Tag Archives: family

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.

Family Roots

I am balanced, but I owe it to my mom who taught me by example to take everything in stride. I was never in want of anything, but that’s thanks to my parents who always provided us with everything that we could want or need. I have made choices in life confidently but that’s because I know that I am loved unconditionally. I am stable, but that’s because my parents have always provided me with a strong foundation. I have known kindness and generosity, but that’s because I have been surrounded by it. I don’t curse – and never have – but that’s because I knew that I would get in trouble by my big sis if I ever did. I had the courage to think big and go far from home in search of my own path, but that’s largely because my siblings forged the path before me and showed me what was possible. And, thanks to my grandmother, I have come to understand moral integrity and have been driven to live a life even just a quarter as great as hers. I am the product of all of this, yet it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that what I had was something special: Family.

Growing up, I simply assumed that just because my family was so close-knit, everyone else’s was. I naively thought that just because my parents had been together for decades, everyone else’s had. And I took it entirely for granted that I had two parents who loved me and provided for me because I thought that that’s just how it was. Then, when I grew older and the innocence of childhood had faded, I realized that my reality was not the reality that is. And I realized that growing up in such a family was more the exception than the norm.  And I realized what a head start in life I had gotten and what an advantage I had simply by having an uninterrupted, happy childhood.

So when David was feeling the need to be with his family, I pushed him to go to Paris to spend time with his half brother and sister and his mom. It had been years since he had seen his siblings and I knew that, after the fiestas, January would be a slow month. I also felt more confident running AlteArte on my own ever since I had survived September when he had gone to Lisbon for five days. The first week passed without incident, but by day 7, loneliness was setting in, and I tried to stave it off by going down to the water. It was my day off. I needed to get out and distract myself with nature and people. 

I had just sat down on a bench facing the sea with my book in hand when I checked my phone and saw that I had received a text – from my sister. As soon as I saw it, I knew that something was up. She would never send a text unless she was in Europe. I took the fastest route and ran up the winding streets home. When I didn’t find her out front, I ran inside to call her. As I knew she would, she tried to play it off, to delay the surprise a little longer, but I know my sister. And, after I hung up, I knew that she would head to the house so I ran outside so that I could see her as soon as she was within sight, and, sure enough, minutes later, she rounded the corner with suitcase in tow, tired but happy. 

For my sister to stop her busy life and come all the way from the US just because I was alone might sound extravagant, but that’s what my sister does. And while I was thrilled, I was not surprised. Because I know my sister. She’s fiercely loyal, over-the-top generous, selflessly giving, and, as a big sis, super protective. And she has always spoiled me rotten.

And, for the next week, she stayed by my side. She helped me clean, she kept me company while I worked, and she talked to the customers. And people who I had known for years opened up to her and shared with her their concerns. One talked about his broken heart, another about his need to travel and to reconnect with that feeling of being alive when chance encounters could be carried through and signs from the Universe could be heeded and acted upon.  

And when we weren’t at AlteArte, I took her to my favorite places: we had a vegetarian sandwich at Caramba, tapas at Xef Pirata, Marinara pizzas at El Castell, and vegetarian sushi on the terrace of the Japanese restaurant with its super nice owner and sweeping views of Altea’s rooftops and the sea and mountains.  And we visited the outdoor market where we stocked up on oranges and olives and artichokes. And on our day off, we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and walked along the water to Albir, the neighboring village, and we had lunch at an Indian restaurant and then back in Altea we stopped at one of my favorite cafes along the water and we had a coffee and watched the moon rise – a moon that was so full and bright and orange that I initially confused it for a streetlamp.  And, I realized that, for the first time, I was on vacation in Altea. 

And then when she extended her trip for one more day because David’s return got delayed, we visited her favorite ceramicist on Calle Mayor. Having owned his store for 30 years, Eugenio makes up part of Altea’s history. He has crafted many of the signs in the old town, and plays a role in my own beginning in Altea for he was the ceramicist that we visited during my family’s first visit to Altea more than three years ago. At that time, my Spanish was still too basic to translate but my dad heard the classical music coming from his workshop in the back and they connected through a different kind of language as they both spoke the names of composers they admired. And he continued to play a role as, each time that my family came, we would visit his shop and my sister would buy up a slew of his trademark doves and although my dad was no better at Spanish and Eugenio no better at English, I had become better at Spanish and could finally bridge the gap and translate as Eugenio gushed over his daughter who’s a violinist in Madrid and he showed us articles about his son who’s a movie director. And his eyes shone with pride every time he talked about his children who are making it big even in Spain’s tough economy.  

