Expat Magazine

Ho, Ho, …Homesick

By Zach Zine @Int_In_Debt

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at [email protected], and he will let you know how you can start participating!


Our makeshift Christmas tree last year.

So, as many of you could probably guess, and many of you probably know, being abroad for the holidays is not an easy thing to deal with.  Miles, whether they be hundreds or thousands, separating you from your familiar environment, friends, and family do nothing but make those weeks during the holiday season ones that can be filled with depression and a deep homesickness.  Here are some of the problems we have encountered in our experiences, and the solutions to said problems we felt have worked the best in the past:

Problem:  Let’s start off with the least important problem/hitch in the holidays: the differences in weather.  As we have noted before, Taiwan’s winters are nothing like Chicago.  In the aforementioned post, we bitched quite a bit about Chicago winter, and even exclaimed that Taiwan’s is better.  Taken as a whole, it is.  But, the one time of the winter that always seemed tolerable was the holiday season.  Those weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year when it was cold, but not really freaking cold.  Those weeks when snow fell softly – sometimes a little less softly – from the sky.  Those weeks when the sun seemed to shine ever so brightly on the white blanket covering the roofs, streets, parks, and yards.  Everything.  It would seem that weather, like music, has a very innate ability to transfer you to a time or a season that pulls at your heartstrings.  Unfortunately, if you live in a place like Taiwan or, really, any place with a different climate, this connection is lost.  During the holidays here it is basically just cool and constantly rainy, like an indie music video with a depressing song running in the background about a hipster who just lost his girlfriend and, at the same time, became mainstream.  Definitely not going to put anyone in the holiday spirit.

Solution:  Well, in this case you may be shit out of luck.  As hard as we try, we can’t make it snow.  We cannot recreate weather patterns.  (We’re working on it.)  Luckily, this is far from the most important part of the holiday season.  People all over the world celebrate whatever holidays they may celebrate during those few weeks in an endless variety of climates.  Change is difficult, but this is one thing that is definitely surmountable.  If anything, being away from all of that familiar weather will just make it that much sweeter when you experience it again.  Glass half full, people!

Problem:  The loss of the spirit, warmth and energy of the holiday season.  When we’re at home for the holidays, the spirit and energy is palpable.  You can actually feel it in the air.  It is warm.  It is sincere.  It is happy.  It is, in many ways, indescribable by words, at least words that we know.  Here in Taiwan, though, this is, more or less, non-existent.  Sure, there are holiday decorations: trees, lights, reindeer, wreaths, candy-canes, etc.  (Sorry, only Christmas is represented in Taipei, as far as we have seen at least.)  But, in some ways, this just makes it worse.  It makes it all feel meaningless.  It sucks all of the spirit, all of the emotion, all of the feelings out of a time of the year that at home has always been recognizable.  It’s like the holidays and the feelings that come with it are being stolen, and left in their place are nothing but the empty, commercialized symbols being peddled for a profit.  Now, we completely understand that Taiwan and its people are not doing this purposely.  They are doing nothing wrong.  It is just the feeling it creates within us, and that is something we have to deal with.

Solution:  Make your own spirit.  Connect with the expats around you and tap into their spirit.  Recreate what you remember and love most within yourselves.  This is what we try to do.  We try and watch movies, listen to the music we are used to, decorate our apartment as best we can, etc.  The good thing about symbols, whether they are songs, decorations, etc., is that symbols have no inherent meaning.  Rather, their meaning is given to them by those who perceive and/or invest themselves in them.  While the meaning seems to have be stolen from them, the reality is that it has always just been an affliction on our own feelings and emotions about the holidays and their season.  In the end, we have realized, especially this year (our 2nd abroad), that we always have the spirit inside of us.  While it is not felt within the community at large, that does not mean it doesn’t have to exist and be felt within you.  It doesn’t mean that those others around you who are used to the same and/or similar things can’t recreate the spirit.  It might sound cheesy, (it is a little) but it is true.

