Bare Roots

When you are an Asian immigrant family living in the Midwest during the 1970’s and 80’s, your guests are your extended family. Your extended family is comprised of non-blood related aunties, uncles, cousins, and godparents, scattered geographically across sundry suburbs but within an hour’s drive of each other. You are yoked together by a shared native language and a desire for community ties in this cold, far-flung place—the cold referring to not just the winter weather.

Your holiday parties are the social events of the season, maybe even the year.  Your guests drive through the snow in their Cadillacs and minivans to get to your house around lunchtime, staying all day and into the night. They take off their shoes when they enter your house so the pile of pumps and nondescript men’s shoes gets bigger as the day goes on. They come bearing Christmas presents for you and your family, and sometimes a platter of shrimp cocktail or desserts. The uncles reek of cologne and the aunties try to kiss you, which makes you squirm in embarrassment. You rub off the red lipstick marks greased on your cheek if you weren’t able to escape their clutches in time. They tell you how pretty you are, or how fat you are, and ask if you have a boyfriend.

The adults would mingle, laugh loudly, and talk to each other in the language that you understand but can’t speak.  When you were younger you would play with the kids your age, albeit a bit strained because you only saw each other a couple times a year.  As you grew older and more apart you might give one another a rudimentary nod and a smile at the front door but then go off on your own and watch MTV videos, or to the kitchen to watch the aunties drop frozen lumpia into the fryer, then transfer the delicious cigarette-shaped spring rolls to oil -soaked paper towels. You would wait impatiently for them to cool–sometimes burning your fingers if your impatience won out–so you could steal a few before the others gobbled them up.

Food is set up buffet style. The big table in your formal dining room in which you and your family never eat is covered with the festive vinyl tablecloth you only see at this time of year. You marvel at the plates heaped with noodle dishes, rice, lumpia, vegetables, maybe a turkey or ham or a whole fish or a whole pig, a variety of colorful sauces, desserts made of strange things like “rice flour” and “cassava.” (You knew you hit it big if there was a mocha cake on the table–a round layer cake with pale brown frosting and chocolate sprinkles that your parents would get for special occasions.) You load up your paper plates, mixing everything up together, and eat with plasticware–because the female members of your family don’t want to do dishes all night.

As the evening draws to a close, you wait for the last stragglers to say their goodbyes, hug and shake hands with your parents, put on their shoes, and face the cold and dark night to journey home. Finally, you could put on your pajamas and watch MTV in peace.

When you’re an Asian American, second-generation kid growing up in the Midwest, your extended family embodies contradictions: big and small, familiar and strange, loud and silenced, invisible and ostentatious, embarrassing and safe, consistent and ephemeral. You struggle with these contradictions throughout your life. But, you are somehow comforted by them, because they help drown out the feeling that many “Americans” convey to you through their words, their stares, their body language, telling you that you are only “guests” in a country that invited you in but exiles you to the kiddie table.

You may be guests at each other’s holiday parties, but you are certainly more than guests to each other. You are roots, trunks, branches, leaves, shelter, warmth, familiarity.

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