This time, my sister was here alone and she picked out one signature piece, and as he updated us once more on his children’s success, I finally mustered up the courage to ask the one question that I had been wanting to ask for years though had always been afraid to: “Eugenio, what happened to your wife?” And, after I said it, I held my breath, worried that I had been too direct or my question too personal, but he barely skipped a beat before he stated that she had passed away from cancer 14 years ago, and, without any further prodding, he started telling their story. He described how he had worked in agriculture, doing as his dad did and tilling his own land, but had decided to take a ceramics class at night. They met in class, fell in love and were married by the second semester, and, together, they discovered Altea and turned a dilapidated house for rent into a store with a workshop in the back. They sold their work there for the first four summers before moving to Altea and opening the shop year round. In the workshop behind, he guided his four year old son as he made his own creations – dinosaurs – which they later sold in the shop. Later, when his children were verging on adulthood, he provided the financial support for them to pursue their dreams – his daughter went to pursue music for three months in New York, his son to Madrid to learn about film – but he carefully explained to them that, should they deviate from their paths, they would have to come back and work in the store, by his side. Neither ever did. And I realized that, just as the ceramics that he created came from the earth, so did his children who were so rooted with ethics and morals that they had been able to find their way even in the most difficult of industries. But he hadn’t done it alone.

He now turned our attention to a bust of a woman displayed elegantly behind the register. It had been there since we had first visited his store 3 years ago, but we had never understood its significance.  He explained that his wife had made it and he had kept it there to be by his side as he carried out the dream of the store that, together, they had envisioned and shared in life. He explained how, 14 years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. Desperate, he had told the doctor that he had a house he could sell, but the doctor silenced him saying that there wasn’t enough that he could sell because there was nothing they could do. And, as I quickly translated to Coral, I choked up. And the weight of that moment and the sadness of that realization overtook us and Eugenio relived the pain once more and, simultaneously as if in chorus, silence embraced us and our tears began to fall. Taking off his glasses and wiping the tears from his eyes, Eugenio explained that everyone suffers from something – a love lost, difficulty in work, etc. – as if life is designed to prevent us from ever being too happy. His suffering came in the form of having found the love of his life only to lose her too early in life.  And we thought back on the people who had visited during the time that Coral was at AlteArte and thought of the man with the broken heart and the other yearning for the freedom to travel once more and realized that, yes, everyone suffers from something.

We exited his shop and stood in a daze on Calle Mayor, blinking in the afternoon light and struggling to get our bearings. It was as if we had traveled back to a time long ago and relived Eugenio’s life – full of its joys and sorrows – with him. The moment had been so intense as he recounted his story, reciting it as if a poem memorized, as if his heart had been welling over and the words were just waiting to be released. I had not been able to translate fast enough, for he had spoken without pause. It had taken me more than three years to ask the question, but I realized that the story came not at a time when my spanish was good enough – even though that was essential – nor when I knew Eugenio well enough – even though it would have been inappropriate to ask earlier – but, simply, when the message was ready to be received.  

Eugenio will retire soon. He will finish off the high season this summer and then he will empty the store of his ceramics and he will rent out the four walls. What kind of merchandise will fill the space only time will tell, but Eugenio’s exit will signify the ending to a significant part of Altea’s history. Once he is no longer tied down to the opening hours of the store which he respects strictly – as he does everything in life – he might finally accept the invitations that have come in from around the world to exhibit his work. And he surely will be behind the set of his son’s films as Eugenio Jr. gives him inside access to the world of film which has always fascinated him, and there won’t be anything that will keep him away from spending time in Madrid with his newly born first grandchild.

And we understood why Coral needed to stay that one extra day in Altea. And when she left, I recalled the full, bright, orange moon that had risen over the Mediterranean as we sipped our coffee and wondered whether that was perhaps why all of the interactions during the time that she had been here had been so intense, for the effects of a full moon in Altea are unlike anywhere else I have ever been. In any case, the time that we shared together had been deeply meaningful on so many different levels.

