A beautifully unproductive time

What does it mean to truly rest? To “rest productively”? Or unproductively? What does it mean to spend “quality time” with family? I find myself wondering these things as the holiday weekend comes near its close, and worrying about whether I spent my free time well enough, or whether I wasted too much of the break doing nothing.

I spent the last three days of the Thanksgiving holiday in LA with my extended family: aunts, uncles, cousins and cousins-kids whom I love dearly despite not always knowing what to talk about, despite often feeling like we are familiar strangers. For the five years our family lived in California when I was a kid, I remember visiting these relatives during every holiday season and notable birthday, and random weekends in between. I remember relishing the endearing hubbub of endless family banter, greeting strange distantly-related aunties or uncles at my parents’ beckoning, eating home-cooked or market-ordered American and Cantonese fusion meals, and, between meals, picking at randomly potlucked boxes of cookies, pineapple cakes and alligator (pecan) pie.

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Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt S and Uncle L’s house this year–with all the “proper” dishes and sides.

 

When we moved to Shanghai, our family circle shrank noticeably: only Aunt L and Uncle S lived in China, compared to the dozens of relatives in California, and my eldest sister went off to college. We could no longer be a part of those traditional family gatherings. I remember the first Thanksgiving we “celebrated” in Shanghai–Mom and Dad told us that they were leaving for a conference for the weekend somewhere out of town, and that we should make do with whatever was left in the fridge. Due to the lack of pumpkin spice drinks and turkey-themed decorations lining the not-yet-adequately-Westernized streets of Shanghai in 2004, I don’t think any of us realized it was Thanksgiving Day until dinnertime that Thursday night. My sister and I picked gingerly at the leftover scraps of a steamed fish we found in the fridge, then settled for some cup ramen and rolled our eyes sarcastically as we sniffed, “Happy Thanksgiving.” That was when I realized that our “Americanness” was a lie, and, more importantly, that family traditions were dependent upon family. I missed my parents that night more than the turkey and mashed potatoes.

Later–maybe because we complained about that dismal first Thanksgiving meal–I remember us recreating the traditional holiday festivities at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, now held at our house. If they were a little less grandiose, a little less filled with holiday pomp and cheer than the old family feasts, I hardly noticed, especially since after a few years Aunt M and Uncle HK joined us in Shanghai and doubled our guest-list. Since traditional American holiday food was hard to find in the first few years, we made up our own culinary traditions. We substituted chicken, duck, or geese for turkey (depending on what we felt like–one year I think we had all three) and gan bian si ji dou 干煸四季豆 (pan-fried string beans) for those flavorless steamed veggie mixes that no one eats anyway. We added wasabi to our mashed potatoes because one of Mom’s friends recommended it, and we never turned back. We ate Shanghainese da zha xie 大闸蟹 crabs and drank ginger tea, and invited random Chinese church and work friends who had never celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas before to join our table. Somehow Mom eventually managed to procure a bag of those classic American s’mores-worthy marshmallows from some tiny corner of imported goods at the local Carrefour market, and she was able to make her famous candied yams.

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My mom taught me how to make these last year and I tried my hand at it this year–proud to carry on this tradition, though mom’s still taste better 🙂

 

When I left for college, I did not realize that I would not spend Thanksgiving at home ever again. Since China was so far, and the break so short, I made plans to spend Thanksgiving with different friends and family friends each year: New York with the Liao’s (I almost cried when I got to their house because it was so home-like and reminded me of Shanghai), Boston with my high-school girl-friends, the Seong family’s home in Pennsylvania for my junior, senior, and TPP years. The one Thanksgiving I spent in Korea alone in my room made me feel so incredibly homesick that the vague familiarity of a cabbage pancake was enough to touch me to tears and poetry. Each Thanksgiving was unique and made me feel thankful in different ways, but I didn’t realize until now how strange it is that I have grown so used to being away from family, until suddenly this week I found it strange to be with family–strange, but wonderful.

Although I ended up growing distant (and distantly) from these Californian aunts, uncles, and cousins, and we run out of topics of conversation once they’ve grilled me about the relationship, work, and health status of every member of my nuclear household, they are family, and I love them without reason. After years of the unplanned sessions of intense family sharing that we do in my immediate family (once all the guests have left), where we alternately pour out our hearts and souls over deep-seated childhood scars and emotional vulnerabilities or scream and cry over religious, political, and moral differences (usually the two discussions are linked), I think I had forgotten what it was like to have “chill” quality time. Don’t get me wrong–I love our intense sharings too, but sometimes it is nice to just rest in the knowledge of love and belovedness.

Even though most of the time we were just watching TV, or just matching puzzle-pieces with the kids–and my type-A, overachieving self groaned inwardly at my lack of productivity or meaningful conversation while nonetheless being unable to overcome the holiday laziness (perhaps for the better)–as I reflect on the past three days, the definition of “quality time” becomes less important to me. I cherish all the time we spent together, even–and perhaps especially–the awkward and seemingly unproductive moments.

I will remember Aunt S and me grimacing at the “fruit jello” we made following a friend’s-recipe-that-we-slightly-tweaked, the strange pastel-green color of the base dotted with bright orange peaches resembling a baby dinosaur with the pox more than any palatable dessert–and I will remember laughing as she scooped generous portions of that jello onto everyone’s plate before they could say ‘no, thank you,’ and repeatedly offering to send it home with a neighbor. I will remember trying (perhaps too logically, as cousin C-P said) to explain to five-year-old T (a cousin of C-P’s kids) how he should group all the puzzle pieces with matching colors, only to have him give up, throw nerf darts at everyone, and return later to destroy the completed puzzle 2 seconds after its completion–and I will remember feeling sorry for him because I learned that his parents are never home and his grandparents talk to him so little that his speech was severely delayed until he started kindergarten this year. I will remember the quiet late nights and early mornings where I sat in the living room or kitchen alone with Uncle L and we barely talked–I will remember how we just read, watched, and ate our respective books, screens, and breakfasts, and acknowledged each other with a smile whenever one of us got up to do something else.

All family time is beautiful, because it has that unique quality of being perfectly imperfect. Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you spent it (or really any time this year, because family time shouldn’t be limited to the holidays) with someone you love, even if you don’t always agree or know what to say to each other.

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