The Four Words for Home


Forty-eight hours before I departed for Kabul on assignment, my mother called me to tell me she was divorcing my father. “I didn’t want to tell you before your trip. But I just can’t do this anymore,” she said of her marriage, for which she had left everything she had ever known in Taiwan thirty-four years ago, hurtling into an unknown life in an unknown country.

Now, I was stepping into my unknown—that 2004 trip to Afghanistan with an immigrant family I had met as a reporter in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I was all too eager to escape into the Shirzai family’s lives and homeland just as my own family was falling apart. To me, the Shirzais’s journey from Afghanistan to Portland, Oregon, and back to their birthplace to help with the post-Taliban reconstruction represented the unity, warmth, and sense of purpose that had long been lost in my family, drained away by my father’s long-untreated mental illness and my parents’ failing marriage. I thought traveling to Afghanistan with the Shirzais, staying with family members they left behind in the turmoil of the Soviet War, would be the journey of a lifetime.

It was. The Shirzais’s own secrets were revealed to me as I slipped past AK-47-armed checkpoint guards in non-NATO-controlled territory, went to the site of their most devastating loss during the Soviet War, and stayed up late talking to their Afghan female relatives about everything from life under the Taliban to men and marriage. But I came to see that my unknown was not halfway around the world, in a culture, religion, and family that were not my own. The Shirzais, in America and in Afghanistan, were a lot like my family. We were all scarred and broken across generations, both benefactors and victims of the American Dream, its blessings and crushing expectations. My journey took me as far away from my crumbling family as I could get to bring me far closer to home than I ever imagined.

I was on assignment to learn about myself.

The Four Words for Home is about interconnectedness, about the universal threads woven through stories of immigration, family, and generational conflict—and how we often have to look deep into what Cynthia Ozick called “the familiar hearts of strangers” in order to find our way back home.

I had fulfilled my editor’s assignment: I found a face for Afghanistan and Afghan America, through the personalities and story of the Shirzai family. But I had done far more than that. Through the lens of the my five years with the Shirzais as a journalist, a friend, and finally, as good as family, I discovered the truth about my own family—and the truths that flow as the undercurrent of all stories of immigration, intergenerational struggle, and the hidden costs of the American Dream.

—Angie Chuang