No, really. There isn’t.
We all know what I’m talking about: the rendez-vous at our parents’ place for a big family holiday “to-do.” Complete with all those awful-fun holiday moments.
Coming home to a small town takes this all up a notch.
You’re seeing friends/family again and you’re returning to a community that remembers that time in Grade 1 when you peed your pants during the Christmas Concert. Or any of the horridly embarrassing traumatic growing-up moments that made you think “You know what? This small town life is not for me. I will be moving the moment I become an adult according to the law.”
… that’s the most diplomatic way any of us can put it.
But somehow, parents get it into their heads that they’d like you to come home for the holidays. Something about the “spirit of Christmas” or “family time” or “We haven’t seen you in a year, and we’re the ones who footed the bill for your liberal arts degree, so you sure as heck better be coming home because otherwise your mother will do a full-tilt Hulk-out.”
So you end up on a plane flying thousands of miles for a handful of days just so your mother doesn’t turn green and go on a rampage. Again. That was embarrassing enough the first time around.
Don’t consider yourself safe even if all you’re doing is dropping by for the “big meal” and then returning to a location with more people than fence posts. The 14th law of physics states that when you arrive, whoever is doing the cooking will discover they’re short on certain needed food items. Since everyone else has been drinking since noon, you’ll be the one running to the small town grocery store (aka the “minefield of forced socialization) to pick it up.
If you want to avoid all this, I suggest skipping the holidays completely. That, or barricading yourself into a bedroom and demanding that the turkey and stuffing be left on a plate outside the door. Although that’s more of a Thanksgiving “thing.”
So here is how you deal:
Make a list. A list of all the people you want to see. Or a list of people you don’t want to see. You know, those people with whom you have absolutely nothing in common with, the ones you barely tolerated growing up? The ones that you’re somehow friends with on Facebook because you were delusional enough to think that maybe, just maybe, they’ve changed. Except they haven’t. And you lack a spine to actually delete them.
Which means they now have this false sense of friendship. If you even hint that you’ll be around the area for Christmas, they’ll be all “ZOMGWETOTESGOTTAHANGOUT”
This is the moment you use the phrase “Sorry, I’m all booked up.” You don’t have to mention that you’re all booked up watching the Muppets Christmas Carol for the gazillionth time. Or that you’ll be clutching onto the remnants of your childhood while rocking back and forth in fetal position in your former-bedroom. Because of course, your parents just had to convert your bedroom into a home office or whatever else they were dreaming about since the day you popped out of the womb.
No, others don’t need to know your plans or reasoning at all.
Practice your lines. You will be asked the same questions again and again and again and again by everyone you meet. If you are lucky, these will actually be people you don’t mind talking to.
The more likely scenario is that you’ll be running into people you know (Former classmates, their parents, etc.) with whom you’ve never been close with, but because it’s a small town you just can’t ignore them. And when you do, they’ll want to pry into your life so they can be the first to pass along any salacious gossip.
Or they will pummel you with every single update about their own lives. Like how their cutest-child-in-the-world (who looks more like a Mr. Potato head doll, minus all the whimsical accessories) puked up over grandpa a few weeks ago. Gripping information.
Then they will insist on telling you every single update about a long list of people you both know. You’ll barely recall most of these people because remembering what you ate for breakfast seemed more vital and interesting than any memory of little Susie who you sat next to in Grade 5, and who apparently just cheated on her husband and is now stuck working at the local gas station. At which point you realize “Crap, I’ve got to fill up on gas.” Which means inevitably facing Susie who will then feel the need to give you an update on even more people. It’s a horrible chain reaction of gossip.
Mmm… breakfast sandwich.
So get your lines ready. Practice them in front of the mirror. The more you practice, the easier your brain will reach for them in a time of need. Hopefully this will allow you to avoid the “deer-caught-in-the-headlights” look when cornered in the produce aisle.
Keep your lines close-ended, succinct and vague for anything related to yourself. “Oh yes, enjoying the job a lot.” or “Just been keeping busy with life.” Soundbites are your friends. Stick to them like the politicians do.
When it comes to dealing with what they’re saying? Use: “Oh, that’s nice.” or “Good for you. ” Learn to love and accept the inevitable awkward pause that comes from these short and sweet sentences. Whatever you do: don’t engage. Don’t ask questions. Questions only lead to more awkward conversation that you don’t want to deal with.
And then jump in with a “Well, must be on the way. Busy season. Good bye!” And then? Then you walk away.
Go weird. It’s a small town. They’ll be gossiping about you anyways. So give them ridiculous material to work with. That way, when it finally reaches your ears again after doing the gossip loop, it will be so absolutely hilarious and offbeat that you can no longer be angry that you’re being gossiped about.
For example, when they pry about your love life, say you’ve just gotten out of a relationship with a dude/tte who trains elephants for the circus, but it didn’t work out because they were just too focused on their career. Fake a sob or two, and then claim you really can’t talk more about it, it hurts(sob) just(sob)too(sob)darn(sob)much.
If you really want to go big, come back covered in tattoos, piercings and wacky coloured hair. Congratulations, you’ve just given all the little old ladies in your town a heart attack.
Accept the things you cannot change. The greatest joy (Haha. No.) of coming home for Christmas to a small town is encountering the bunch of people who make you cringe and think “Really? REALLY? Must you fulfill every single stereotype about how ignorant and bumpkinny people from small towns are? I am ashamed enough for both of us.”
Yes, we all have that one family member (or two, or three) who will start spouting whatever sexist/racist/homophobic line they’ve picked up. But the forced socialization of small towns means that you won’t just be limited to the family bigot. Like a bank teller, who upon learning that I went to a certain University leaned in and whispered to me “Oh, I hear there’s a lot of …(pause)… asians who go there.”
Best case scenario? You respond with a blank, eyebrow raised “Wow I can’t believe you just said that” look of disapproval which gets them to shut up. Or they’ll start stuttering and clarifying, launching themselves into a spiral-of-doom which only makes them look even more of a fool.
Walk away. Unlike family members, you do not have to tolerate these people to “keep the Holiday peace.” You cannot debate or reason with them. You cannot win. If you try to argue, you’ll be told that you’ve gotten too big for your britches If they’re older, they’ll toss out the “tut-tut-you-young-idealist-I’m-older-and-know-better” line. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in knowing-the-eff-about-everything. They’ve pulled their information about the world from chain emails and television news sound bites. It is like arguing against a brick wall.
Just remember: This is why you left.
The two key mantras to focus on when returning to your small hometown for the holidays:
#1. This is fuel for your life. There will be moments when your brain decides to fuzz over all the things about growing up in a small town that made you want to leave. You may start thinking “Y’know, I’d like to one day buy a little house on that little street I grew up on and blah blah blah blah blah.” That is the nostalgia-plague speaking, not you. Take this visit home as a recharging of the “I-want-out-batteries,” and a reaffirmation that you made the right decision to leave.
Because most importantly?
#2. You’ve already won.You wanted out. You got out. Congratulations. Treat yourself to a bunch of cookies.
And really, worst case scenario? You drink the whole time and really let people know what you think of them.