I was. Even after my mother had sent me to bed, I sat by my door in the darkness and strained to listen to the events taking place outside, attempting to transmit words of encouragement to my father psychically. 

He worked on that project for a long time, and I fell asleep at the door. 

Years later, when I reminisce about this memory, I come to realise that building that clay house was the longest I’ve ever spent bonding with my father. When the realisation sinks in, I feel like I took a hot glue gun, and fired a blob at my chest. I was 8 years old 8 years ago. 

I wish I appreciated every moment of that incident more. When I first told my father about the assignment to build a model of the house from the Goldilocks And The 3 Bears. When he brought me to Spotlight, and we ran around with the shopping cart through the aisles of crafting supplies. When my father asked me what colours I wanted for my clay house, and I told him, “Pink, purple and blue!” because those were my favourite colours back then. When he put his work aside and joined me at the dinner table and we pressed and pinched clay ‘til my mother returned home with my brother from kindergarten. When I woke up the next morning to a beautifully furnished brick house made of clay. Some areas were sloppier than others, but it was a beautiful house altogether. When I held the small house as tightly as I could as I walked up the stairs to class, trying not to drop it. When I scored an A for it and my teachers told me they wanted it on display in the canteen. When I went home and broke the news to my father and we embraced each other joyfully. 

I wish that I could embrace my father like I did back then. It’s not that my father is unwilling to hug me, but rather, it won’t feel the same. He would hug me, yes, but he wouldn’t lift me around and spin me like he used to. Both he and I have outgrown such behaviour. 

My father would be more than willing to sit through another arduous art project with me, and follow me to Spotlight for materials – but these are things that I, a sixteen-year-old adult, can do without his assistance. I can toil through art projects on my own. I can go to Spotlight on my own. I’m certain my father realises this too, because although he’s willing to lend me a hand, he holds it out only if I ask him to. 

Universally, this distancing is a common occurrence. Articles say that “children inevitably experience the healthy, natural process of becoming increasingly separate from their parents as they develop their personalities and independence”. But if this process is so good for me, why does it hurt me so much? 

That preserved model clay house remains in the corner of my bookshelf. It’s a bittersweet reminder of what has been. Similarly, the “house” I’ve built for my father sits in the corner of my mind. This clay house is a reminder of what can no longer be. 

The house I built for my brother doesn’t have a design. Instead, it’s a blob of grey that forms the shape of a house. It’s like a trick of the light you see on foggy days when you stare out into the horizon and think you see angels, or the heavens opening. One moment you see it standing tall, and the next you wonder if it was there at all. 

My brother and I’s relationship is murky and barely distinguishable. We are siblings. Officially and by name that will forever be so, but whether or not it feels like we are siblings is another thing altogether. 

When we were younger, my brother and I argued a lot. One such incident was over how I addressed him. As Chinese, we’ve been taught that it is discourteous to address an elder directly by their name. Instead, most Chinese address elders according to their familial titles, no matter if they are related by blood or not. This is a sign of respect. 

Because I’m older than my brother, he addresses me with the honorific of  “大姐, and I was allowed to address my brother directly by his name. Not knowing the significance of honorifics, he never had a problem with that arrangement. When I finally explained it to him one day, he cried. 

“You…don’t respect me?” he had wailed. 

I told him that I did respect him and loved him very much. He didn’t believe me. “Then let me call you by your name right now!” he said, and he did. 

“M-Meagan!” he stuttered, “You’re lying, Meagan!” 

I had never heard my brother address me by name before. It sounded strange to the ear, and I didn’t like it at all. He didn’t feel like my little brother anymore. As a six-year-old, I was inept at controlling my facial expressions, so naturally, I didn’t mask my discomfort very well. My brother took one look at me and burst into a fresh wave of tears. When my mother noticed what had transpired, she shook her head endearingly and calmed my brother down. Later on, she pulled me aside. 

“Your brother looks up to his 大姐1 a lot,” my mother had held my hands in hers gently, “I know you always complain that your brother keeps ‘pestering’ you, but it’s because he adores you. So, when the thought of his 大姐 not returning that adoration popped into his head, he was devastated.” 

The next day, I called my brother 弟弟 for the first time. After seeing the joy on his face, and returning his eager embrace, I did my utmost to habitually call him by an honorific instead, even if it felt strange. “A small sacrifice for my 弟弟,” I told myself. 

But that was in the past. I’m unsure when my brother first stopped calling me 大姐, or the last time he even looked me in the eye. Hugs from him went from being an expectation to being a miracle. 

I want to solidify this house, but no longer have the time to do so. As my brother and I grew older, so did our responsibilities grow, which led to a bigger distance between us. We were more polite to each other – we argued less, respected each other’s private space – but we were respectful to each other just as a stranger would be to another. 

