Making American Holidays Our Own
By Dorothy Chan & Marina Fang
Two essays about experiencing American holidays through the lens of immigrant families. Each of us has different stories of trying to figure out American holiday traditions, but we’ve also tried to build our own.
I can’t remember the first time my parents decided to make turkey for Thanksgiving. Most holidays we either ate the Chinese food we were accustomed to eating. Or we’d go to a party at a family friend’s house, where the spread of food would include a mix of various family-sized dishes guests had brought: Tupperware and aluminum trays filled with fried noodles, egg rolls, dumplings, and steamed buns. Sometimes, there was some “American food” mixed in for the kids: plates of microwavable fish sticks or pizza bites, and plastic tubs of brownies and cookies from Costco.
But sometime during my adolescence, they decided they wanted to try “an American Thanksgiving.” They bought a box of Stove Top stuffing. They googled how to make turkey, brussels sprouts, roasted sweet potatoes: the whole spread. Each year, I would ask them: “Why not just stick to roast duck?” — something with which they are far more familiar (and frankly, tastes better). “We want to try something new,” they would respond.
I think in trying these new things, they were trying to figure out how to be American. They were trying to figure out how to replicate what they saw in pop culture: that Norman Rockwell painting of a big family and the grandfather holding a giant platter of turkey, the festive scenes from holiday movies that play on a loop every December. I think they were wondering where we fit into all of that.
My parents often ask me questions like: “How do Americans typically celebrate Thanksgiving? What are we supposed to eat on Thanksgiving?” As if I know. I often remind them: mainstream American culture isn’t my culture either in many ways. I’ve had to learn it myself, cobble together what a life in America looks like.
In college and as an adult, I’ve often had Friendsgivings. Sometimes my friends and I eat the traditional Thanksgiving foods and, sometimes, we don’t.
The COVID-19 pandemic has now upended multiple years of holidays for so many of us. This year, I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. Sure, there were moments I wished I was with other people. But I also tried to make the most of it, making my own small meals and doing whatever I wanted.
Over time, I’ve figured out that a lot of it is an invention, a myth. There’s no one way to celebrate a holiday, no one way to be American. We’re all building our own culture and creating our own traditions.
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Do you know what it’s like to communicate with your family across a salty ocean’s divide? Do you want the sun and moon to enter your home with stories written in embers? Do you seek voices that will punctuate the darkness? Welcome to the other side of everything. It’s the other side of silence, the other side of childhood, the other side of hate, the other side of indifference, it’s the other side of sides, where the binary breaks down. It’s a new paradigm, a destination, a different perspective, a mindset, a state of openness, the space between the endless folds in your forehead, hopes for tomorrow, and reflections on the past. This anthology of diverse voices is an everything bagel of literary genres and love songs, secrets whispered in the dark of night, conversations held with ancestors under the sea.
Every year, without fail, my neighbors put up their Christmas lights outside their house on the first of December. Their astonishing arrays of reindeer and snowflake projections stand out in a row of seemingly lackluster homes. Even so, the view of their lights from my window across the street stays the same, a reminder of the traditional American holiday. The houses in the nativity scenes that I browsed with my mom at Target depicted the same fairytale view, as if Christmas had the power to change a town through blankets of snow and strings of lights. For the longest time, I held that ideology, and relentlessly tried to convince my family to think the same way.
I convinced my mom one year to buy a Christmas tree. I spent a few hours meticulously planning the layout of each bulb based on size and color, making sure that there was space for silver tinsel spirals and lights to complement everything. When I finished, my tree shared a striking resemblance to the inspirations from my favorite holiday movies. It was the quintessential Christmas tree.
Since then, decorating the Christmas tree became my favorite holiday tradition, but one that I shared with myself. My family watched TV in the living room while I sorted our ornaments on the floor. When we lost our tree a few years later, my family was indifferent about it, while I was devastated.
My disappointment slowly dissolved as I realized the reason behind my family’s lack of concern. The trees in the movies we watched were filled with ornaments passed on from generations, while ours came from the dollar store. Our tree didn’t mean anything more than the quintessential example of American capitalism.
I overlooked my family’s annual dim sum feasts and exchanges of lei xi (red envelopes) to hang up red and green streamers and make cookies for Santa. They weren’t much, but with the rest of our relatives in Macau, all my family had was each other, and we used these celebrations to cherish our time together.
I spent a large portion of my childhood trying to insert my family into an American mold, so much so that I ignored the fundamental meaning of Christmas—a time of thankfulness and celebration. My home didn’t have extravagant decorations like the nativity scenes I used to peruse or the elaborate generational traditions that holiday movies showcased. Even so, my Christmas celebrations shared the same Christmas magic, with or without a tree.
Most weeks, Dorothy and Marina start out their sessions by talking about the week and whatever has been on their minds lately. Around Thanksgiving, they both realized that in their immigrant families, they each had experiences of trying to figure out how to celebrate traditional American holidays. Pop culture is full of images of what these holidays should look like, like on movies and TV, and in commercials and cartoons. Growing up, they each yearned for elements of what they saw. Their parents tried to provide whatever they could. But they also realized that these images weren’t the only way to celebrate American holidays — or to “be American.” They each wrote about a holiday (Marina wrote about Thanksgiving, and Dorothy wrote about Christmas). While their individual experiences were different, they each reached a similar conclusion. They hope this pair piece resonates with other immigrants and children of immigrants who have had to figure out what American holidays mean to them, and how to create their own new traditions.
Dorothy Chan is a junior at a high school in Brooklyn. Fascinated and inspired by the world around her, she seeks to explore her curiosities while educating herself on intersectional socio-political issues. Through her writing, she aims to amplify her voice along with those from underrepresented communities.
Marina Fang (she/her) is a senior culture reporter at HuffPost. She primarily covers film and television, examining their intersection with politics, race and gender. Some of her areas of focus include representation and inclusion—both on and off the screen—and issues surrounding Asian American identity. Previously, she was a breaking news and national politics reporter, which included managing much of HuffPost's evening and weekend coverage of the 2016 election. She has been a fellow at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute, a leading program for arts and culture writers, and the Poynter Institute's Power of Diverse Voices writing program. She frequently mentors young journalists and advocates for racial and gender equity in journalism. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Television Critics Association. Raised in Pittsburgh and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Marina lives in Brooklyn, NY.