C.E. Hyun's stories have appeared in Lightning Cake, The Good Men Project, decomP, and Foliate Oak. She lives in Orange County, California and at cehyun.com

Purple Painted House

posted Jan 13, 2015

Bree went with her father to Mexico to build a house. It was not a trip she had volunteered for. The trip was arranged through their local church, and they drove caravan-style down the five, past San Diego, across the border, and into Tijuana. The first and last car communicated to each other via walkie talkies, lest a car in the middle somehow meander off and be lost.

The building site was not what Bree expected. She didn't know what she expected, because she had not really thought about it. But when she had, she vaguely imagined an air-conditioned warehouse or a cool, grassy lawn.

There was no air-conditioning or green grass. Just the concrete slab the house would be built on. The volunteers were divided up according to past experience and skill. If you had no skills, you were a painter. Bree uncertainly moved her paintbrush over rough, unsanded board. The paint was bright and purple.

They were building this house for a young family. The father of the family helped with the construction. The two boys alternately painted and played, and let the volunteers coo over how cute they were. The mother came out at lunchtime, bearing enormous party trays of rice and beans and cactus and tortillas.

The leader of their trip informed them that the mother had made this meal as a show of her appreciation, which Bree recognized as a blatant lie. Unless the mother had some previously undisclosed expertise in mass food production and catering, she clearly had help. Bree wasn't sure why the leader didn't just tell them this, instead of putting on an unnecessary show.

After lunch, the walls of the house were erected. The roofing was nailed down. The family and volunteers gathered in a circle. As the leader prayed and gave thanks for this wonderful day of blessings and good work, Bree looked at the bright purple walls of the house she had helped paint.

As they were cleaning up, one of the women Bree had painted with noted how happy and glowing the family appeared. Bree didn't recall seeing such an expression on their faces herself. The woman asked Bree how old she was. Bree told her she was a junior at Blankwood High.

"This must be an absolutely wonderful experience for you," the woman told her. "I really think this kind of service work should be required of all young people."

Making it mandatory would negate the whole volunteer aspect of it. Bree gave the woman a vapid smile. "Our school is trying to make it mandatory. At least forty hours to graduate!" she said. She thought the woman's charitable airs made her appear delusional and old.


It was much harder to leave the country than to enter it. Bree had never seen so many cars, had never seen so many people that walked amongst them, selling candies and sombreros and fruits and bottled beverages. It made Bree uncomfortable in a way she didn't understand. Several cars away, she saw a woman begging for money, holding a baby against her chest.

Bree's father was driving with the windows partially open. It was sweltering, and she snapped at him to close them and turn on the A/C. The woman with the baby was heading in their direction. When the woman approached her window, Bree saw that the baby had a cut across its eyebrow. She turned her face away.

On the drive home, Bree stewed over how she disliked the packaged nature of their experience. Early morning breakfast. A happy group drive across the border. Build. Eat. Pray. Back in time for dinner. Shower and relax. Pat yourself on the back for providing this impoverished but wonderful portrait of a family—a young husband and wife, two playful and photogenic young boys—a home. Imagine if a clone of that home were to appear in your neighborhood. How quick the HOA would come roaring out to get you!

This was the content of Bree's thoughts. Bitter recriminations and a questioning of shady motivations. It wouldn't be until years later that Bree would consider that when it came down to tangibles, the family had a new house, that it was their house. It had a concrete floor, four weather-proofed walls, a door with a lock, a sink with a drain. She didn't consider that regardless of a volunteer's individual motivation, the building of a house required willing hands, that the woman she didn't like had willing hands. She didn't consider that the family's life did not start or end with her charity, that they would not care to be the victimized characters in her changing ideas about charity.

She did consider how she felt bad when remembering the begging woman and her baby, how she'd turned away at the sight of a begging woman and her baby.