My lived experience as an expat during the holiday season is something I reflect on often. Living in the UK, the evenings grew longer and the Christmas lights twinkled. I shared mulled wine with friends and contemplated what dish I would be bringing to the dinner. We went ice skating at Somerset House and if we dared, lost ourselves in the crowds in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland (or checked out the hipster alternative at Winterville). They say it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
But since 2008, I have spent every Christmas spread across three time zones. Except for those two occasions when we spread across two time zones. And it’s hard. Every year it is hard. One year, amongst the most wonderful of celebrations in all my years of living in London, I just broke down. I must have seemed like a complete brat but I just felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by someone else’s family doing family things at Christmas. I just couldn’t help feel the heaviness in my heart.
So, since being back in Australia again, I have been reflecting on this. I’ve felt grateful to be close to most of my family again and I vowed not to take it for granted.
But in saying that, I know that there are many others like me out there who will spend the holidays away from their family. So, I reached out and got in touch with a whole bunch of expats and travellers who have shared their stories. Some have contributed the ways they have learned to stay connected. And others have embraced making the best of this time of the year by forging new friends and family along the way. More on that later. For now, let’s focus on you.
1: Be Where You Are & Know Where You’re At
So you’re living abroad or in between locations, one thing for sure is that you’re away from home. You’re far-flung & far away from the familiarities of almost everything you know. In my experience, I never really thought much of it. I thought it would just be one year, two years. I let it be and got on with being an expat, dazzled by the experience before me. But left unprocessed for years, it manifested into something darker and heavier within me.
When the emotions would arise, I suppressed them. I didn’t accept them fully and let them be part of my experience. It’s one thing to be fully present with your experience, and another to be present with your emotions. But to ensure your wellbeing over these holidays, be present with both.
I’m a believer in being exactly where we are in this moment, and that includes the holidays. When you’re away from all those things that you know, remember you are having an experience. At the same time, being away from those things that are familiar are part of your experience. The emotions that arise when we balance the realisation of where we are and we are are not should not be discounted. This is an accumulative experience of being present.
I believe it’s important to have a mental and emotional check in with ourselves at this time of the year. When we can understand and accept where we are at, we can really start to embrace the experience around us.
2: Technology That Keeps Us Connected
Put your hand up if you’ve ever Skype’d in for Christmas. Have you paused for a moment to think how amazing it is that we can do that? Technology is sometimes framed for taking away from our experience as families. Some people will really frown at you for having your phone at the dinner table. Everything has its time and its place. After years of being separated from my family, I don’t believe it’s such a bad thing.
I use WhatsApp daily for voice messages, videos, photos and text conversations with my family all over the world. On the odd occasion, we set up Skype video chats. But with Facebook and FaceTime offering the same video calling experience, we really have our pick of the bunch.
When I asked others how they cope with being away from family during the holidays, I learned I’m not alone.
Still in same country but too far to see family at Christmas. We call my father in law, put him on speakerphone, and ask him to say Grace before we eat the turkey dinner. A little piece of home at our table. I always tear up a little.
— Sherry Osborne (@busyzenlife) November 29, 2017
Internet gets me through. We share photos about the feast and talk online to try to enjoy the moment together. Thanks to technology!
— Patricia Tsai (@patricia_pea) November 29, 2017
3: Keeping In Touch Without Connection
Sometimes you might be somewhere remote, maybe even living permanently in a place with restricted access. But when the connection to the ‘outside world’ fails, we can still use technology. If you have your camera or cameraphone, you can still capture the moment and share with loved ones in a belated holiday message. This kind of scenario allows us to be more creative. Those ‘idle’ days between destinations while travelling can become a creative inspiration for your holiday message to loved ones at home.
Taking a step back, there is email. The value of words is underrated and overlooked way too much. And to step back further still, it’s a beautiful and heartwarming thing to take pen to paper and write that letter back home. The latter wins double points because it brings us back to point number one. You can connect with yourself and with your loved ones through letter writing as the practice gives you time to reflect (possibly while gazing up at mountains or by the sea!).
4: Embrace the Expat Experience
While it can feel a little sad for some of us, being away from our traditions offers us an opportunity. We have the opportunity to experience things differently. We have the opportunity to forge a new family, new friendships and new traditions altogether. It’s only with hindsight that I see that I should have done more of this in the past.
This comes back to my first point to be fully where you are. I believe there is much joy to be found in embracing our experience. The joy that comes from accepting yourself, your emotions, your location and your whole experience is potentially the greatest joy you can feel.
Even if you’re not so far away, but you’re far enough away that you feel sadness. You feel that things are as you expect or how you have experienced them before. It’s a good reminder that you can still find joy in your experience without comparison to the past. Comparison is the thief of joy.
And what if your experience is so dire, so awful that you cannot possibly find joy? I’ve been here too. Although it was an experience I’ve all but lost my memory of, it was an experience that I stayed present for and I learned to grow from it.
5: Forging New Traditions
This is my favourite part of my lived experience that I get to share with you. It’s the one that fits us all. No matter where we are, what our experience is, we have a choice to turn this into something beautiful.
Most recently I befriended some amazing people who are expats in my home city. I only realise now that they are feeling the way I felt for so many years. I felt deeply empathetic about their situation. But then, it reminded me of what a beautiful opportunity lay ahead of them.
When we allow ourselves to open up to the experience of being far from home, we look to what is around us and within us. And what is within us, is the power to create. Within us, we have the capacity to love, to share, to unite. And this is the essence of the holidays for me. Loving, sharing, and bringing a community together.
In my past experience of being an expat during the holidays, I learned that we can adopt new traditions. We learn, grow and adapt as travellers for every other part of our journey, why should the holidays be any different? We can bring new groups of people together, we can share in new cultural celebrations. There are new friendships to be made and new paths to take going forward. This, I believe, is truly exciting and magical.
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