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.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


Coping with Uncertainty, an Unintended Gift

Starting My New Life – A Journal

By San San Lee

To weather the corona storm and sociopolitical ugliness in the US, we left LA for Barcelona at the end of August. We will be here until the spring of 2021, perhaps longer. I have always planned ahead and find uncertainty anxietyprovoking. We came anyway.

Thanks to the 2016 election, we acquired an apartment in Barcelona in 2017, just in case. While my husband thought I was over-reacting at first, he understood that, as a first-generation immigrant, I was scared. Still, I never thought we would have to exercise our contingency plan.

From the lockdown and even after the reopening in May, we self-isolated in LA. We kept things in a holding pattern to maintain some “normalcy.” The virus was spreading and the inconsistent governmental responses left much to be desired. While we managed to adjust, it was far from ideal. I felt unsafe given the resistance to masks and other measures, not to mention the harsh political rhetoric.

After serious consideration, we concluded that Spain’s situation would be less precarious, even if that meant taking on uncertainty for our future. Where things stood, we predicted that infections in the US would surge dramatically as the weather cooled. Although it would be challenging anywhere, Spain’s success in reducing its infections in the spring encouraged our decision. In a nerve-racking five-month process, I received my renewed passport and we set out for Barcelona.

It was a significant risk. Armed with hand sanitizers and wipes, it was the first time we had gone more than five miles from home since the lockdown. Our entire trip was unsettling and eerie – the lack of traffic and cars at the airport, the emptiness of the terminal, and the number of unoccupied seats on our flight. The experience was surreal, adding to the “unknown” waiting for us in Barcelona.

Much to our pleasant surprise, Barcelona was in the full swing of summertime activity. COVID-19 cases were rising, but people were enjoying themselves – they seemed happy. It was a contrast to LA, which felt subdued, fearful, angry, and sometimes, defiant. Right before we left LA, public universities and several school districts had just announced that in-person classes would not resume in the fall, not to mention the devastating fires just beginning amid record-breaking heat. Meanwhile, Barcelona seemed remarkably “normal,” aside from the prevalent use of masks and the obligatory squirt of hand sanitizers as we entered shops and restaurants. The virus was here, but everyone was learning to live with it.

Our first challenge was to figure out how to live safely. Starting a life in a new city has its own stresses, let alone in a time of pandemic. As a consequence of Barcelona’s walking-city-nature, the number of our errands increased, which meant more interactions with people.

We took incremental steps.

My husband and I discussed each new activity to plan for contingencies. We looked for restaurants with outside seating that appeared to be complying with safety protocols. We politely declined dinners and drinks with friends and neighbors, responding with invitations for masked and socially distanced walks. 

The pandemic put several things on hold in our Barcelona apartment, as it had in our lives.

We put certain safeguards in place – not being in the apartment when it’s being cleaned, keeping windows open during installations and deliveries, wearing masks when meeting people in and outside of our apartment. I even walked out of a bakery because the store clerk grabbed bread with her bare hand.

Initially, it was tough. I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language, and I worried and stressed over each new encounter. Even so, I got used to the “struggle” of imperfect communication over time. My efforts were often rewarded with exceedingly helpful gestures – the worry and stress morphed into feelings of satisfaction and gratitude. Although we limited our social interactions, for the first time in six months, we were moving things forward instead of waiting for something to change before acting.

I was beginning to settle into my life here.

Six weeks after our arrival, Spain and the region of Catalonia imposed new restrictions. We knew it was coming – many had become too comfortable and were disregarding safety measures as they spent time with their family, friends, classmates, and co-workers. Not surprisingly, as comforts rose, cases surged.

Some of our newly reintroduced activities are in dormancy again. It is uncertain how long these measures will last. There is a feeling of déjà vu, but I am doing okay. Unlike the first lockdown in March, I’m not feeling the panic and the emotional tailspin. I am not obsessing on the “what,” “when,” and “why.” I don’t like uncertainty, but I realize it’s necessary.

The pandemic appears to have given me the unintended gift of “calm” in the midst of the unknown. Perhaps, with the ups and downs, I’ve developed a bit of a callous – keeping me in the “now” and less speculation on the “future.” Right now, I am in a beautiful and architectural city, and in my free time, taking online Spanish lessons, walking to parks and beaches, and more importantly, sharing gelato with my husband.

I just had my first birthday in Barcelona. I don’t know where I will be for my next one, but as with all things, time will pass, things will unfold, and life will go on.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper