At the Dinner Table

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Francesca Bernardino, Tracy Fuentes, Kleigh Balugo, Ash Fuentes

During the holidays, family dinners are unavoidable, along with the awkward conversations and invasive questions that come with them. Everyone can relate to being asked if we’re single, what we’re studying in school, et cetera. Some more controversial topics may arise, such as being asked our thoughts on a political issue by an uncle we know for a fact voted for a different presidential candidate than we did. Here at Kindergarten, we decided to share our thoughts and experiences regarding family dinner conversation. While we may not have lots of advice to give, we certainly hope that you do not feel alone when you’re sitting at the dinner table and your aunts are bombarding you with uncomfortable questions. 

Francesca Bernardino

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a coward at the dinner table; a popular question is if I “have a boyfriend yet,” which I usually simply allow to be diffused by the classic counterargument, usually from an older family member: “Let her finish school first!!” In my mind, this translates into what my family thinks my two primary purposes in life are: finding a romantic partner but not before (!!!) exceeding academically. I know most of these comments are good-natured jokes, but I also know there are endless topics of conversation much more interesting and important than how much money my degree is projected to make me or how soon after college I plan on getting married- a notion so ridiculously far from my current realm of thought that I never know how to approach answering this one.

Regardless, it’s just as exhausting to try and fend off invasive questions. As an (often inconveniently) non-confrontational person, I find it hard to muster the courage to simply say “it’s not the first thing on my mind.”  Take an answer I’ve daydreamed about copiously, though I certainly wouldn’t have it in me to actually use it: “It shouldn’t matter to you;” I wince at the mere thought of pulling something like that at a family dinner! Yes, it isn’t ideal to be dissected by your family at Christmas dinner, but I think we experience enough stress around the holiday season. The last thing my fried brain salvaged from finals needs is to participate in the mental gymnastics it requires to argue with my family about personal aspects of my life. I like to think I’d gladly make my thoughts known in a lower-pressure situation. The holidays are always used as an excuse, and I’m definitely guilty of Trying-Not-To-Care-Because-It’s-Christmas.

I keep my reactions as ambiguous as possible: a laugh (keeping it slightly passive aggressive helps) or a quickly dismissive comment usually works for me. I know I shouldn’t respond vaguely and expect unwarranted questions to stop; but most of the time, I’m not sure if there’s a difference between stopping the questions and having an outburst that will be vividly remembered as an unfortunate incident but never spoken about again. Perhaps one day, I’ll find it in me to be more vocal. For now, however, consider this a proclamation of anti-pot-stirrer solidarity; sometimes, brushing it away works and is a lot easier on our fragile, holiday-worn psyches. 

Tracy Fuentes

Having a boyfriend makes it really easy to avoid the “do you have a boyfriend” or “is there someone you like” questions. My response to those questions are well known to my family members.

The question I dread most during family gatherings (or even when meeting new people) is “What are you planning to do with that?” after explaining my majors of English and Political Science. 

The answer has changed over the years, beginning with “lawyer” to the now honest answer: librarian and/or English professor. However, despite a strong sense that those two careers would be perfect for me, I feel somewhat embarrassed to reveal my goals to others, even (maybe even especially) my family.

I remember mentioning an interest in becoming a librarian to my grandpa when I was about ten years old. He promptly responded that libraries and print books were going to be dead and gone by the time I entered college and the workforce. I was instantly embarrassed and pushed the idea to the back of my mind. 

Since then, I looked at other careers for myself, one that would feed my passions and also feed my future family. When I began volunteering at the local library in high school, I realized my grandpa was wrong about libraries. People relied on their libraries for much more than books, and the libraries were almost always full of children playing Minecraft, students studying at the desks with friends, and adults reading silently in the armchairs. 

However, it was so deeply ingrained in me that I could not be a librarian due to the low pay and limited job prospects that it was not a viable career path in my mind. My parents reiterated this to me when I mentioned casually that being a librarian would be fun. 

This negative stigma around becoming a librarian haunts me even as I become more confident that being a librarian would be a great fit for me. When I imagine telling family members of my career goals, despite my passion, I can only visualize the judgment I will face. Maybe they wouldn’t say it to my face, but I know they will think, “Yikes. Good luck making ends meet and having a job.”

