Unlike most domestic students, I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving break. Even though Maryland is only a five-hour plane ride away, my family and I decided it simply wasn’t worth spending hundreds of dollars to fly home for a few days mere weeks before the official end of the semester. Instead, I opted for a shorter commute and traveled an hour south to my boyfriend Justin’s home in Lake Elsinore for my first “traditional,” white family Thanksgiving dinner.
The weekend involved heated debate over potato dishes, rounds of blatantly unfiltered Cards Against Humanity games and multiple inebriated relatives. It was definitely an experience, to say the least, and I loved every second of it.
Meanwhile, back East, my own family — comprising my newly separated parents and younger brother — enjoyed a relatively inconspicuous dinner with our longtime family friends, incidentally also the Yangs. In her signature broken Chinglish, my mother texted me routine updates throughout the day as well as a slew of photos depicting everything I was missing. There was no turkey, no crude jokes, absolutely no hammered grandparents present and pre-dinner prayers took place instead of acoustic guitar jam sessions. Clearly, Justin and I come from very different worlds.
Late at night on Thanksgiving, after the last of the extended family had trickled home and we’d fulfilled our fair share of supervised underage drinking, Justin and I strolled to the park in his neighborhood and curled up atop the playground with a star-speckled night sky overhead. And we talked. He told me about each of his family members individually — the ones I’d known for months, the ones I’d just met and the ones I’d never meet — about their struggles, stories and quirks.
As I listened and laughed, I realized how little I actually knew about my own family. Having grown up on the opposite side of the globe from everyone except my nuclear family, I felt oddly estranged. Apart from three or four routine visits to China interspersed across my childhood, my family members are virtually strangers to me. In fact, I wasn’t aware that people outside of my parents, grandparents and brother even existed until I was 5. Instead of counting down the weeks until the next family holiday gathering, we counted down the years until we could afford four summer international flights to the motherland. Factor in an unyielding language barrier, a 12-hour time difference and the fact that each of my grandparents had at least six siblings, and you get a surfeit of relatives who are more myth than reality.
Family has always been an elusive concept for me, complicated even more by my parents’ impending divorce and my attending a university on the opposite coast. During my entire freshman year, I spent a grand total of 20 days at home, and the separation this semester has been just as profound. I’m often too busy to feel homesick, but when I do, I am overwhelmed with guilt and hints of a jealous desire to reap the petty benefits of having a family that lives close by — seeing familiar faces on weekends, being treated to a nice meal or even having groceries delivered to me.
As inane as it may seem to mention this, most dictionaries define “family” as a group of people who live together in a household and are descended from a common ancestor. In short, family is supposed to be about being bound by blood. I choose to believe Urban Dictionary, clearly the superior source, that family is a group of people who genuinely love, trust and care about each other, regardless of whether they share blood or are forced to spend holidays pretending they like each other.
I see this definition through Justin’s stories of cutting off toxic family members with whom they no longer wish to associate and in the way his family has repeatedly welcomed me when I had nowhere else to go for long weekends. I see an act of family when his parents interrogate me about my stress levels, offer me career advice and tease endlessly at my expense. I see it in the way my friends here at school take it upon themselves to make sure I’m taken care of, whether that’s by lending me a charger, buying me coffee or delivering a much-needed hoodie to my class. I feel a sense of family in all the little bubbles of campus I live in, from the people I struggle in solidarity with in certain classes to the daily, domestic dynamics of the Daily Trojan newsroom.
It may not always feel like it when they are 3,000 miles away, but I will always have my real family. They’re the people who care the most deeply about my happiness and have been counting down the days until the end of the semester since I left in August. It’s just a coincidence that we also share the same blood.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Catharsis,” ran every other Wednesday.