Holidays Multicultural Family

Going “home” for the holidays

December 3, 2010
red house-shaped pillow with home sweet home written on it

Maintaining a sense of tradition, even when traveling

When Radek, Anna and I first returned to Prague five years ago after living in the US for several years, when I thought of “home,” I automatically thought of the town where I grew up and where my family still lives. It actually used to bother Radek if he heard me referring to “home” as the US. Now, I consider our family’s home as the one where we’re living now, and I think of the US and the community where I grew up as our family’s beloved second home.

Yet just as I’ve been feeling more rooted in the Czech Republic, I’ve been recently reminded not to forget my American heritage, interestingly, by Czechs themselves. This fall, when I’ve recounted some of my experiences from living here, particularly with regard to raising my children and dealing with the issues of everyday life, I’ve been encouraged not to lose my perspective as a non-Czech. When I try to rationalize why a Czech approach in medicine or education that seems foreign to me, might actually be okay, it’s been another Czech who has cautioned me to draw from my experiences growing up in the US and not to conform just because I think, “Oh, that’s how the Czechs do it. That must be the right way.” It sounds so easy when I step away from the situation, but when faced with a line of Czechs all adhering to the policy in question or an adamant Czech teacher demanding that her line of reasoning be followed, I find it harder to assert my own beliefs.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Thanksgiving at an American friend’s house with another couple who’s mixed American/British. As we complimented the hosts on our delicious dinner, the other American admitted that she’d never really celebrated Thanksgiving while living abroad. She attributed it to the timing of the holiday (always on the fourth Thursday of November) and the fact that their family had never had that many American friends while abroad. The comment surprised me at first, because Thanksgiving is one of the traditions that Radek and I both enjoy maintaining wherever we are. Yet I also understood. Unless a tradition has significant personal importance, sometimes it’s easier just to pass it over if it doesn’t blend with the traditions of the predominant culture. Over the years, Radek and I have personalized our Thanksgiving celebrations, sharing meals with different multi-cultural groups of people, some of whom have ties to the US and others who just wanted a reason to eat a nice dinner with good friends, often not on a Thursday.

When I talk with Czechs who’ve had experience either living abroad or working in an international environment, they claim that that they’ve learned life skills and gotten a greater sense of the world by interacting with non-Czechs. While I definitely feel that I’ve gained a great deal by immersing myself in Czech culture and helping my children learn they have multiple heritages to honor, I’m also grateful to the international friends that I’ve made over the years of living in Prague. It’s reassuring to compare perspectives and to know that I’m not the only non-Czech trying to make a life here, even if the ways we go about it are different.

When I first arrived in Prague nearly nine years ago, I’m certain that, like most new-arrivals in a country, I wore my nationality like a fresh coat of paint. Yet after seven years of a multi-cultural marriage, living abroad and calling more than one land “home,” I don’t think my nationality is as readily detected, although my accent is a dead-giveaway that I’m not a native.

Right now there are there are three large suitcases standing in my hall. Two of them are filled and zipped and the third is half-packed, with space left for last-minute essentials. We are heading to the States for the holidays, and the atmosphere in our house is 100% festive. Anna’s dancing to her favorite Christmas tunes, Oliver’s wearing a Santa hat and carrying a stuffed Rudolph and even baby Samuel’s getting into the spirit by listening to holiday lullabies during his morning nap. The kids are thrilled that they’re getting to celebrate Christmas with their cousins in the US this year, but I’m having a hard time getting my head wrapped around the idea that we’re leaving.

In contrast to last year, when I was riled up about staying in Prague and having another holiday filled with predominantly Czech traditions, this year I’m wincing with regret about precisely those traditions that we’ll miss. Initially, I’d chosen to fly at the beginning of December because the tickets were cheaper, but also so that our children could experience the holiday from an American perspective, including Christmas baking, tree decorating and pre-Christmas shopping. However, now that our departure date is upon us, I’m filled with conflicting emotions.

Of course, what I’m experiencing could be a normal case of pre-travel jitters, but I think I’m nervous to leave for “home” after having another year to get more settled into my life in the Czech Republic. Since our last visit to the States over a year ago, our family has experienced significant changes, including Samuel’s birth, Oliver’s entry into Czech preschool, and Anna’s upcoming move to Czech primary school, all of which have more firmly rooted us in the country and its culture. All together it’s been a good shift. I’m glad to feel that I’m living in a place I can now easily call “home.” Still, when faced with the thought that I’ll soon be back in my hometown, I’ve also begun to wonder how I’ll feel once I get there.

Experiencing life from another perspective is the reason why, even though I’m a bit nervous to make the trip back to Virginia flying alone with the three kids, I’m determined that it’s the right way to spend the holiday this year. Currently my children are focused on devils, angels, Mikuláš and Ježíšek, but they are also humming American tunes and talking about Santa. As usual, I’m surprised by how easily they are able to move between cultures, while still discovering new facets of the traditions along the way. I’m sure when they are older they will have their own unique way of honoring both traditions, or as we will do this year, alternate between the two.

For any Half-n-half families looking for a taste of Christmas cheer, head to St. Thomas’s Church in Prague’s Malá Strana next Thursday evening for a special Christmas caroling event that will give English-speaking children a chance to sing and hear traditional carols in English, with a few Czech favorites too.

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