In Berkeley, where nearly a quarter of residents were born abroad, summer vacation often takes on a certain international flavor. And after a lull in international travel during the pandemic, families that can afford to jet-set are flying once again.

For many immigrant families — in which spending lazy afternoons indulging in grandparents’ treats requires flying around the world — this summer vacation was the first opportunity in years to connect with loved ones in person.

Berkeley parent Aura Aparicio deemed it the “summer of ancestral return.”

Her daughter was one of a group of friends from Willard Middle School who, during the last summer before high school, embarked on vacations with their families to connect with their heritage.

The friends scattered to different continents, many speaking different languages. They returned to Berkeley for their first days of school with a stronger connection to their family history and their identity.

Ixchel Pimentel-Aparicio road tripped through Guatemala; Eight Kuwahara traveled to Japan without parents for the first time; Matti Hesse flew to Germany and fished for mackerel with his grandfather; Owen Nguyen visited his dad’s boyhood home in Vietnam; and Christopher Marzo-Pong made new connections through basketball in Taiwan.

Here are the stories of five Berkeley family vacations:

The Nguyen family connects with Vietnamese culture through food

Two boys are flanked by their mom and dad in front of an old Vietnamese temple
The Nguyens take a family photo in front of Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam. Courtesy: Kristin Porter

Jack Nguyen left Vietnam for the United States in 1975, the day after Saigon fell to the communists. He was 7 years old. 

Settling near Ames, Iowa, his family had few opportunities to connect with other Vietnamese immigrants. It wasn’t until moving to the Bay Area in the ’90s that Jack was introduced to a vibrant Vietnamese community. 

The Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose were his way in. In nondescript San Jose strip malls, he was “re-acquainted with dishes like banh cuon, pho, and canh chua, none of which were available in Iowa,” Jack wrote in a text message.

This summer, Jack brought his family to Vietnam for the first time: His wife, Kristin, and sons, Owen, 14, and Wyatt, 12, joined on a tour of the country, from Hanoi to Huế. 

“It meant a lot to me to show Owen and his brother the country, for them to understand me as a person, to see where I grew up,” Nguyen said. With the help of a family friend, they were able to find Jack’s childhood home in Saigon.

Like it had been for his dad, food was a major cultural touchpoint for Owen. Like many immigrant kids, Owen is more conscious of his American identity in Vietnam and more aware of his Vietnamese heritage at home. “If I’m in Vietnam, I feel more white. When I’m here, I feel more Vietnamese,” Owen said.

Pyramids of colorful Vietnamese fruit for sale at a market
Mangosteen, rambutan and other fruit fill the stands at Dong Ba Market in Hue, Vietnam. Courtesy: Kristin Porter

In Berkeley, Owen had served homemade banh mi — with his dad’s help — to his classmates at Willard Middle School’s annual Night Market. In Hoi An, he tried new versions of the classic Vietnamese sandwich, with more condiments, more ingredients. He sampled banh bao for the first time at a Quan Banh O Le, a restaurant reviewed by Anthony Bourdain and sampled old favorites like beef pho. 

The Pimentel-Aparicio family takes a road trip through Guatemala

Two sisters and their parents pose for a photo in front of an ancient Mayan building.
The Pimentel-Aparicio family visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal, an ancient city in the rainforest of Guatemala. Behind them is “El Gran Jaguar,” a Mayan temple. Courtesy: Aura Aparicio

When Alejandro Pimentel and Aura Aparicio visit Guatemala with their daughters, Ixchel, 14 and Nikté, 10, their first stop is usually grandma’s house in Villa Nueva, on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

This year, after going several years without visiting the country, they did things differently. They headed off on a cross-country road trip, visiting places that were significant to Pimentel’s childhood and young adult life.

“It was a gift to them from me,” said Pimentel, who moved to the United States after falling in love with Aparicio, a first-generation Guatemalan from San Francisco. 

They stopped at natural pools on the River Cahabon, where he had visited several times with close friends in college. They watched thousands of bats emerge from the limestone caves near Lanquin and swam in Lake Itzá, like Pimentel had during his last year of architecture school. 

The trip hit Ixchel at a time when her relationship with her Guatemalan heritage was burgeoning.

“If I could live a day how [my parents] lived when they were my age, that would be so cool,” Ixchel said. 

Two sisters sit on a swing decorated with large butterfly wings ion a boardwalk n front of a lake.
Ixchel and Nikté Pimentel-Aparicio pose for a photo on Lake Peten Itzá this summer during their family road trip across Guatemala. Courtesy: Aura Aparicio

Both Ixchel and Nikté loved listening to their tour guides recount traditional folk tales as they drove through the Guatemalan countryside. Ixchel made a list, more than a hundred words long, of the colloquialisms the drivers used.

Ixchel lamented about the major family moments she had missed while living in the United States — her cousin’s wedding and the birth of her children. She reflected on how much funnier her dad seemed in Spanish, how much more affectionate Guatemalans were, how her short stature felt just right there. She left wishing her family could make a home in Guatemala. 

For Aparicio, one of the most touching moments was seeing her daughters’ school pictures in her relatives’ homes in Guatemala City and Villa Nueva.

“Seeing their pictures miles and miles and miles away… that’s always really special. They get to see that they have a place there as well,” Aparicio said.

The Kuwahara boys take their first solo trip to Japan

Three brothers in baseball caps sit on a train. Two look at their phones, while the other looks into the distance.
Eight, Hiroto and Takato Kuwahara ride a train in Hiroshima together during their first solo trip to Japan. Courtesy: Hitomi Kuwahara

After moving to the United States in 2003, the Kuwahara family made regular trips to their native Japan. Each vacation was an affirmation of the family’s cultural identity, including time with grandparents in Hiroshima and a visit to Jyoenji, a Buddhist temple that the Kuwahara family has led for three generations.

