Dad, Why Is Your Desk In The Center Of The Living Room?
How Feng Shui Helped Me Make Sense Of My Family’s Asian Traditions
By Helen Chen, graduate and certified Mindful Design Feng Shui School consultant
Photo by Helen Chen
As a first generation Taiwanese-American kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, I was constantly aspiring to be ‘normal.’ At the time, what I considered to be normal was based on what I observed in the homes of the Italian and Irish Catholic kids who went to school with me. Almost without exception, their homes were very pretty, preppy, and uncluttered. Their living rooms featured matching ottomans and side tables. They had framed family photos hanging on their walls and small, coordinated knickknacks placed just so along a sideboard or bookcase.
My house, on the other hand, was a mix of Chinese-inspired furniture and textiles, with a backdrop of shiny 80s wallpaper. In the center of it all was one round coffee table filled with Chinese newspapers, containers of undeniably foreign snacks like plum candy and dried squid, and a wide array of Asian themed objects.
From time to time, there would be abrupt changes to the furniture layout in our home, and perhaps the most memorable instance of this was when my dad set up his home office in the middle of the living room. First, he moved his enormous metal desk from the basement into the middle of the living room. He placed it facing the front door as if set for a receptionist at an office. Next, crystals of all shapes and sizes were placed everywhere. Soon after, he added large tanks full of catfish to the space. So important were these new pets that when he called home from a business trip abroad, he would often ask how his fish were doing before asking about us kids.
What I didn’t know at the time — because I was so consumed with my own angst about appearing more American — was that my father’s feng shui master had guided him to make all of these changes. Everything was done with the intention of improving his business, which he ran from our house. The office desk should be prominently placed facing the door in the ‘command position’ used in feng shui as the proper way to face a room. The crystals were to invite in wealth and ward off bad luck. The fish would represent vitality and a strong life force energy to the company to make it prosperous; if the fish grew, so would the company. My dad did, in the end, develop a very successful business.
As a teenager, I disregarded and didn’t understand all the energy my parents placed on making these decisions — the constant rearranging of furniture and objects in the house. Obsessively going to crystal shows and returning with huge stones that promised to bring wealth and keep bad luck away. Having the feng shui chart mapped for every member of our family, even my husband and sister-in-law.
In my work as an art consultant, I am often entering spaces like the ‘normal’ homes of my childhood. After years in galleries and museums, I now work with private collectors who have significant art collections requiring museum-level care. Ironically, I am hired to place things ‘just so’ on sideboards and bookcases while installing art and placing objects! What I have also embraced is the philosophy of my Asian roots through a deep study to become a feng shui practitioner. So, I have come full circle. I believe in these feng shui methods deeply and apply them throughout my personal and professional life. In my home, you will see small mirrors to draw in a wall, rice bowls to seal the drain in a bathroom, and red strings to connect heaven and earth. They bring beauty and magic to our lives and connect us with an ancient philosophy that is actually considered quite ‘normal’ in many Asian homes.
Today, you will still see my dad still rearranging furniture at home. Oftentimes we are in conflict about the placement of furniture and objects in our respective homes. We each adamantly feel that our sense of feng shui is better than the other’s coming from different schools of feng shui ideology. Our intentions are aligned even when our decisions are not. We can laugh at these disagreements. My infatuation for things placed ‘just so’ is ongoing; I developed a modern version of feng shui that incorporates a more contemporary and artful approach to balance and flow. You don’t always have to hang a crystal or mirror to invite positive feng shui energy in. I will not be seen moving a desk into the middle of the living room.
And just as I judged my parents’ behavior as strange when I was young, I see my pre-teen kids now looking at me with curiosity and suspicion as I bless a recently hung feng shui mirror. For now, it is their time to question, to consider my feng shui practice abnormal, and perhaps reject these Chinese-y things. I know one day they will also come around. In the end, and maybe from the beginning, my dad and I are more alike than I would have ever thought. Despite our differences, feng shui is an enduring thread that connects us to one another and to our ancestry in powerful and mundane ways.
Helen Chen is a certified feng shui practitioner and graduate of the Mindful Design Feng Shui School. With a background in art and design, Helen brings a contemporary and artful aesthetic to feng shui. Using traditional BTB Feng Shui methods, Helen curates and creates modern images that embody feng shui ideology. She founded EVERYDAY ART CARDS - a deck of 55 cards for intuition, art and feng shui. Helen also links her Asian heritage with an art-inspired feng shui experience. She hopes to help AAPI families combine tradition with modern vibes that ultimately feel authentic and uplifting.