Happy Year of the Monkey 2016! Modern Traditions with Chosen Family

IMG_9373I recently read that traditions are great for kids, because they get to anticipate a series of events & activities that happens in the same sequence year after year. The anticipation is what creates the excitement, but in a different way than doing something new. Knowing that a holiday follows the same template annually is how years become connected to each other and how we become part of the larger story of our culture & family, generation after generation, and how we reach into the past & into the future, holiday after holiday.

CNY2013

CNY 2013, Taipei. We lived in Taiwan for a year, & this was the only time I got to spend CNY with my family since I left for college. It was very special. Here we are with my beautiful mom.

Since leaving home at the age of 17, I’ve only spent one Chinese New Year back in Taiwan with my family. It’s a big deal to not be there, because it is the equivalent to America’s Thanksgiving as the holiday you go home. Traditionally, a woman would move to live with her husband’s family after getting married. Chinese New Year was the one time of year she got to return to her own parents.

 

 

So, I’ve had to create traditions I could do without family. When I was single, I often sent out combo CNY/Valentine’s cards; I loved that the color red was symbolic for both Good Luck & Love.

CNY2008

CNY 2008.

But the only tradition that has stood the test of time has been an annual dinner with my cousin Lily & good friend Christina. My cousin is a year older than me, & we have been besties since we were old enough to write snail mail to each other about Duran Duran & the boys we liked. Christina & I have known each other since she was in 8th grade & I in 9th. She moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2003, & we have had some ridiculously great times together (FUN = red wine + chocolate + convos). I’ve also lived with both women, & in doing so, I really think we’ve forged friendships that are as close as family.

In 2008, we met for dinner at a restaurant called Hunan Taste on San Vicente for Chinese New Year. Then we did it again the next year. And the next. We wore red, gave each other hong bao’s, ate double orders of Crispy Walnut Shrimp, & talked & caught up. These two women are among my closest friends, & having this one night we meet without question has been comforting to me in a really fundamental way. In a life & world without many traditions I find meaningful, this one is something I can count on. I think our commitment to this one dinner somehow reminds me that I’m important to them; that without family around, someone is still watching out for me.

IMG_9385

CNY 2016.

We’ve had this dinner without children. Then with one, my first. Then with two. Then with three, & four. We used to eat dinner at 7 PM, like normal adults. But with the addition of babies, we started eating at 5 PM. It’s actually great, because the restaurant isn’t busy, & we leave just as it starts filling up.

I’m still surprised every time I go to a Chinese restaurant, & my parents or grandparents aren’t the ones at the helm, ordering the food. When Christina, Lily & I go, we’re the grown-ups now, with our own parents far away both physically & metaphorically. Our kids are like cousins to each other, & these women are “home” to me. I feel an abundance of luck when we’re all sitting around the lazy-susan, circle table, wearing our requisite red, catching up, & trying to keep the kids busy & happy & fed. This year was the first year two of us met up without the third. But we plan to do a make-up dinner, because I’m pretty sure breaking tradition–even a modern one you made up yourselves–displeases the ancestors. 😉

IMG_9375

CNY 2016.

The restaurant changed hands a couple years ago, & now it’s called Hunan Tasty. We laugh about the “y” that was added to the sign, the letter showing up darker in blue than the rest of the words. I think that’s what it’ll always be like, if we’re lucky: Little changes will happen when we don’t expect them, but we’ll keep showing up to laugh about them together.

Chinese New Year Fun Facts: Dragons or Lions? Can’t tell the lion dancers from the dragon dancers? Here’s a little tutorial!

What modern traditions has your family created–especially if family is far away?

~Alice XO

Advertisements

I’m Not a Vegetarian. I’m Chinese!

Have you seen this video yet? Fascinating. And disturbing.

 

It’s the type of thing that I’d comment, “WTF” on Facebook, SMH, & then move on. But nope. Today, I write a blog post because, WTF.

One day when our oldest daughter was in preschool, I got a call from her teacher, Katie.

“Today Zoë wanted to try some of another kid’s turkey, but I noticed that you guys rarely pack meat in Zoë’s lunches. I asked her if she was a vegetarian, & she laughed & said, ‘I’m not a vegetarian! I’m Chinese!'”

Katie & I had a good laugh over that one. Kids. They really show you what they think of themselves.

I’m first-generation, American-born Chinese. My parents are originally from China but spent their adulthood in Taiwan; they immigrated to the United States when they were in graduate school, & we’ve lived both stateside & overseas. My husband is Caucasian, born in Texas, raised in small-town Maine. His family has been in America since the Mayflower. Somehow, despite the differences in our childhood experiences, we two are kindred spirits.

When Zoë was 5 & declared herself to be Chinese & not a vegetarian, I don’t think we’d ever really talked to her about her mixed-race heritage, being Asian or white, or being an American. I think I was a little busy worrying about soy vs. dairy & whether or not My Baby Can Read was going to work (still not sure). When Katie told me what she said, I realized we had never covered the topic consciously or explicitly. And I wondered if we should.