Family anchors us. They give us strength when life is hard, they guide us when choices need to be made, and they root us to the soil so that we stay grounded even in the most trying of times. I am so grateful for my family who have served as my rock solid support when I was doubting myself in high school, finding my way in college, spreading my wings in Paris, and running a business in Altea.     

Fledgling Business

Little sleep, not much free time, lots of cleaning and a significant amount of sacrifice. As I expected, starting a business is similar to having a baby, but it wasn’t until my good friends from London arrived with their nearly 3-month-old son (only days younger than AlteArte) that the resemblances really struck me. Sure, they are having to physically adjust to a different schedule, but, beyond that, they are having to learn how to communicate with each other in an entirely different way and that’s what struck me most and got me thinking about how their situation so closely parallels ours.

When you have a baby, you can’t disappear for a while to cool down. You can’t because your responsibility lies in the entity that you’ve created. And the same goes with AlteArte. As soon as someone walks in the door, they deserve the best of us. They should receive smiles and feel surrounded by positive energy.

So when David and I have had just a bit too much of each other or find each other in the way when we’re both working within the tight constraints behind the bar or disagree on business policies, we can’t just walk out or outright tackle the issue head-on. We can’t because our responsibilities lie in providing a quality experience for the customers. Consequently, we’ve been forced to change our style of communication. We’ve had to learn to get to the bottom of things and put the disagreement to rest quicker. And we’ve been challenged to stay calm, keep an even-toned voice and talk things through. Because the most harmful thing that we can do is to show it to our customers, to let the negative energy seep through to fill every corner of AlteArte and burden the business with our personal disagreements.

And the same goes with each of us on a personal level. Having a rough day? Didn’t sleep well? Have 1,000 things on your mind? Suffering from the heat and humidity as your body tries to adjust? Feel hurt by a customer who makes a joke about your limited Spanish? We may be dealing with a variety of issues, but it’s not the customer’s fault – well, not always. So as soon as someone walks in the door, the attention goes to them, because they deserve nothing less than the best. And eventually, the day ends, you get caught up in sleep, the tasks feel a bit less overwhelming, the clouds roll in and cool things down, and you make peace with the customer who initially seemed like a jerk but now brings fresh mint for your mojitos.

And as we pour our energy in to nurturing and growing our fledgling business, we are being rewarded with the fruits of our labor. For AlteArte is starting to evolve and flourish. The customers comment on the special feeling that they get when the walk through the door and they return again and again. And people are approaching us about showcasing their talent or having special events at AlteArte. And AlteArte is finding its place in Altea’s community and gradually taking on an identity of its own.

Having a baby requires sacrifice. Starting a business requires the same. A baby is best raised in a positive, supportive environment. A business is the same. Learning how to remove our egos and ourselves is essential when starting a family. And the same couldn’t be truer for a business. On February 27th, 2010, life ceased to center around just us but, instead, started revolving around the entity that we had created.

And we couldn’t be happier or prouder watching AlteArte grow.

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Family Ties

When I was seven years old, I went to summer camp. It was only for a week and it should have been fun. But it ended up being one of the most traumatic experiences of my life because I missed my family dearly. Desperately, I waited for each minute to pass and for the days to end so that the torturous separation would finally come to an end. My homesickness was so intense that I cried constantly – walking to the lunchroom, between activities, before going to bed – and I look back now and wonder how in the world no one took pity on me. I was in such a miserable state that they should have just packed me up and sent me home immediately. During that week-that-felt-like-a-year, the only bright spot of each day was after lunch when we’d stand around in a circle for mail delivery. My parents wrote me religiously, so I could always count on receiving a letter, and I anxiously listened out for my name to be called. And when it was, I took my precious letter and I read it and re-read it again and again before going to bed or during free time in the afternoons from the top bed of the bunk bed. And I would treasure the words contained within, for it was the only contact that I had with my parents – the only contact, that is, until my parents broke all the rules by pretending to deliver my Sunday shoes and snuck in a quick visit. The camp employees with their stringent no visitor rules were far from happy, but that 15 minute visit was my lifeline in getting me through the rest of the week.

