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Growing up Buddhist during the holiday season

<h5>Lotus blossoms bloom outside of Gyeongju, South Korea.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Albert Lee / The Daily Princetonian&nbsp;</h6>
Lotus blossoms bloom outside of Gyeongju, South Korea. 
Albert Lee / The Daily Princetonian 

As the fall semester comes to a close, it’s hard to keep count of all of the Christmas decorations that have popped up around Princeton’s campus. On a brisk day in November, I was walking by McCarter Theatre when I noticed it had been decorated with giant Christmas wreaths. I took out my phone to snap a picture, but decided against it. Instead, I kept walking, fleeing the wind that cut through my jacket. 

To some students, Christmas decorations may spark excitement for the holiday season. For me, a second-generation immigrant who was raised Buddhist, they remind me of my complicated relationship with mainstream American culture.

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My parents immigrated to America from South Korea. My mother is Buddhist, like her mother before her, and my father, like most Koreans, is areligious. Growing up, when most of my friends were decorating their houses for the holidays, my childhood home in Chicago remained unchanged. 

Appearances, however, don’t tell the full story. Contrary to popular belief, many Buddhists do participate in the holiday season. Among Asian American Buddhists, three-quarters celebrate Christmas. On Dec. 8, some Buddhists also observe Bodhi Day, which marks when the Buddha reached enlightenment. 

Even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, many American Buddhists borrow Christmas traditions and make them their own. My family usually takes in a special dinner, and up until I was six or seven, my parents used to hide presents under my bed on Christmas. Still, even as a child, I knew that these practices were the result of some compromise. I now understand that my parents were trying to expose me to American culture while fending off complete assimilation. 

To this day, my mother insists that our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, sometimes even as we’re carving up a ham at the dinner table. Though many people may consider this statement to be a contradiction, in a way, it fits perfectly in the strange logic of my bicultural upbringing.

Outside of my family, however, it is hard to find people who understand this logic. During elementary school, some students reacted in pity and shock when I told them I no longer received gifts during the holiday season. They couldn’t fathom why my parents would deprive me of presents and why I didn’t see the supposed injustice in their actions. One year, a girl offered to share her holiday gifts with me; I declined, though I was tempted. 

I don’t blame them for their ignorance, however. Though Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists are all sizable religious groups in South Korea, most Korean Americans are Protestant. Perhaps my classmates assumed I was like some other Korean person they knew. Yet, I was still irked by their incredulity at the fact that I wasn’t. 

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In high school, I encountered a different dynamic: my friends’ nostalgia for past holiday seasons. As winter break approached, my peers would often reminisce together about their Christmas memories: dinner at Grandma’s, the lake house, Cancún. I would listen and nod, taking in their excitement, but always feeling more like an observer than an active participant.

At times, this nostalgia made my peers blind to prejudice. In the days leading up to winter break, my health class watched the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.” In the film, after a series of mishaps, a white family decides to eat Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The interaction that ensues makes a mockery of immigrants. Among other questionable moments, it features a group of East Asian waiters performing “Deck the Halls” in the fictional accent that exists only to disparage people like me. Watching the scene, I felt a tiny knot form in my chest, the same irritation I feel when a professor mistakes me for some other East Asian student or when I see the “Buddha sandwich” on the Tower Club’s menu. It’s a faint feeling, dulled over time, but it persists. 

After class, I told some friends how I felt about the movie scene. They seemed sympathetic but mostly dismissed it as a product of a bygone era as if belittling depictions of Asian Americans and our cultures are simple history. They’re not, but romanticizing the past and present of Christian hegemony can make people forget what’s right in front of them. 

However, despite my negative experiences, I’m lucky to have gone to primary and secondary schools where people are generally mindful of cultural differences. But since coming to Princeton, I seem to encounter insensitivity to religious diversity more frequently. For instance, I was surprised to find that many people at Princeton still refer to winter recess as “Christmas break.” Though it’s a small detail, it nonetheless reminds me that the schedule of academic life wasn’t designed with people like me in mind. 

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Even though I’ve never been fully immersed in the holiday season, I still look forward to the end of the fall semester simply because I can reunite with my family and friends back home. I can also engage with the season in the multicultural ways that feel right to me. Over Thanksgiving break, my friends and I visited Christkindlmarket, an annual Christmas market in Chicago. The festival attracts people from all cultural backgrounds; only one of the friends I attended the event with actually celebrates Christmas. We ate poffertjes, little Dutch pancakes, and took photos in front of the giant Christmas tree in the center of the market. 

In the future, perhaps outings like these will be the extent of my involvement in the holiday season. These days, my family has been less committed to following American norms; our Thanksgiving dinner this year featured Peking duck and shrimp. I imagine when I move out, I’ll have to create my own traditions. 

Moving forward, I hope to reconnect with my family’s culture. In May, I’ll celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday, the most important holiday in Korean Buddhism and a culturally significant day for Koreans of all faiths. I’m looking forward to seeing the temple come alive, the grounds adorned with dozens of paper lotus lanterns.

Bert Lee is a senior writer for The Prospect who often covers music and artist profiles. He can be reached at alberthl@princeton.edu.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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