This year, I really ruined Christmas. 

Ever since I left home for college, I have spent every Christmas away from home, until this past Christmas, when I made it home just in time for the holidays.

Since Christmas of 2015, I have had the fortune of being the recipient of so many different families’ hospitality. My first Christmas away from home was with my roommate’s family, the Quists. They graciously hosted me for the winter break as we were instructed to clear out of the dorms. 

As an awkward seventeen-year-old, I had no idea what to expect. On Christmas Day, we woke up and gathered around the living room as the gift-giving and receiving commenced. I had rudely prepared quite literally nothing, but the Quists had prepared gifts for me. As everyone took turns, I was confused to find out that there were layers to the gifting—stocking stuffers, large boxes, gag gifts, and more! 

Growing up, our family celebrated Christmas at church, but there was no tradition of opening presents on Christmas Days, and there was certainly no tradition of multiple rounds of gift-giving. 

My sister and I were usually part of a nativity play or some other kind of performance with the other kids in the youth group. Then, we would go to church the night before for the candlelight service. On Christmas Day, we may have had church friends over or did a family worship service. Then, we’d open one gift each. 

That was it. Most people would find my version of Christmas quite boring. No long-standing family traditions to uphold and no childlike excitement over gifts, but to me it was a nostalgia I could not wait to re-live this past year. 

Coming back home for Christmas this past year, I was super excited. Every holiday I had spent away from my family, I romanticized the eventual holiday we would spend together just a little bit more. With the anticipation mounting, I went out shopping for gifts to bring back home, trying my best to remember what they would like but also something small enough to fit in a suitcase. Gift-giving can be so intimate in that way, because you are saying “I know you this much!” or “This is how I love you.”

My mom texted me a week before my flight to Egypt, saying, “Can’t believe you’re coming home in a week.” She included a photo of a new perilla plant she had just recently started growing. “I’m not sure if we’ll be able to eat the leaves by the time you’re here,” she added. I boarded the plane with dreams of a giant home-cooked meal, with plenty of perilla leaves to go around the table. 

On paper, it was looking to be the perfect Christmas. Except, a few days before Christmas, I gave my mom a gift she never wanted: her son revealing his first tattoo. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was expecting to see. I knew she hated tattoos, but I hoped for some light scolding, or maybe even a sigh. 

Instead, she broke down in tears without saying anything. 

As she continued to cry, I racked my brains for the right string of words to say, to comfort her but also to explain how there was nothing different about me other than some ink on my thigh in so many words. I asked her what was wrong, knowing the answer. She said she couldn’t believe I would do the unimaginable and retreated to sleep. 

I really ruined Christmas this year, I thought. 

The next day, we were back to normal. In true Korean fashion, she never brought it up again and neither did I. We made a silent pact, where what remains unsaid speaks louder than whatever we talked about the next morning. She fixed our family breakfast before my sister and I headed off towards our 10K race at the pyramids. 

Coming back home after graduation as a grown adult is a strange experience. The autonomy and independence I had cherished and nurtured in the years following graduation were suddenly thrown out of the window. 

I sit at the dining room table, setting up the spoons and chopsticks and plates just like I used to and my mom cooks in the kitchen, preparing a half-dozen different banchans (Korean side dishes) just like she used to. The night I tell my mom about my tattoo, I stay up long after she goes to bed feeling transported back to my turbulent, angsty high school days looking to escape constant conflict with my parents. 

I’m a child again, not sure if I will ever not be able to be in front of my parents. I think I could be sixty years old, getting ready for retirement, and still not feel fully like the adult of the house. This Christmas was far from perfect, and despite my best attempts to derail it, I think it may have been the most invaluable one yet.

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