Tag Archives: Christmas

I Find My Roots in Christmas

What makes you you or me me? Is it the country that we come from, is it the experiences we live or the type of people that we surround ourselves with? Growing up, I clung to my American identity, not because I felt particularly American but because I felt for sure that, despite all outwardly appearances, I wasn’t Chinese. Then, as I grew in to myself and made sense of the discrepancy of who I looked like I was on the outside versus who I felt like I was on the inside, and had the opportunity to live in other countries, my sense of self and who I am expanded. Besides being the home of my birthplace and the setting of my childhood and adolescence, I don’t feel that the US solely or entirely shaped me or made me who I am. I’ve never felt a nationalistic pride of being loyal to one country, and I don’t feel like we should be defined by borders or limited to territories. When people ask me – which they often do – if I miss the States, I’m truthful when I say that I don’t miss the US. What I do miss is my family and friends.

But I have seen the importance that other people place on birth country. At 14, I was surprised by the look of admiration and respect that would cross peoples faces when traveling in Europe with my sister each time that we answered the inevitable question of where we were from. That’s when I began to understand how powerful the nation that I came from really was. But, in the subsequent decades, I’ve also seen how the reactions changed. As the US toppled from its pedestal, the admiration that once was so present on peoples faces at my response turned to disdain. In Argentina, they were quick to point out that California used to belong to Mexico, and I started feeling ashamed that we came from stolen land. Once proud to answer the inevitable question, I began to dread it.

In Spain, people can’t make sense of it when I say I’m American and they become even more disbelieving when I state that I’m from California. For Spaniards, Californians have blond hair and blue eyes – more in line with my own beliefs when growing up. Born to a father who’s caucasian and a mother who is Chinese but who was born in Jamaica, I don’t quite fit the image that many people have of an “American”. And I’ve often thought how amusing it would be if I could take them to Irvine, California to the impressive complexes packed with Asian restaurants and bakeries and supermarkets and drop them off there to mingle with the hords of Asian Americans who look just like me.

I’ve always felt that I’m the easily adaptable type. I always felt that I’m not the type to cling to certain traditions and customs. Move me to new countries, and besides the fact that I won’t become a carnivore regardless of how much meat is incorporated into the local diet, I feel that I shed and don new cultural practices as needed.

But then this December, as I was falling into the slump that I have experienced annually since moving to Spain six years ago, I finally understood why my heart always feels so heavy. I realized that maybe some traditions and customs are so engrained in me that it’s hard to let go – traditions created by my family, customs carried out by a nation. Perhaps, there’s a part of me that misses the US more than I realize.

For me, Christmas is going to my grandmother’s house in the mountains, of reading The Grinch That Stole Christmas with my sister on Christmas Eve, of attending midnight mass at my grandmother’s church, of waking up to a white world and a cozy fire and bulging stockings and a real tree that, in the later years as it got harder for my grandmother, turned into a plastic tree, and sitting around with my family as we open gifts. Christmas is also about lights, music, special treats like eggnog and peppermint ice cream, holiday parties, and, dare I say it, malls and stores packed with people snatching up the latest tech gadgets and must-have accessories.

Here, in Altea, not only do I lack all of that, but Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas. There are barely any lights in the Old Town to spread the cheer even though David has filed complaints, as a business owner, with the city hall. The streets are empty and the malls are deserted even the weekend before Christmas, and Christmas Eve is a big day for people – but not to sit around a fire after dinner or read Christmas books with family members but, instead, to go out to the bars.

As I was missing my family this year and remembering what Christmas used to be like and just feeling down in general, I realized that, when it comes to Christmas, I haven’t completely adjusted or shed the American culture for the Spanish one. I guess some things are just so engrained in us that they can’t be simply forgotten by a move overseas.

But it’s not because Spaniards don’t care about family. On the contrary, they care about it maybe more than Americans do. It’s because, for Spaniards, another day is more important than Christmas – January 6th, Three Kings’ Day. It’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist in Spain. Depending on the household, Santa does come bearing gifts, but it’s largely looked upon as a commercial holiday that’s imported from the US and centered around a mascot fabricated by Coca-Cola. Three Kings’ Day is when Spain goes all out. On the eve of the big day, the empty streets fill up with the impressive parade carrying in the three kings. It is these kings that bear gifts and candy and it is to these kings that children write letters asking for a specific toy or gift. And, in the days leading up to this important day, bakeries stock up on Roscon de Reyes, the King’s Cake, that contains a hidden bean and a figurine. Find the bean and you’re responsible for buying next year’s roscon. Find the figurine, and you get to bear the crown.

Having lived in three difference states and three different countries, who I am is a compilation of many diffent experiences, influences, and cultures. Most of the time, I don’t feel American or really miss the US. But, every once in a while, I find myself really wishing that I was there. Sometimes, no matter how special a new tradition is, it just simply can’t replace an old one – like Christmas.

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All I Wanted for Christmas…

My dad looks just like Santa Claus. Besides his stubborn tendency to wear shorts and t-shirts even in the dead of winter, the resemblance is striking, actually. He has the same scraggly beard (except when my mom trims it), the same big belly (although abstaining from sweets has greatly reduced its size), the same jolly smile and the same twinkle in his eyes. And in true Santa fashion, he’s also extremely generous.

