Christmas Culture Shock: Learning How to Be Merry

It’s not like I set out to feel sorry for myself during the holidays.

It actually didn’t make sense to me, my holiday blues, especially considering that I now have my own little family. Clean slate. Opportunities to create our own traditions.

Perhaps it’s the extra festive holiday decorations here in NYC and the cold winter air as I embark upon my fourth Christmas with a family of my very own that triggers some childhood longings.

Growing up in Los Angeles, the holidays didn’t feel as dramatic. Maybe because we didn’t have a winter and because my parents had to work extra long hours at the store on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

I never doubted their love for me just because they had to work hard and couldn’t be an afterschool TV special. Showering you with “I love you’s” isn’t the only way to express love for your child.

One of the stores they owned while I was a little girl was a Chinese takeout joint called Chop Suey House near Compton, CA (though we 100% Korean). My mom cooked her fried rice and egg foo young on a huge black wok, in a bare bones kitchen with no air conditioning. It was truly hell, that oppressive heat she had to endure for up to 12 hours a day. She sweat so much that she wasted away to 90-something pounds. She interacted with her customers through a small cut-out window big enough to pass cash and food through.

My dad worked the store with her, too, but the most prominent memory is of my mom wearing a red bandana over her hairnet, to soak up her sweat, donning her ubiquitous, grease-stained apron. Some of our customers called my dad “Bruce Lee.” There was a funeral parlor across the street and customers would come order Combination #2 after burying their loved ones, all too often victims of shootings, sometimes young children.

“I’m not doing too good, Bruce Lee, man. I just had to bury my baby.”

This was our reality.

Other than for our presence in the neighborhood, it was 100% Black or it sure was in my memories. My brother and I killed red ants with the neighborhood kids and they taught us about Frito Lays with chili and cheese. Many of their loved ones were killed or incarcerated. We, ironically, were like a TV family to them because we got to spend so much time with our mom and dad after school.

The holidays were a time when we were supposed to be extra merry but for me, it just felt like a time where we didn’t measure up especially when I started to get bussed into a gifted magnet school where many of my classmates were well off, maybe even affluent, with parents working in Hollywood or they themselves taking a stab at becoming child actors.

‘Twas the season to make my parents feel bad. They had to work longer hours around the holidays, whether it was Chop Suey House or the small gift shops they later owned in predominantly Latino spots around Los Angeles.

I remember my mom looking at me apologetically and saying, “Jihee-yah. I’m sorry we didn’t get to give you real presents this year.”

And I didn’t like my mama having to feel sorry. I knew she loved me. Punk ass holidays makin’ my parents feel bad when they had no choice but to work like dogs during this season.

They still managed to put up our small fake tree and tried to make it somewhat merry.

The holidays made me feel so alien. Were other families really gathering around such beautiful scenes I saw only on TV? Did other families not have relatives and friends to gather with, other than their little nuclear family? (We did have second cousins but we were the Other Family among a tight knit bunch).

Big dinner parties, cousins running around, shopping for presents, going to pick out a Christmas tree. Apple cider, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, eggnog? Almost each family scene on the hit series “Parenthood” (don’t get me started on their huge wreath I had to hit “pause” on my DVR for). Really? I wished I could be a fly on the wall in other families’ living rooms to see what went down. Or maybe what I saw would make me feel even worse.

We would try our best to have a Thanksgiving meal together or make Christmas special in our own way, but we seemed to be missing the true spirit of merriment and joy. Different dynamics at play within our family, namely my dad’s own disappointments with his immigrant life and related frustrations. We were winging it, wishing my dad could be happier, and most holiday traditions, like the turkey and the presents, felt like they were something we “should” do because Americans / happy families did it, not necessarily something we truly looked forward to.

I almost felt relief when we turned the page on our calendars that the Korean bank or market handed out each year, and it would be an ordinary day in January, not a holiday where you SHOULD be extra merry.

(I am grateful for the traditions we did keep up, like going to a movie the weekend after Thanksgiving or attending New Year’s Eve candlelight services at church).

So it’s not surprising that the last couple Christmases, I have had to fight a melancholy that washes over me, trying not to succumb to the dark beckoning to go into fetal position in the bedroom I share with my second son. Wanting my family to be truly joyful. To feel the spirit of the season.

That same sense of not knowing how to celebrate and Be Merry. Feeling lonely again. Feeling like an outsider peering into the windows of others’ living rooms when I hear about friends whose parents went crazy for the holidays, even having Christmas trees in every room. Or hearing about decorating the house as soon as the Thanksgiving meal was devoured.

Fancy tablecloths, centerpieces, table runners, holiday cookies, trading wish lists with relatives, and tree skirts.

We are now trying the best that we can. Telling the kids about the birth of Jesus. About Hope. And gratitude. About how much we love them and feel honored to spend the holidays with them.

Customized stockings for each member of our family. A live Christmas tree (turns out I really like the Frasier fir variety we picked up this year). Going to meet Santa. Letting the kids pick out one ornament each year. Driving out to neighborhoods that go all out. Maybe starting a new tradition like new pajamas gifted on Christmas Eve.

My parents did what they can and when in survival mode, celebrating doesn’t quite make it on the priority list.

As for me and my new family, I want celebrating and merriment to be at the TOP on our priority list. It doesn’t come naturally to me because I missed it growing up, but I realize now that I yearned for it SO much as a very emotional little girl and even now as an emotional and wistful adult.

“My mom made the holidays magical for us.” I want that to be part of my legacy for our family.

P.S. Something as simple as the smell of this Frasier fir and someone who covers me with a blanket of love like my babies’ daddy has already healed some of my holiday wounds.

Christmas Eve 2012, Macy's, NYC

Christmas Eve 2012, Macy’s, NYC

Christmas 2012 - I advocate for the installment of Christmas shellfish as a new tradition.

Christmas 2012 – I advocate for the installment of Christmas shellfish as a new tradition.

December 2012 - EZ just over 2 months old in his Christmas pj's handed down from his not-so-big Big Bro

December 2012 – EZ just over 2 months old in his Christmas pj’s handed down from his not-so-big Big Bro

Our Christmas card in 2012.  A tradition I will allow us to take pause in here and there, if it becomes just one more thing we SHOULD do.

Our Christmas card in 2012. A tradition I will allow us to take pause in here and there, if it becomes just one more thing we SHOULD do.

7 thoughts on “Christmas Culture Shock: Learning How to Be Merry

  1. OK maybe this will make people mad, but something that has always nagged at me is how the holiday cheer stuff is so filled with white privilege. I feel that loneliness sometimes too. Less now that our family has started our own stuff (shellfish heavily involved), but I still feel it too. Glad I read this tonight. xo

    • girl, we here (pointing eye to eye). no need to couch your feelings with “this will make people mad” because yes, hoowite privilege all around this whole season. thanks so much for reading and commenting. i was meaning to holla yesterday because i was missing you and even got to read two of your blog posts but couldn’t comment on my phone. thanks for making me feel less OFF for feeling this way even with my own little family.

  2. This post made me so nostalgic. Lots of parallels with my family. Dad working16+ hours in Compton liquor store. What makes my dad smile now is when he’s over for Christmas and he sees my kids giddily open presents and I acknowledge that this is his legacy.

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