In my house, even St. Patrick has an identity crisis

In my house, even St. Patrick has an identity crisisFamily traditions — or rather, their evolution during expatriation — continue to fascinate me. As expats we often find ourselves in duct tape mode when it comes to maintaining traditions away from home: either we can’t find the necessary elements in our host country to celebrate authentically, or we’re faced with quizzical stares (if not outright hostility) when we try to replicate foreign customs back on home turf.

The savvy expat spouse soon becomes adept at cobbling together some semblance of the original custom, doing the best with what she’s got before standing back and examining the results with a critical eye. Although it probably won’t be perfect, what choice does she have but to pronounce — in the words of my beloved Irish granny — “t’will do”?

What’s surprising is how often the patchwork version ends up supplementing — or outright supplanting — the original cherished family tradition. Maybe making Paçoca for Easter visitors reminds a family of the great times they had in Brazil, for example. And don’t tell me children who have lived in Russia wouldn’t be thrilled to receive gifts from both Santa and Ded Moroz over the Christmas/New Year’s season. The wonderful thing about an expat family is that it makes room for the idiosyncrasies of each of its host cultures.

Some traditions die; some are reborn

Last month I wrote about my family’s experiences with the hong bao: the customary red money packet given to Singaporean children during Lunar New Year. In the comments section of that post, Miss Footloose asked “Are you still holding on to the hong bao tradition with the kids now that you are back home? Somehow traditions are best enjoyed in their own environment and lose their shimmer when taken abroad.” I was forced to admit that this particular custom was abandoned once we moved away from Singapore. (Although we did have a reunion dinner to welcome the Year of the Rabbit a few weeks ago at Younger Daughter’s request.)

When the girls were little, we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick in a big way. This was new for me; although my mother is Irish, we never made a big deal of St. Patrick’s Day when I was growing up (beyond the hopeful “Kiss me ♣ I’m Irish” pin I wore in high school.)

It seemed a good way for my kids to embrace their Irish heritage while doing something nice for their grandma, and since St. Paddy’s always falls during March Break, we had plenty of time to dive in. We made gifts at a local craft store, baked shamrock-shaped treats, and decorated the house in swaths of green. Grandma loved it, and so did we.

When we moved away, March 17th lost its lustre: there were no decorations to be found, no St. Patrick’s Day events at the craft store, and most depressingly, no Grandma.

In France we celebrated by having dinner at The Blarney Stone, a local pub where the staff spoke fluent French tinged with a lilting brogue. The closest we came in Singapore was eating pandan cake, the only green confection I could think of.

Repatriation and traditions: will we or won’t we?

The girls were tweenies by the time we returned to Canada, no longer interested in decoupaging shamrock vases or crafting leprechauns out of toilet paper rolls. We still bake cookies for Grandma, but now that both girls work during March Break, our efforts are a pale imitation of what came before.

Not all traditions, it turns out, are strong enough to survive the test of time. Our St. Patrick’s Day customs weren’t rooted deeply enough to endure, but I’m convinced a kernel of what made the day special exists somewhere. With the proper care, I think it can flourish again.

Now thats what I call fusion!

This year, I’m not home for St. Paddy’s because I’m in Washington DC at the FIGT conference. When I return, though, I’ll bake a pandan-flavoured shamrock cake and invite my mom to share it with us. It’s a way to honour Grandma and our past — both our Irish ancestry and our years in Singapore. I hope that by grafting a new twist onto a faltering tradition, we’ll end up with a sturdier hybrid, one better able to withstand the inevitable winds of change.

Next year, who knows? I may even mix together a couple of traditions to create a brand new St. Patrick’s Day custom: lu bao (green money packets). Something tells me the girls won’t object. 🙂

What about your family? Any mongrel traditions you’ve pieced together thanks to your expat years?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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6 Responses to In my house, even St. Patrick has an identity crisis

  1. you know, with us despite being Indians, we were quite out of synch with Indian festivals all the time we were in India. Now that we’re abroad we seem to be celebrating ‘our’ festivals far more! alongwith christmas and chinese new year

    • Maria says:

      I know how that is! At home we spend Canada Day loafing around the house (even though we’re a short walk from the festivities at City Hall), but in Singapore we went to the Canadian Association picnic and waved Canadian flags.

  2. Maria I truly enjoy your blog. Thank you for your writing. I want to share this award with you: http://redawakening.com/2011/03/18/im-versatile-who-knew/

  3. Amy says:

    I am an expat – not a wife and I do not have children but certain traditions I do still care about. Even if I change them. Thanksgiving was traditionally a family day in my house growing up – now that I’m the grown up with no family around me, I have a huge Thanksgiving party every year (this year will be 11). My American friends like it because they get two, the Canadians like it because who wouldn’t? And everyone else gets to enjoy a great atmosphere with great food. I do the birds and the stuffing and the starters and assign out the rest. It’s one of my favourite holidays and now it’s up there for many of my friends too (I average around 30 people in my tiny Dutch apartment)!

    • Maria says:

      Sounds like fun! Our American neighbours used to do something similar for American Thanksgiving in Singapore every year, and we loved it. It was usually the first time the Brits, Australians, Japanese and Singaporeans had experienced Thanksgiving, so it was interesting for them. And we Canadians got to celebrate in October and November — what’s not to love?

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