I seem to have reverted to my childhood.
It was New Year’s Eve in Portland, and our celebration, albeit a subdued one, had been in progress for several hours. We’d started by going out for an early dinner with the in-laws. There was method to our New Years madness: avoid the drunken crazies who were sure to be cutting loose as the midnight hour approached, maybe find some happy hour deals, and set up part one of a cultural tradition.
The happy hour plan didn’t work out so well; the restaurants were onto us and were in extract every penny mode – happy hours were cancelled. The bar food was good though, the slightly smoky char on the Angus burger set a high standard for the rest of the evening.
After the early dinner we retired to the in-laws house. Despite our distinguished ages it was time to revert to childhood ways; we donned pajama bottoms for comfort. We had plans for a late supper as well, part two of a tradition, and a chance for more ethnic fare. Even though they lived just across town, packing up for a PJ party saved us commuting back amongst blotto nomads weaving along anything looking like a roadway, and freed us up for sleeping in and having a relaxed breakfast in the AM.
The casual transformation was step back from the dinner attire. We all had dressed nicely, and worn the good jewelry – another cultural tradition.
These traditions were not something I grew up with. My wife and her sister are originally from the Philippines, and have been expats in the U.S. for over 30 years. Even though they’ve been here a good many years, they have not abandoned their culture.
Their New Year’s Eve traditions are done with the idea of setting a precedent. If you dress well on that evening, wear your expensive jewelry, and carry a goodly amount of money, that encourages the idea that next year will be an affluent, successful one. If you eat well on the eve, that suggests that you will eat well in the coming year. They’ve also inherited the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes for luck at midnight.
Being married to someone from another country is a little like travelling to that country. Our meals are often based on Filipino recipes. (And I might suggest, it’s too bad there aren’t more Filipino restaurants out there, the food is quite good.) When my wife and her sister get together, they’ll sometimes speak Taglish, a kind of merger of Tagalog and English. It hasn’t rubbed off, I only know a few words of Tagalog and I routinely forget them; languages are not one of my strong points. Their perspectives are impacted by the environment they grew up in.
It was an eye opening experience when the shoe was shifted to the other foot when, a few years ago, we travelled to the Philippines to visit her family. Although I’d been exposed to the Philippines via the expat influence, being immersed gave me a greater appreciation of how my wife might feel when being in a room full of WASPs. Her family was very friendly, welcoming, and accepting, and they all spoke excellent English. But it was still a little overwhelming when, because of the rare visit of my wife and another sister from Michigan, they gathered en masse for several family gatherings. In the larger gatherings I was a lone white face in a sea of tan, surrounded by a dozen conversations in Tagalog, with smiling and nodding my only defence. Smaller gatherings were more comfortable as English was more common, although in truth even in the U.S. I’m more comfortable in smaller gatherings.
The family lives in the suburbs of Manila, a densely populated city. Being driven around the serpentine ins and outs of the local boroughs, assaulted by insane traffic and crazier drivers: it was nuts, I could never live in such a city. When I think of all the expats who’ve moved out of their comfort zones and lived in a new culture, especially one with little connection to their own, I can only take my hat off and salute them.
I wonder how many people have actually been truly exposed to other cultures, or have even left their own region? Not long ago, my high school class back in Minnesota had its 40 year reunion, and a roster was published showing where most of the class had landed. It appeared that 80-90% were still within 100 miles of town. What would they consider a foreign culture? Getting invited to a Catholic potluck instead of a Lutheran one?
Being married to an expat, or travelling, and by that I mean really travelling where you meet the natives, not insular tours where you’re always in a tour group or in a hotel or cruise ship: this should be a required part of life. It doesn’t even have to be a foreign country – maybe if the city slickers spent more time with the hayseeds and vice versa there’d be less partisan politics. Hanging out with folks from different cultures helps you realize that people everywhere are much the same, there’s no need to automatically be afraid because they’re “different”. It also makes you feel much more a citizen of the world, rather than just your country.
Traditions can help flavor life, and impart culture. Being an expat husband has helped me pick up some of a new culture, and the traditions have led me to look forward and wonder: if we’ve skewed our fate for 2016 by wearing nice clothing to dinner, eating well, and enjoying friendly company on New Year’s Eve, what will be the impact of wearing pajamas when the clock struck 12?