Home for the Holidays – Lena

Major holidays require significant motivation and carefully consideration when living abroad. Otherwise they will likely pass by unnoticed. The required intentionality is twofold. First, our children are third culture kids (TCKs) who have spent minimal time in their passport country and thus are not growing up immersed in the religious and cultural traditions that Brian and I draw on for memories and comfort. Even when Christmas is acknowledged in the country where we live, it is generally a novelty and doesn’t penetrate into every moment from Halloween to New Years. Without the insidious Christmas music, creepy shopping mall Santas or endless TV commercials pushing cheap plastic toys, holiday season for Bug and Noodle is mostly about slowing down, spending time together, eating delicious food, and going on adventures. Second, holidays can bridge connections with people who live in our current country of residence and deepening our understanding of their culture.

As single expats without children, Christmas once meant solo travel for Brian and trips home for me. Now, the financial hit of four long-haul tickets alongside the time-sucking 32 hours in transit (each way) and soul-crushing jetlag means limiting trips home to once a year for the longer summer break from school. The non-sympathy-stirring caveat is that we often live close to destinations that might be once-in-a-lifetime trips for others. However, given the pandemic and related quarantine requirements, international travel is out of the question this year. Being so far from home during such an emotional and turbulent time globally while actively adapting to a new culture might seem the perfect storm for homesickness, as happened to me last year. But the optimism of our most recent move and the desire to nest in our new home actually made this a very cozy and content Christmas. 

Expat teachers usually hop on the first flight out of town the moment school finishes for the holiday break, as we are quite burnt out by mid-December and ready to rejuvenate on a beach or re-energize by plunging into a brand new culture. However, this year most colleagues chose to stay in Tashkent for obvious reasons, so none of us was suffering from expat envy while imagining the adventures of our friends and feeling left behind. Instead, we played tourist by skiing in the nearby mountains, checking out restaurants, and rummaging at antique and handicraft markets. Moreover, it was wonderful to get to know colleagues better without the stress of school looming over us. Highlights included making Christmas ornaments with the kids’ friends, tasting our first pavlova courtesy of our friend from New Zealand who joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, and ringing in the New Year at very small and carefully orchestrated gatherings.

Because the children have now reached an age of unbounded curiosity, some of their questions and our insights can give a bit of insight into our uniquely expat holiday. Here are the gems:

Why do we have a Christmas tree?

First, it’s actually not always a tree. Pine trees often don’t grow in most places we have lived (or they are imported and offer grave financial and climate destruction). Despite the guilt about buying plastic, we have bought and sold several fake trees; they just never seem to make the cut for taking up space in the shipment. In Mexico, we used a cactus. This year we could have done a different potted plant, but we just haven’t gotten to that point of household decor. So we settled for a hybrid plastic beauty that offers two types of needles as well as berries and pinecones. As a former tree guy, Brian believes it to be a cross-breed of holly, white pine and blue spruce. Bug and Noodle had a blast attaching the color-coded branches. And we were humored that the combination of tree, grand piano and formal dining room applied to our own lives.

Second, the branches offer a place to display all the decorations we have picked up throughout our travels. The process of unpacking and hanging ornaments creates a special tradition of recollecting memories. Additionally, Brian and I are darn near giddy as we wrap and arrange presents underneath said holiday plant on Christmas Eve because it sparks our inner child and gives us satisfaction that we have achieved some level of parenting success this year.

Who is Santa Claus? Will he know where we live? How is he going to get in our house?

We have wavered about our strategic approach to the Santa part of Christmas. Both Brian and I have fond memories of the magic and anticipation surrounding St. Nick. Neither harbors the horror story of shockingly discovering he wasn’t real. It was a gradual thing aided by loose-lipped older siblings. We never felt betrayed by our parents for intentionally lying to us. It was just fun. And once we found out the truth, it was still fun to pretend. But wow, there are some strong feelings about the subject. Especially since our parenting and teaching are so deeply committed to respecting and empowering children. Psychologists have written extensively about the harm that lying to children about Santa can cause. This is supported by educators and parents dedicated to the Montessori method, which believes that adults shouldn’t expose children under six to fantasy, including Santa, as it can cause a range of negative effects. Others remind us that honesty and the true spirit of Christmas can be nurtured. The approaches we connect to honor the spirit of Christmas and are shaped most by the children’s questions and play invitations…with a little sprinkling of pretend from us.

I am completely creeped out by the Foucauldian watchman vibe of a certain approach to Christmas that uses a spying elf or Santa to scare children into good behavior. Gift-giving in our house is inspired by generosity rather than anybody’s naughty or nice behavior. Moreover, Elf on the Shelf requires way to much effort at a time of year when us teacher-parents are drowning in end-of-the-year professional responsibilities.

A dad we know offered to stop by our home dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve Day, and Brian and I wavered. Would it frighten the kids? Or take the lie a tad too far? We decided to accept the offer and see what happened. Although Bug and Noodle quickly realized that it was their friend’s dad, the squealed and reveled in the excitement. Obviously they left the Big Guy a plate of cookies before bed because that was our caloric reward for nudging them through the authentic literacy experience of writing him a letter. And the next morning, Santa’s name appeared on several presents under our tree – but definitely not the best ones because Mom and Dad are taking credit for that – and Bug proudly decoded the gift tags with he new phonics skills. When the children asked if Santa was real, we responded with our favorite teacher question: “What do you think?” And let them lead the way.