Our relationship has changed – for better, and for worse. For now, the “under maintenance” tape is still plastered on the foggy wall of the house I’ve built for my brother. But one day, I will renovate the house, and maintain a relationship with my brother that our younger selves would be proud of. 

The house I built for my mother in my mind is golden. Perhaps you can guess, among my brother, father and mother, who I maintain the best relationship with. 

She and I, being the only two women in the family, maintained a close and precious relationship. But the house I built for her isn’t gold merely because it’s precious. Rather, because I’ve only ever associated the colour ‘gold’ with her. 

I attended the same primary school as my mother. I was sorted into Bernadette, the “yellow house”, just like her. I was initially upset because Bernadette usually never won anything during Sports Day, but my mother, in her typical fashion, didn’t bat an eye and told me that whining would not change anything. 

Somewhere in her mind, however, she must have remembered what I said, because every year, during the weekend leading to Sports Day, my mother would do all the preparations she could to get me prepared and raring to go. From her closet, she found golden ribbons, glittery yellow hair dye, gold shawls, and yellow shirts. Even though she knew that the shirts and shawls might get dirty or torn, she still lent them to me without a second thought. 

She refused to purchase any decorative materials, because, in her words, it was “a waste to buy something just to use it for a few hours a year”. What she bought instead were bananas, my favourite strawberry granola bars, isotonic drinks, and grapes for me to snack on when I felt peckish during the day. When I got home, she’d sit me down on the toilet bowl and gently scrape off the gold glitter in my hair. Sometimes, I would fall asleep. It’s then that my mother showers me, and tucks me into bed. 

My mother’s actions on Sports Day have always been a source of comfort. And because I’m constantly surrounded by yellow and gold on sports day, eventually, I learnt to associate gold with my mother’s acts of love. 

These acts of love have not stopped. My mother would scour her closet for me whenever I needed a red shirt for Chinese New Year or green pants for performances. Instead of hair dye, she now helps me do my makeup for important occasions because I’m terrible at it. She still buys me snacks and makes me homemade juices and smoothies.

Naively, I presumed that it would remain that way forever. 

One day, she passed me some of her old clothes to try on. For half an hour she watched me, silent. Then suddenly, she commented, “You’re outgrowing my clothes. You’re growing.” She sighed, “You won’t be able to fit in them soon… Mummy can’t always be here to help.” 

Back then, I brushed it off. “That won’t be anytime soon,” I told my mother, “I’ve barely grown a centimetre in years.” 

She didn’t respond, and only gave me a small smile. My mother didn’t say it outright, but I knew what she meant. 

One day, I will no longer fit into her clothes. 

(She wouldn’t be able to lend me her help.) 

One day, I will learn how to do my makeup and hair. 

(I would take care of myself.)

One day, she would have passed unto me everything she knows of as a mother. 

(There would be no need for her guidance anymore. )

One day I will not rely on her. 

One day, I can’t. 

The house I have built for my mother is supported with gold, but what happens when that gold inevitably disappears completely one day? The house will lose its foundation, erode, and crumble. 

I’m just beginning to understand this aspect of life. Nothing lasts forever – be it houses or relationships. The most I can do now is to appreciate everything I do have. So that when they leave, at least I’ll know I indulged in it the most I could. 

I haven’t built a house for myself – I never felt the need to. I’ve always thought of myself as the “architect” and “repairman” of the houses I have built in my life. I am happy with fixing my relationships, and simply making sure that they are maintained. “Having a good relationship with those around you is the best way to support yourself” is what I tell myself. So, I look back at the broken and crumbling relationships in my life, reflect, and try my utmost to repair them. Yet amidst this, my mind keeps wandering back to the prospect of my own house. 

I cannot continue relying on others to support me, because not everyone will stay in my life forever, and the relationships I have with my trusted company may one day dissipate or change. These relationships have supported me thus far, but not for forever. 

With this thought in mind, I’ve uncovered a new pillar of support. It’s time to build a new house and develop a new relationship that is equally important as the ones I share with my family. 

On my mental list of “relationships to fix”, listed right under “Fix 弟弟2 and Dad’s house” and “Touch up Mummy’s house”, is a new task for the master architect of my life: “Build Meagan’s house.”

  1. 大姐: “Big Sister” in Chinese.
  2. 弟弟: “Little Brother” in Chinese


  1. Dizonr, S. (2023, February 11). 30+ Must-know Chinese Honorifics for Being Polite Like a Pro [web log]. Retrieved May 22, 2023, from
  2. PhD, J. W. (2016, April 24). 10 signs you need some healthy distance from your parents. Psych Central.

Meagan Rae Tan is a Literary Arts student from the Class of 2025, and a (pro)crastinator. Mythical fiction is her go-to reading genre and she spends most of her time watching k-dramas, sleeping or taking MRT rides to nowhere.