Who is my Family?

Christmas is a time of togetherness with family and friends. In the time of the Covid pandemic the difference isn’t all too clear.

Since I was a child, Christmas has always been about family first and foremost. Whether it was going to Malaysia to visit extended grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunties, or crossing state lines in Australia by car or plane, it wasn’t Christmas without at least some amount of travel involved. The journey made the destination seem all the more grander - an emotional build-up to the climax of Christmas for any child to celebrate with glee.

These days, having settled myself a thousand miles (or so) from my immediate family, the concept of travel and reunion is somewhat bittersweet. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, which is true, but the time we do get to spend together is altogether too fleeting.

Exacerbated by the ongoing COVID situation worldwide, countless numbers of people living abroad are facing the cold reality of yet another Christmas without the immediate or extended families we grew up with.

So, we are forced to make our own family from the hodge podge of whatever friend group we happen to find ourselves in.

Whether through church, work, sports teams, social apps, or heck, even meeting people at concerts (remember when concerts were a thing?), the circles of friends one makes in Europe are a hilarious patchwork of lost souls trying to carpe the diem out of their lives as best they can.

There’s the freelance graphic designer who also DJs on weekends, the primary school teacher who came here on a whim, landed a job seven years ago and hasn’t left since, the barista who hops from cafe to cafe like they’re spare outfits…plus there’s always, always an ERASMUS student or two floating around, happy to share a free meal with you. There’s simply no predicting who you’ll meet in these circles!

Photo: Kevin Loo

In ordinary circumstances, I would have very little in common with these people. But by necessity of isolation or distance from home, we are bonded together.

Encountering these seemingly arbitrary walks of life is the best way to grow as an individual. Rather than sticking to the same friend or family groups and traditions for traditions' sake, one can be pushed into unknown and unexpected circumstances.

Last Christmas season, we spent some time with such a ragtag group of friends. We organised a rotating schedule of food and drink across a few days - the classic Czech meal of schnitzel and potato salad, Korean bulgogi beef and Malaysian chicken curry, and American style pancakes, bacon and eggs for breakfast.

Not only was the experience delicious, but we were able to share stories about how every family and culture celebrates Christmas differently. Deeper than that, we could even explore somewhere within ourselves to ruminate on why we celebrate things differently.

Is the American over-commercialisation of life something that Europeans identify with? Do Asians really prioritise family over everything else? How do Slovaks view Czechs on a day-to-day basis? And the age-old question…why is a landlocked country whose ordinary staple diet consists of pork and carbs so deeply obsessed with carp at Christmas??

The conversations we had were over good wine, good laughs and made for a good time overall. This all despite being locked down in a year full of bad news.

There's a common saying that has changed meaning over the centuries. We know it as "blood is thicker than water",  meaning that familial bonds will always be by default stronger than those of friendship.

However, the full original quote is supposedly "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the blood of the womb",  which holds the exact opposite meaning. The connections we choose as our friends can become a stronger and more immediate connection than those we are born into.

Or to quote the great philosopher of our times Dom Toretto, “I don’t have friends. I got family” .

I know I'm blessed to have had a fortunate upbringing with supportive parents and family, but also know the reality that not every family is like that. Christmas can actually be an extremely lonely time for many. Which is all the more reason to reach out in friendship and support to the marginalised and forgotten in society.

Christmas is a time of celebration and reflection. We celebrate the year that passed, reflect on achievements, commiserate on any mistakes or regrets, and gather under the glow of the tree to exchange gifts. It should be a time of togetherness and reunion of friends and family from far and wide to create tender memories of bliss together.  Sometimes that difference between friends and family isn't all too clear. That should work all the more to our advantage, making the next friend and family reunion all the more sweeter.

Kevin is an Australian educator and writer who came to Prague for his PhD studies in applied sciences and has lived with 'mother Prague's sharp claws' for the better part of a decade. His passion is in exploring cross-cultural experiences and the emerging global face of the Czech Republic as he encounters it day by day.

Author: Kevin Loo
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