Year after year, he and my mom would work their magic and make our dreams come true. They’d pack us in the car and we’d head to my grandmother’s house in the mountains. And we’d hang our stockings from the chimney and examine the tree knowing that, by morning, it would be transformed. And we’d impatiently go to bed, willing the hours to go by ever faster so that Christmas could finally get started. And eventually dawn would break and we’d run from our beds to see what Santa had brought and we’d find the stockings so laden with gifts that they had become too heavy to hang and the tree so bulging with presents that they flowed like a mountain underneath.

And finally our chocolate calendars counting down the days until Christmas could be consumed once and for all because Christmas had finally arrived.

Over the years, the excitement and anticipation over the arrival of Christmas has become less defined by gifts but still is a prevalent feeling that makes December feel like a special time of the year. But something was missing this year. I couldn’t tell if it was because the commercials advertising the hottest new gadgets, the thinnest, lightest laptops, the latest cell phones that stir up a buying frenzy in the US were lacking in Spain. I didn’t know if it had to do with the fact that this was the first year in a long time that I didn’t have a full time job and therefore didn’t have staff parties and paid holidays to look forward to. Or maybe it was because I was home alone without internet or telephone and therefore forced to spend most of my days at the library – where holiday cheer was practically non-existent – as a result. Whatever it was, something just felt different.

And then on December 17th, I received a phone call. It was my mom. My grandmother – her mom – had passed away. We had just celebrated her 100th birthday in Toronto in June. The news came as a complete surprise. She had been in great physical condition then but a recent fall from a chair had broken her hip and required surgery. Her body couldn’t take it and, after a long, healthy life, she had passed away exactly six months after becoming a centenarian.

The funeral was being planned for the 23rd. Was there any way that I could make it? The time to arrange everything seemed too short and the distance too great, but then my sister provided the missing link. In such a situation, the airline that she works for would fly her family to the funeral. In less than 24 hours I made a plan. I was planning on going to Barcelona anyway to see Julie, my friend from college, so I would just fly out from Barcelona to Toronto. And because I would end up traveling on Christmas if I returned to Spain immediately after the funeral, I decided to continue on to California with my family to spend Christmas in the mountains with my dad’s mom. And if I left for Spain California on the 26th, that would give me just enough time to get back in time for my appointment at the immigration office on the 28th to turn in my papers for my residency in Spain. And suddenly, it didn’t matter that I had overstayed my visa and might not be let back in to the country. I would deal with the consequences if I had to. Attending my grandmother’s funeral and spending Christmas with my family and my other grandmother was my priority and I needed to get home.

After a 3 hour delay on the flight from Barcelona due to a series of mechanical problems, missing my connecting flight from NYC to Toronto, running to catch a cab between JFK and LaGuardia to standby on a later flight out of LaGaurdia, and having a run-in with the cabbie who gave me a warm New York City welcome by cursing at me because I wanted change from the $40 that I had handed over for the $32 cab fare, I got on the last flight of the day and was reunited with my family at midnight on the 22nd.

On the 23rd, I joined my aunts, uncle and cousins and we said goodbye to my grandmother and celebrated her long life. My cousin had made beautiful frames that illustrated a life well lived. There were photos of her as a gorgeous bride and a loving grandmother. Time had only changed her softly. Even at 100, she still had the same gentle smile and kind eyes.

That evening, my parents, sister and I headed to California. On the 24th, we drove up to Big Bear to be with my dad’s mom. And, as we all piled in her room, my dad read a passage that his dad used to read and that he now he reads from the Bible every year. And on Christmas day, I woke up early, filled with excitement, and jumped out of bed. But it wasn’t because I wanted to examine the presents that Santa had brought. I was just thrilled to be with my family.

I was the first one up but not the first one awake. I went to my grandmother’s room where she was waiting for her live-in caretaker to get her out of bed. She’s at the mercy of others to help her with everything. And, because of this, she suffers greatly, for, while her body has failed her, her mind has not. But, though she feels incredibly weak, she keeps the rest of us incredibly strong. She’s the perfect model of how one should live life. She’s has touched so many lives and is practically famous in her Big Bear community. Her generosity overflows and she’s faithful until the end. And she has an uncanny ability to remember birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations and keep track of the entire family’s happenings – a daunting task even for me. She’s at the heart of it all and, because of that, she keeps her ever-growing family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren whole.

So, this Christmas, my mom’s mom reminded me of how important family is and gave me a reason to defy Spanish immigration and head home, my sister made sure that we all got to where we needed to be and enabled it all to happen, and my dad’s mom – with her beautiful spirit and her mountain home that contains so many childhood memories – made Christmas Christmas and finally brought back the feeling of anticipation that I had been missing.

And even though we’re all scattered once again – David and I are back in Spain, my brother’s in Massachusetts, my sister’s traveling in Cambodia and my parents are in California – we were all able to come together for a brief moment to celebrate life and family.

And that’s the best present that I could have ever received.


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