AIM Mixed Race Family

We “Chinese” people. (Photograph by Desiree Asher Photography. I love this photograph. Aw, look at us…)

I subscribe to the belief that “what we focus on expands.” And I have feared that the focus on race in our family might lead to more issues or negativity than otherwise. We’d kind of been operating on the basis of, “You are who you are, & it’s awesome, & other people are awesome too.” Period, no qualifiers.

So, we had a little convo with Zoë that day, & it also came up that she thinks “we” are all Chinese–Daddy included. And I didn’t correct her right away, because I wanted to find out what “Chinese” meant to her. And as only a 5-year-old can, she explained herself in phrases & terms that I didn’t totally get. I think it meant we’re a family, & we are “we.”

Occasionally, the topic of moving to Maine has come up. Max & I always talk about it with a lot of enthusiasm & idealism: It’ll be great for the kids to have lots of nature! They’ll be able to play outside. They’ll love the seasons & the snow! They’ll be close to grandparents. They’ll learn can-do, country skills! No traffic! The cost of living will be so much more affordable than living in a Big City! Max is understandably wistful & nostalgic & longing to give his own children the idyllic upbringing he had in Small Town, America.

But I remember distinctly arriving in Maine the first time I visited there to attend my future sister-in-law’s wedding. I was the only person of color in the entire Bangor Airport. I think I usually wouldn’t notice, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been the only person of color anywhere I’ve been, since I’ve been living in Los Angeles foreverrrrr. It was the same feeling I had when I arrived in Taiwan when I was 12–but in reverse, because there, everyone looked like me (don’t get all crazy: not all Asians look alike alike, just keep reading). I’d never been in a majority population before. The truth is, I’m not comfortable with either end of extreme homogeneity. I’ve always been most at home in a really diverse environment like the one we live in now–populated with people of many ethnic backgrounds: whites, Hispanics, Asians & blacks from all different countries.

So, I told Max, “I don’t want my children to grow up in a town where their mom is the only person of color.” It would mean that the kids would be the only mixed race kids. I’m all about kids growing up feeling unique & having challenges that they overcome in the name of building character, but I remember very clearly what it was like to be one of three Asians in my elementary school in an area that is now ironically very Asian. Sharon Yamamoto & Mike Arai were both great at sports, which pretty much cements your social status in a Southern California suburb. I was not. I deeply felt my differentness in the 1970’s & 1980’s when Christie Brinkley & Cheryl Tiegs were the epitome of beauty. My only role model was newscaster Connie Chung. And the only other Asian women I saw on TV played prostitutes & refugees (you remember: M*A*S*H). So, in fifth grade, I decided I was going to go into broadcasting. Made sense.

And deep inside me, I don’t want my children to be led to believe that their non-white side is lesser than their white one. It’s very easy for this to happen, regardless of the model minority stereotype that comes with being Asian. America–& the world–has a long way to go with race relations. There are deeply ingrained prejudices that underlie the attitudes of the people that will come into contact with our children–their relatives, their teachers & coaches, their friends, their friends’ parents, their college admissions officers, their potential employers–attitudes most people won’t talk about, & when they do, it’s usually in a “political correctness be damned” kind of way, which really just means rude & self-righteous. Furthermore, our children will come in contact with attitudes that seem to represent people, but not through people–through social media & the news.

In Zoë’s class recently, the topic of Donald Trump’s racism came up. A student said, “If Donald Trump becomes president, he says he’s going to deport all the Mexicans.” Now keep in mind, this was said in the context that Trump’s views are actually repellent & wrong, but there was something about just those words that brought a real pall to the energy of the room. For the one Mexican-American child in the class*, I wonder how that felt for him. I think I know how it did, because for the 9-year-old me, it would have felt yucky. And I would not have had the words to express that feeling–or my indignation, or fear, or disgust, or bewilderment. As the parent teacher in the room that day, witnessing this discussion, I said, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” Because over my dead body.

Whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it, prejudice is invisible & ubiquitous. That is what was so disconcerting about the video above. Where do children get these ideas? Most likely they are not consciously & explicitly taught them by their parents, though some may be, horrifying as that is to many of us.

And the teacher & parent in me always asks, “What can we do about this?” How can we raise kids not to have these prejudices about themselves & others? And if your own children are mixed race, how can you raise them to honor & celebrate all the components of who they are?

And I wonder, what would the kids in our community say if asked the same questions in that video, with a black doll, brown doll & a white doll? And for my kids, none of those dolls represents them either.

Zoë is 9 now, & she knows we are not all Chinese. I’m not sure when she discovered or determined that. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll report back.

* Zoë’s class has 5 kids in it (more about that another post when I will toot the horn of this amazing progressive school), & the breakdown is three Caucasian-Americans (one is half Iranian), one Mexican-American, one Amer-Asian.