We all love our families, but spending over 24 hours with them in close proximity during a time when joy and good vibes are mandatory can be a mental hazard. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to adapt-
1. Submit to the dress code: My brother used to make fun of me when I’d come home dressed up like a flight attendant – pants or skirt suit, sensible heels, pearls and a silk scarf for a touch of color. Looking like my mother’s “mini me” was an easy way to preempt any clothing critiques.
2. Starve yourself before arrival: Like most Jewish moms, Chinese moms are also notorious for force feeding their children as if they were about to embark on a marathon through the Arctic Circle. I am not an advocate for eating disorders. But starving oneself in this situation has less to do with vanity than creating enough storage capacity to sustain the pressure to consume enough food to feed a small village.
3. Don’t make other plans: The purpose of such family trips is not to see your friends from high school, do a little shopping, or that activity my mother dreads most – “hanging out” which basically means her kids running off to have fun off-the grid of Oakland Chinatown and away from her surveillance. The holidays is to pay homage to relative after relative after relative and help mom keep up appearances by talking about the dissertation you just finished at Yale, your internet start-up that just went public, your spouse’s upcoming trip to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize and oh, almost forgot – the third child you are about to give birth to…
4. Learn how to play and love mahjong: I heard that mahjong was once banned in China because it created too much conflict amongst family members. However, with my family it actually prevents conflict as it gives them something else to focus on. Rather than mull over the details of how my life would have been so much better had I made every major decision differently, they all get to focus on more important matters – why they have a crap hand, how to outwit my brother, and whether their winning card is within reach or being hoarded by my grandmother.
5. Bring Hui Brothers comedies home to watch: When I was a kid, my father used to take us to the Chinese movie theater to watch comedies from the three Hui Brothers – Michael, Sam, and Ricky who were essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the Marx brothers. Eldest brother, Michael an actor as well as, writer/director (who later had a cameo in CANNONBALL RUN) led the team on a series of successful comedies in the late 70s/early 80s. Their comedy blended slapstick, bathroom jokes, sight gags and social satire and were all about what it meant to be a working-class Cantonese with dreams of the good life in the capitalist boom of Hong Kong. Actor/filmmaker, Stephen Chow was strongly influenced by the brothers and in KUNG FU HUSTLE – the screaming housewife, the wimpy husband, the clumsy bucktoothed ingenue, are country cousins to the urban Cantonese archetypes that the Hui’s portrayed. But as a young kid trying assimilate amongst children of Berkeley intellectuals, it was difficult – more painful, than funny to watch my Cantonese brethren acting out in classically crude Cantonese ways. However as an adult who has after much expensive therapy had some distance from childhood, I’ve grown quite nostalgic for these comedies and have a real appreciation for their brilliant laugh-out-loud gags and astute insights into Cantonese culture and human behavior. So much of the humor reminds me of the people I grew up with especially, my Toisanese father who loved the Hui brothers as he identified so much with them. Watching the Hui brothers’ movies over the holidays is our surrogate ‘Christmas Story’ – a chance to reflect on the aspirations and foibles of our family and, enjoy a good laugh at ourselves.