Op-Ed | Acceptance, Anticipation, and Hope

Holidays in Spain - A Journal

By San San Lee

Thanksgiving of 2020 has come and gone.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday also had their turns. It’s December. We are in the midst of yet another holiday season and spike in COVID-19.

Unlike other years spent at home in LA, I am in Barcelona.

Growing up, my family owned a Chinese restaurant. We worked all year round. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, the streets were quiet, and throughout the day people would trickle in, one or two at a time. By early evening, the phone would be ringing off the hook for takeout orders. We would stay late to clean up, get home exhausted, shower, and finally go to bed.

Holiday or not, it was just another day.

In my mid 20’s and 30’s I worked in Asia for US firms. Since my employers followed the local calendar, I spent most major US holidays in the office. Though my colleagues and I took turns working on holidays, those of us who were single got a higher share of  holiday shifts. At first, we tried to replicate US traditions, but there was just no substitute for the festive aura. Recreating holiday dishes from local ingredients didn’t cut it. To add to the isolation, expensive international calls were the only means of instantaneous communication back then. Still, we found our own way to celebrate. We’d spend the day at work, leave a little early and have a nice meal out.

Spending time together took the edge off of the loneliness.

My first “real” Thanksgiving experience was in my early 20’s at a friend’s home, despite having lived in the US for well over a decade. It was the first time that I had turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, string bean casserole, pumpkin and pecan pies, in one sitting! Sumptuous, but exhausting – it took a lot of energy to eat, and even more to recover. For me, the best part of the meal has always been the sides and desserts, and I always saw the turkey as a symbol of American generosity and abundance.

Over time, like many immigrant families, we moved on from a small family-run business and achieved economic security. We, now, take holidays off.

Nowadays, I have my own holiday traditions. After several failures, I learned to cook a not-so-dry turkey and make my own sides. After Thanksgiving weekend, I would start to pick out holiday gifts, finish out the year at work, and make final plans to see family and friends one last time before the year ended. The weeks that follow Thanksgiving are frantic, filled with commitments, consumerism, and intensity, but I enjoy the quiet that follows Christmas and the slow ramp up to the new year.

Now, the world is more integrated – American traditions, as well as what they mean to us, are becoming widely known. Several of our neighbors and friends here sent us texts wishing us well on Thanksgiving. As a predominantly Catholic and family-oriented country, Spain also takes Christmas very seriously. Depending on the perspective, Spain has benefitted or suffered from US commercialism and consumerism. Social media, multi-national enterprises, and increased travel have brought about and contributed to the abundance of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” ads and deals. In fact, exploring a nearby shopping mall that houses a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Sephora, Zara, and H&M feels like wandering through Anywhere, USA.

With the existence of the familiar and apps for video chats, I remain connected to home. To its credit and to my gain, Barcelona does not lack in creature comforts or beauty.

Yet, I miss LA.   

This holiday season is particularly difficult. Being away during a pandemic has reintroduced the emotional wounds of my past. The loneliness and isolation from my childhood and the years abroad have follow me here. Even so, these holidays will need to be spent like other days during the COVID-19 era – staying put and distant from people. I am letting go of my traditions in exchange for something far more precious: a future, for myself and others.

For everyone.

This year, I am celebrating acceptance, anticipation, and hope. Acceptance: This holiday season is different from all others. Anticipation: There will be many more holidays to come. Hope: We will all be together in person, again, soon.