This trip, the Kuwahara boys — Hiroto, 11; Eight, 14; and Takato, 18 — went solo for the first time, their parents, Kiyonobu and Hitomi, joining them at the end.

“Their trip was my highlight,” Hitomi said.

The solo vacation was a marker of the children’s independence. They stayed with their grandparents, as usual, but flew internationally on their own, developing their private routines in Hiroshima and cultivating more personal relationships with Japan.

It was also the family’s last trip before Takato goes off to college this fall, their last visit as the same cohesive family unit. Takato had considered attending college in Japan, but ended up enrolling at UC Santa Cruz, though he still hopes to study abroad there.

Together, the brothers went shopping, visiting nearby stores without their parents’ watchful eye. Takato spent time in the city with local friends, while Hiroto walked most mornings to a nearby nursery school. They played games at a Korean arcade and Eight immersed himself in manga.

“In Japan, kids can go by themselves, even elementary school age kids,” Hitomi said. “So they feel freedom.”

An older man leans over a wooden table to help a young boy with glasses fold his origami, while grandma concentrates on her own folding.
Hiroto does origami with his grandparents. Courtesy: Hitomi Kuwahara

A childhood worth of visits to Japan has shaped Takato’s identity in particular. He’s more open-minded, he thinks, behaves more respectfully and formally than his peers, and maintains a stronger connection with Buddhism. And after not being able to visit for several years, he cherished the time he had with his grandparents all the more.

How else would his life be different without visits to Japan? “I wouldn’t be able to eat as much good food,” Takato said.

For the Hesse brothers, Germany is all about soccer and grandparents

A teenage boy puts his arms around his grandparents.
Matti Hesse with his grandparents in Bremen, Germany. Courtesy: Susi Hesse

For Matti Hesse, 14, summer in Germany means packing into a soccer stadium, cheering on his favorite teams, FC Köln and SV Werner Bremen. Hesse feels most German when he is chanting his favorite team names in the stands.

“There’s more passion” from German fans, Hesse said. “In the U.S., you won’t hear your team chanting like that.”

Each year, he brings home a jersey from one of the teams. This year, it was the team from Bremen.

“Other than that, I feel very American, unfortunately,” Hesse joked.

The family has visited Germany every summer since moving to the United States in 2011. The visits provide a crucial cultural tie for Matti and his younger brother, Jari, 12. They allow the siblings to bond with their grandparents in Bremen, a city in the northwest, and give parents Susi and Oliver a chance to reconnect with loved ones.

“That was one of the rules that my husband and I decided on right away, that we will do whatever it takes to [visit] once a year,” said Susi Hesse, whose closest friends and family remain in Germany. “If I wouldn’t have that once a year, I think I would be homesick.” 

A boy in a neon fishing vest turns around to look at the camera, the sun setting on the water behind him.
Jari Hesse during a fishing trip on the North Sea in Germany. Courtesy: Susi Hesse

This summer, Matti and Jari went fishing for mackerel with their grandfather in the North Sea and helped tend to their grandmother’s garden, full of lemons, cucumbers and flowers. Every year, the brothers encourage grandma to play Skipple, a card game, with her friends while they’re gone, so she doesn’t have to relearn the rules each year.

What would life be like without the annual trips to Germany? “I would be a bit homesick, but not really for Germany, just for my grandparents,” Jari said.

The Marzo-Pong family returns to Taiwan after time away during the pandemic

A teenager with a bucket hat takes a selfie with his dad and grandmaother.
Christopher Marzo-Pong takes a selfie with his dad, Chris Pong, and grandmother, Jeanyun Lee, in Taiwan. Courtesy: Chris Pong

Adopted from Taiwan as an infant, Christopher Marzo-Pong, 14, has lived in the Bay Area ever since. His dad, Chris Pong, grew up in Taiwan, and has always made it a priority to incorporate his Taiwanese heritage into his family’s life.

In Berkeley, Marzo-Pong attends Mandarin school on Saturdays. Sunday morning is the Dharma School at Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, a few blocks from his family’s house. The temple is Japanese, but the family has found a home there. And during the week, he practices with Ohtani, a basketball team for youth involved in the Japanese community. 

Summers are reserved for visits to Taiwan. 

In 1994, Pong moved with his husband, Anthony Marzo, to San Francisco, in part because it was easy to fly direct to Taiwan. Since then, the family has visited Pong’s home country every year, spending weeks with Pong’s mother in Shizhu. Only the COVID-19 pandemic could halt their regular trips.

After a pause in international travel, Marzo-Pong found a new appreciation for his annual trip. This time, the family added two weeks in Japan, as well.

A teenage boy stands in front of an ornate temple
Christopher Marzo-Pong in Taipei. Courtesy: Chris Pong

“Because I go there every year, just missing one year felt, on the inside, very lonely,” Marzo-Pong said. “I definitely missed my grandma and my cousins and my friends more than ever before.”

With more confidence in his basketball skills and his Mandarin, he played on courts with local Taiwanese guys for the first time. He also relished traveling through the countryside, visiting Indigenous villages. Marzo-Pong is part of the Atayal tribe, which is indigenous to Taiwan. One day, Pong hopes his son will be able to connect with his birth family.

“Just just being around people and talking to people in my language makes me feel really connected,” Marzo-Pong said. “That’s why I learned how to speak Mandarin. So I speak with my own people, to connect with them.” 

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...