When Traditions Fail Us

Some things never change.  The tree always goes up the day after Thanksgiving while Frosty, Frosty Returns and A Charlie Brown play in the background.  Christmas Eve is always with Mom’s side of the family.  I can’t remember a Christmas morning without pancakes doused in maple syrup complemented by a glass of grape juice.  Even beyond the holidays, traditions run our lives whether we acknowledge it or not.  Did I even go to Starbucks if I didn’t snap a pic for My Story?  And if Abby and I are watching FRIENDS, there will be spoons of peanut butter.  (Don’t ask me why because I couldn’t really tell you a rhyme or reason.)

Traditions provide familiarity and fondness, but at times, they constrict and confine.  This past Thanksgiving, many things were the same: turkey, mashed potatoes, bread rolls, stuffing, brownies and cheesy “what are you thankful for?”s.  But this year, our family spiced it up, and I’m not talking about the pumpkin spiced caramel corn.  Instead, we had two international students from China join us for our Thursday traditions along with extended family.  thanksgiving-day-round-trip-travel

I thought it’d be weird.  Every family has a rhythm when it comes to nightly bedtime routines all the way to who opens presents first on Christmas morning.  Having two people who I’ve never met before (and whose first language isn’t English) isn’t a regular occurrence for family gatherings.  But this experience was entirely enjoyable, and I’d be down to host other international students in the following years because yes, I’m serious: it was enjoyable.  Here are several reasons why:

We’re not really all that different.

Believe me: I didn’t see this one coming.  Maybe 20 minutes into meeting these two students, I found out one student’s favorite artist was Taylor Swift.  And you should’ve seen his face when I told him I went to her 1989 concert.  And that I dressed up as her several Halloweens ago.  My sisters and I bubbled on about 1989 and our favorite songs from the album.  It was in that moment, although seemingly superficial, that I began to understand he may come from a country thousands of miles away and have an entirely different worldview, but we both are people with interests and hopes.  As we were moseying down the buffet line for lunch, one of the students noted the stuffing, saying he’d read about stuffing in his middle school English textbook.  Although I don’t know a lick of any Chinese dialect, I remember many a time learning about different French traditions in my freshman year textbook.  Our typical breakfasts and neighborhoods may look like polar opposites, but hey, we’re from the same planet.

You’re an expert, they’re an expert… learn from each other.

Give yourself some credit.  You’ve probably lived in the same country your entire life, and this international student has grown up in a completely different country for a number of years, too.  Just by simply living, you’ve been studying since you’ve been born.  While politics tend to be taboo at family gatherings (err, that’s what most would prefer), the Thanksgiving table bubbled with the contrasting political processes in America versus China in a respectful fashion.  Even schooling systems in different countries take on extremely different appearances.  One of the students even asked my sisters and me what the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  You learn so much more from a person than a textbook about what it’s actually like to live it.  Yes, we’re all people, but these conversations opened my mind to a completely different culture that approaches life in an alternate manner.  And FYI I learned fortune cookies have literally nothing to do with China, so there’s that…Montmartre Paris France Round Trip Travel.jpg

Some things are universal.

Somebody cue “Kumbaya.”  We’ve walked through the beauty of similarity and contrast, but at then end of the day, some things are just the same ole, same ole.  Our family watched ping pong videos, and they dished on Chinese heartthrob athletes.  And it wouldn’t be a holiday gathering without photos.  And it is the 21st century, so, of course, this will include a selfie stick.  The night ended with many selfies (partly because gma was cut out of some on accident—whoops!) and “if you’re ever in the neighborhood…in China, drop a line!”  One of the students asked if we listened to a certain radio station, and we said yes.  He then proceeded to ask us if we’ve heard “Closer” by the Chainsmokers and Halsey.  My, oh, my… I don’t think I’ve been to a social gathering in the past few months without hearing that song.

Traditions can be a strong aspect of our heritage, but at times, they limit our awareness and experience.  It would’ve been easier to host a bonus gathering for just these international students so as not to “interrupt” our Thanksgiving traditions, but that’s not the point.  Cultural awareness comes from living life together.  And because cultures often divide themselves by borders and bridges, it’s hard to sample the global buffet.  Traditions aren’t bad, but they fail us when we’re too stuck in our ways to rearrange the schedule when need arises.  Don’t let your mind dwell on what if it’s uncomfy or what are we even going to talk about.  Giving an international student a place to be on a holiday or even just cultivating cultural awareness are worth the effort.



{Have you switched up any traditions recently?}

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