Why is Santa in Uzbekistan blue? Who is that lady with Santa?

Uzbekistan is a crossroads in so many ways, and holidays prove not an exception. We noticed that December brought modest holiday light decorations and tree displays that were familiar to our American frame of reference. But the Santa figure was skinny and dressed in blue, and his only companion was a beautiful young woman in a wintry princess costume. After questioning our local friends and a peek at Wikipedia, we learned that the man is not Santa Claus or Saint Nick, but Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз). He made his way to modern day Uzbekistan via pagan Slavic mythology that influenced Soviet culture. He is similarly kind and delivers toys to children. However, diverging from our lore, the supporting character here is his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Снегурочка) rather than Mrs Claus or elves. And horses pull his sleigh instead of flying reindeer.

Due to the secularity of communism, Ded Moroz was temporarily banned in the late 1920s but eventually brought back. However, he was then reassigned to stand in front of the now called New Years Trees and bring presents on January 1 instead of Christmas Day. It should be added that Russian Orthodox Christianity celebrates Christmas on January 7 or 8 following the Julian calendar rather than on December 25 for sects of Christianity following the Gregorian calendar, not that the technicality has much religious implication since biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not actually born in the winter

Who is Jesus? Why are we celebrating his birthday?

Well, Brian and I are a bit loose in our religious discussions with the kids. We grew up going to varying intensities of Sunday school and got the gist of Christianity, but neither of us identifies strongly with the faith today. We talk to the children about God (as he or she). They know that the mosques, temples and churches they’ve visited are special places to pray. We describe praying as mindfulness and listening to our hearts. Things that we emphasis as sacred are family, kindness, acceptance of others and ourselves, and nature. Jesus fits well into this view. Bug and Noodle know he was a wonderful man who was kind and generous and loving to all. The one slightly religious tradition for our Christmas is cuddling up and watching the movie, The Star, which is a very child-friendly depiction of Jesus’ birth. 

Admittedly, this was not our best year for strongly emphasizing the giving part of Christmas. We did take each child shopping separately to choose gifts for the rest of the family. Also, they selected items to donate to our school’s charity drive for local children in need (and we involve them in events throughout the year). However, now that we are more settled in UZ and the children are at ages where they can more independently participate in many tasks, we are keen to weave empathy and charity into our family traditions not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

’Tis the Season – Lena

Our expat life is often perceived as a longterm holiday because we tend to live where people vacation. The reality is that, while we love living in these places for many reasons, we definitely face the same challenges as “back home”…bills, jobs, childcare, errands, dirty dishes, relationships. Consciously creating a simplified life probably mitigates some of the typical stresses, but here’s a realistic glimpse into what’s actually going on.

Pardon the self-indulgence. But isn’t that what blogs are, really? For me, holiday blues and job search stress collided. Hard. For the second year in a row. And were compounded by culture shock. And very well managed ADD. I have survived and am quite familiar with all of these intense experiences. They have several overlapping features: deep reflection, fluctuating emotions, anxiety about decision-making, constantly streaming internal monologue, careful management of scenarios and expectations, fatigue, and the conflicting desires to simultaneously withdraw and connect.

Let’s start with holiday blues. The weeks leading up to Christmas seem to dredge up social and performance insecurities that I manage much better at other times of year. I am vulnerable because I know I’ll be away from family, and friendships are only slowly developing. I know the first year is always the hardest. But knowing doesn’t make it easier.

Wherever I am at this time of year – I love the music (which we only start playing after Brian’s birthday in early December). I love the food and drinks. I love the family time. When abroad, I usually love the accomplishment of expat ingenuity in the face of culinary challenges and the camaraderie among friends far from home. My blues center around high expectations based on stereotypes and the resulting sense of failure when they are unmet, which would probably be the case whether home or abroad. 

Decision-making paralysis is exacerbated as an expat. Which food and drinks? Where will I find the ingredients? Who will we share them with? How am I going to concoct Pinterest-worthy decorations? What kind of tree in the tropics? Do I kill a real tree, contribute to plastic overuse, or figure something else out? We have way too much stuff, why should I spend money on more of it? What will I do with it when we leave? Should I even bother decorating if we are only going to use the stuff once? Should we be spending money frivolously before we have secured jobs for next year? Oh wait, no offer is ever secure, so we better not travel anywhere this year (there goes a tangent in another direction…) Let’s throw parent guilt into the mix. How do I feel about the creepy Santa narrative? I don’t even need to ponder the elf situation, that’s a no for me. What are my kids missing out on if I don’t make a big deal about this holiday? How will my kids be messed up if I do make a big deal about it? Am I focusing enough on charity? Where do I even find opportunities to do that?