I have happily put that painful memory deep in the recesses of my mind, but every once in a while it resurfaces – like when I left for school at the University of Michigan and started a life far away from my family in California. And like Thursday when my parents boarded a plane to return to California while I stayed behind in Altea, Spain.

And, at times like these, I feel like I’m seven all over again. Except that, this time, I’m not just away for a week. This time, I don’t have a specific date to countdown to. And this time, it’s not quite so easy for them to sneak in a visit to me because there are thousands of miles and an ocean between us.

But I can’t complain because we had a wonderful visit. And I didn’t get to see just my parents. My sister and my sister-in-law came as well, and I had the privilege of meeting Amaya, my 8-month-old niece, for the very first time. Unable to meet her during my rushed visit back to the States over Christmas, Amaya made the long journey here and even got her passport for the occasion! And when I saw how fast she was growing, I was thankful that I was able to see her before she got too big. And I relished seeing Johanna in her new role as a mom, my parents as grandparents, and I watched in amazement as my sister carried and played with Amaya. Always the adventure-seeker and too carefree to be tied down by children, I have rarely seen my sister around children, but she is a beautiful aunt. So young at heart, herself, she connects with children in a way that I can’t.

And as they all piled into our two-bedroom apartment, I was grateful that we didn’t have to worry about Paco upstairs, disapproving of so many people using his home. However, even though we didn’t have Paco to contend with, we had many other things that made this visit equally memorable. As luck would have it, our electricity was cut the day after they arrived. Apparently, the utilities bill had never been transferred to our name when we took the apartment and the four month grace period had come to an end – just when 6 of us and a baby were all dependent on it for our light and our hot water. And, adding to the chaos, major construction got underway on the apartment next door just when they arrived, filling our days with relentless drilling that was so loud that it sounded as if it was happening within our four walls. And apparently, the workers weren’t Spaniards, for they got started early and rarely even took a break for siesta.

Nevertheless, we managed to have a good visit, and I loved that my family was able to see AlteArte with their own eyes. My parents and Coral had seen it in November when it was still for sale and David and I were still deliberating, so it meant a lot that they could now see the result of our hard work. And I was thrilled that they were able to meet our customers who have become our friends and get to know the details of our life here. And I got spoiled having my sister there every night until we had closed, often waiting until 4 in the morning to head home with us. Her infectious laugh caught many people’s attention – including one older woman who, as soon as she heard it, stopped her vegetable shopping at the outdoor market and started talking to us. I tried to translate as best I could, but as the lady rattled away about her grandchildren and the village that she was from, it almost seemed like she didn’t care whether we understood or not. Coral’s laugh had made her happy and she wanted to connect with us in any way that she could.

And my mom practiced her Spanish when she found herself in the middle of conversations and my dad quickly exhausted his limited Spanish but happily talked in-depth to our English-speaking neighbors. And they became immersed in our lives here – even to the point that they attended my Spanish class with me and got to know some of my classmates who have become good friends.

And being the amazing mother that she is, my mom continued to mother me and cooked for us – leaving dinner ready for us when we came home at 4 am – and did our laundry and made sure that our household remained livable when the late nights and long hours prevented us from doing it ourselves. And we were fortunate to have her with us for two mother’s days – the Spanish one and the American one.

Meanwhile, my dad, the vegetarian, busied himself with saving small creatures in need of his assistance including a bee and a fly who had been chased down by Gizmo, our cat, and a baby bird who had somehow found his way into AlteArte but couldn’t manage to get out.

And, to top it all off and without any planning at all, David’s side of the family, including our sister-in-law and 7 month old niece who came all the way from Paris, spent an afternoon at AlteArte. Having both of our families together in Altea made for the perfect day and we couldn’t have been happier!

After my traumatic camp experience, I never could have imagined that I’d willingly choose to be far from home. However, I’ve actually spent much of my life away from my family – in Michigan, in Paris, in New York and now in Spain. I’m lucky to have a family as great as mine because even when I’m far, the connection is strong. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be physically close to feel emotionally close. But, at 7, I hadn’t yet understood that.

And that makes all the difference.

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