Problem:  It is really hard to explain to people who don’t understand or haven’t grown up celebrating the holidays you have what said holidays mean or are actually like.  If you don’t believe us, try it.  Go to a place where people have no real idea or connection to what your most cherished holiday is, and then have them grill you until you want to subject yourself to another human being eating your face off.  It’s not like the person asking you wants to frustrate you.  It’s just extremely hard to explain that Christmas, for you, has nothing to do with Jesus or religion.  (We use this as an example because it is our example and we feel most comfortable with it.  Please tell us if it is the same with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.)  Rather, it is just an amazing time to get together with friends and family and celebrate your love for each other.  To actually sit and talk and spend unadulterated time with each other.  That is a very hard, complex thing to explain, at least for us.  It is especially hard because people from cultures that don’t celebrate said holidays always come into such conversations, as we undoubtedly do when trying to understand their holidays, with preconceived notions, ideas, and stereotypes.  And, it doesn’t help, as has been our experience a few times here, when the people who are asking you about the holiday you celebrate refuse to accept your idea/skew of it.  That’s just annoying.

Solution:  Really, the only solution to this problem is to explain it to the best of your abilities, with sincerity, and with an understanding that the person you’re talking to sincerely wants to know.  That is something that shouldn’t be annoying, but, quite the contrary, should be viewed as a type of compliment.  They are truly interested in what makes your holiday so special.  Why it is so important to you.  That’s really cool.  You should feel the same about their holidays.  That’s what makes us human.  We’re curious.  We can grow extremely from understanding other cultures, and an immense part of that is other cultures holidays.  Don’t hide yours away.  Finally, if all else fails and your questioner refuses to understand or accept what you are saying, then you may just have to leave it at that and just call it a failure to communicate.

Problem:  This last problem is the big one: being away from your family who are miles and miles away.  No matter how much you recreate the spirit through decorating, celebrating, and recreating the feelings and spirit you are so used to, you can never recreate family.  It is truly difficult to explain the gap that grows in our hearts from around Thanksgiving until after New Years.  Obviously, since we live abroad, we are constantly away from our families.  But, even when you live at home, or near it, you can’t always be in constant contact with family.  Certainly you can talk to them often through email, Facebook, the phone, or Skype.  But, we can do all of that, minus the phone, here in Taiwan as well.  During the holidays, though, everyone gets together.  It is a time, at least for us and most we know, to spend with your family and your friends.  Time off tends to take an uptick.  People from out of state make their pilgrimages back, or you make your pilgrimage to where they are.  Food is eaten.  Drinks are had.  Conversations run the gamut from sports, to travel, to education, to politics, and so on.  Love can be felt and is frequently expressed in levels not normally seen.  It is just a truly amazing time.  When you live on the other side of the world, that just cannot be recreated.

Solution:  Unfortunately, there is no real solution for this, short of going home.  If you live abroad, or are abroad during the holidays, you can’t simply recreate your family and friends wherever you are.  It’s just impossible, and that is something that is hard to deal with.  Luckily, though, today’s world is much smaller than it was just ten years ago, and it’s still getting even smaller.  Emails and Facebook are amazing and easy ways to stay in touch and get an idea of what all of your loved ones are doing.  Skype is even better.  Skyping family on Christmas, or whatever holiday it is you celebrate, is an amazing feeling, and is truly the closest you can come to being with them without being there in the flesh.  As technology goes forwards, who knows what will be invented.  We’re waiting for the time when we can be instantly transported.  Now, that will be awesome.  Until then, we just have to make due with what we have, the love and support of our families and some technology that helps us plug back into the spirit of the holidays we are missing.

In the end, for us missing the holiday season, Thanksgiving to New Years, is the hardest time of year.  But, what we have described above can be, and probably is, felt by people all across the globe, celebrating countless different holidays, and doing the best they can to be more than just Ho, Ho,…Homesick.

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