Culture shock can correlate to holiday blues, but really it happens at any time of year and at any point in the expat experience. Essentially, people who immerse themselves into a new culture experience several stages of anxiety and emotions as they adjust to the environment. In 1960, Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified four stages of culture shock that are still popularly referenced, which include honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment. The stages are not necessarily linear and change without warning. I studied and experienced culture shock while doing anthropological fieldwork in university. Now as a permanent expat, these stages are the seasons of my life. With every move, I know the highs and lows are coming. Recognizing them is certainly important, but they are intense nonetheless. 

Getting married in Puerto Vallarta in 2013

Honeymoon

When we lost our jobs unexpectedly, Brian and I quickly replaced that gut punch with a huge adrenaline rush of impulsively by moving to another country (the ultimate fight-or-flight response). Mexico is my psychologically “safe” country that I often imagine fleeing to when life feels tenuous. This is where I first stepped out of my ethnocentric bubble in university. I got married and literally honeymooned here. So the timing was not ideal, but in some ways, it was a dream come true when we ended up in Sayulita. The anxiety of an imminent job search constantly simmered below the surface, but we tempered it with tacos, margaritas, and warm ocean waves. Now that the job search is full on, whatever figurative honeymoon we were on is fully over. 

Crisis

The crisis is multifaceted. Our charming jungle cottage has tons of challenges (and tiny visitors that live in our roof and poop a lot). Financial stress has been exacerbated by needing to purchase a car because Brian began working maternity cover at the American School of Puerto Vallarta. It was an opportunity we had to take, but it means he leaves at dawn and returns at sunset. While he struggles with a long commute through the jungle and teaches two grade levels each day, I get our kids to school, keep house, apply for jobs, cook, etc. We also took a marathon business trip to Bangkok last month to attend a job fair. And will do another one to London in January. With Christmas approaching, we were still jobless. And tired.

Our newest wheels

I am not doing yoga, having lunch with friends, or spending time at the beach. What I am doing is drinking a lot of coffee and feeling lonely. That is hard to admit because I carefully curate a life in photos that looks amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments where I’m very happy. However, the social anxiety of being new in a very small expat community has put this introvert way out of my comfort zone. Sayulita expats seem to split into long termers who don’t need to invest in relationships with short termers, and short termers who are far more extroverted than me and my clan. We are low key. We are definitely social and love a good time with friends, but we often hold back until we have the lay of the land. Family playdates are reliable social endeavors, but incompatible age ranges and busy schedules make those infrequent. Since we only have one year here and did not benefit from a ready made cohort of colleagues, more effort is required and the timeline is rapidly shortening.

Beach time with Babo

Recovery & Adjustment

After a few weeks of feeling underwater, I finally called home. And contacted friends from afar. And thanked my husband for recognizing and facilitating my need to just curl up in bed and give up occasionally. My parents graciously dipped into airline miles, and within a week my dad was here. And my sister’s brood was coming for New Years. Recovery was rapid because my dad’s arrival also brought luck. We landed multiple interviews while he was here, and he guided us through the pros and cons of various scenarios. Before he flew back to San Francisco, we were able to toast to a new future. 

I ended up loving our intimate and very sweet nuclear family Christmas. I searched on Pinterest  for “Boho Christmas” and realized that decorations were not problem. Sayulita is a mecca for boho chic clutter; I bought garlands of pom poms, felt trinkets, and mini cactus motifs to my heart’s content. I even managed to transport a toddler-sized cactus in the golf cart, carry it up a flight of stairs, and only sustain minor puncture wounds. It’s not plastic and it doesn’t shed. And it’s year round decor so I don’t even have to take it down. (Update: Chad the Cactus did suffer a minor setback but appears to be recovering with sunlight and rockier soil.)

Brian and I traded shopping days, so we simply hit the local market for all the tourist stuff that we otherwise overlook because we live here and don’t need that stuff. (And then regret not buying when we leave.) Santa delivered art supplies and beautiful felt animals. Owen was worried he wouldn’t come because we don’t have a chimney, but he did. My dad left them a zillion matchbox cars wrapped up next to the Christmas cactus, so they were plenty excited. And he handed me a gift certificate for a massage before leaving. Because dads just know. 

I focused on small victories. Neither of our families do a full-on traditional holiday meal, so Christmas Eve was homemade Chinese and Christmas Day was take away tacos. I didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas. I found Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cookie Mix (which in my heart is totally cheating, but I had zero capacity to locate molasses). We managed to bake the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, we failed to hand them out to friends and ended up eating them all ourselves. I’m not going to beat myself up too much over that minor fail, though it would have been a good friendship initiative. My major success as a parent this particular season is that I finally purchased an advent calendar (I ordered one on Taobao – aka Chinese Amazon – last year, but it never arrived), and the kids ate a piece of chocolate every day as they practiced counting to 24.

After a few lazy days, my beautiful sister whisked in with her kids and kicked the energy up a few thousand notches. Four toddlers. So much life. And love. Although her visit was short, it punctuated a very long year with exactly what I needed. Brian and I rang in the new year cuddling on our front porch equally amazed and at peace with this life we’ve chosen to lead and all the directions it’s taken us. 

Oberg, K. 1960. ‘Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments.’ Practical Anthropology 7, 177-182.