For the sake of avoiding judgment and criticism during the holidays, I usually only say that I want to be a professor, omitting the librarian portion altogether. Yes, it may be low paying and the job market is not the best, but it does not have the negative stigma that libraries carry and has a bit of prestige. Once I respond with “professor,” the family member will typically make one comment and move onto something else, not bothering to press for further details.

I know I should be confident and brave enough to exclaim my plans for the future, especially when it is actually a career I have chosen for myself. When it comes to family get-togethers, especially during the holidays, it seems as if all of my courage dries up in hopes of preserving positive spirits and avoiding judgment. Maybe one day I’ll be comfortable enough to proclaim my goals at the dinner table, but for now, I’ll continue avoiding the topic for the sake of my sanity. 

Kleigh Balugo

Like the US military, I follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about invasive questions. I think I’m more of a reserved person when it comes to telling my extended family about my personal life. Not because I don’t trust them or anything like that, I just think there’s certain things you don’t really have to share. Not to mention, my Filipino family is always very unfiltered in their responses. 

When I came back from my first semester of college for our annual Christmas party, everyone was very quick to tell me that I had gained weight since I saw them last. I didn’t really care and comments like that don’t affect me that much, plus they all seemed to add how it “looked good on me, though.” It really just reminded me how much they pay attention to me. I guess it could be a good thing though, it’s a way of showing they care.

I am definitely asked the standard questions, if I have a boyfriend and how school is. I am probably asked every year what I’m majoring in. Even though I have been saying I wanted to major in journalism since I was a sophomore in high school. 

As for politics, luckily most of my family members share similar political beliefs with me. Politics isn’t usually the subject of discussion at our holiday parties. We are always too busy watching the Warriors game or eating lumpia to bring it up. 

However, my grandpa sometimes tells me how he gets into arguments with his Trump-supporting in-laws. I thought it was kind of funny that my grandpa related to the universal Gen Z struggle trying to get through to your family members. My grandpa keeps up with politics and he’s always quick to call me when there are new developments because he knows I keep up with them too. 

At least my grandpa has the courage to have those discussions with people because I certainly don’t, and even if I did I’m sure they would just dismiss anything I say because “I’m too young to know what I’m talking about.” Which is alright with me. It’s like I said before, don’t ask, don’t tell. 

Ash Fuentes

If you are in a position to pick and choose which family members you want to keep around in your life, then don’t invite family members who have harmful opinions. I know there are people who are able to stay friends even if their views on politics differ, but if topics such as racism, homophobia, or other issues about basic human rights are considered controversial, then the disagreement is well past politics. If a family member is homophobic, racist, sexist, etc. then the best way to avoid the issue of dealing with controversial topics at family get-togethers is do not invite those hateful family members!

Unfortunately, many people do not have the privilege of being open about their views with their family. If that applies to you and the topics that are marked with red flags, would you want to spend your evening talking about serious subjects or would you rather just try to get through the night by talking about anything else? Honestly, it is just your preference. I think if a family member of mine was so ignorant, I would enjoy ruining their evening by arguing with them because it would be entertaining for me. However, if other family members that were present at the event were deserving of a fun evening, then I suppose I would just feel too tired to get into all that talking anyway.

There are some lighter topics that are not as intense as political or social issues–and therefore not enough to determine whether a relative is worthy of an invite or not–such as school or dating life. Most days, I really hate hearing “Any boyfriend yet?” or “How is school?” because it makes me think there’s nothing more interesting about me that anybody would want to ask me about. The only people who bother to ask if I have a girlfriend when I say no to having a boyfriend are my mom and grandpa, too. I hate that people in my family who really do not deserve to know me at all want to ask the invasive dating questions.

I suppose that these are just the crutch questions in making small talk, so I can’t really blame the titas and titos who are quick to ask. Yet, I would really prefer talking about anything other than dating and school. Not to be dramatic, although theatrics are right up my alley, but I will start crying if another adult asks me about my major in school. I promise you that I will start crying. The topic about my future shouldn’t be as intense as I make it out to be, but I seriously get stressed out about it and adults who aren’t in any field that I’m interested in suggesting unappealing careers for me doesn’t really help.

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