American holidays overseas don’t take on any extraordinary meaning, if anything they seem to diminish in specialness. And that’s okay. I think what really helps me is I’m a first-generation American, and what that means is, holidays as a child were perfunctory and often awkward occasions.
I can imagine now, more than ever, having lived in my mom’s home country, how strange American holidays must have seemed to her. Not only because she grew up poor and was from a poor country, but because Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve seem so expensive and excessive. They are consumer holidays.
Thai holidays are pretty much Buddhist holidays which means everyone goes to their local or most auspicious temple to make merit. Gifts are usually for monks, temples and/or families who hosted parties. The only excesses come from cheap alcohol and water during Songkran (the Thai New Year), or as the rest of the world knows it, a countrywide water fight. They do like their parades though. And I’ve seen enough Thai parades to last me a lifetime, thank you.
Of course, we did celebrate Buddhist holidays as well. And my mom never explained anything we were doing because why would she, and like most children, we never questioned the normality of what we were doing. So, it was perfectly normal to show up to many events with orange-clad monks milling about, eating, blessing and chanting.
We never celebrated Easter even though my father’s side of the family is Baptist. I think we got candy one year by our insistence, but we don’t have any tradition of coloring or hunting eggs unless it was for a school function. I still don’t get Easter and I’m guessing my mom doesn’t either. Ahhh, America, we hide our food here…for fun!
Halloween was donning plastic masks and plastic outfits of Underdog or a clown. Although, one year I used my baton twirling outfit as a costume and received a hand-me-down homemade outfit from one of our neighbors. The idea of my immigrant mom sewing a Halloween costume for one-time use seemed absurd and wasteful. But Halloween was mostly an unsupervised event so it was wicked awesome running around our neighborhoods cashing in on as much candy as we could possibly manage.
I’m probably one of the few handfuls of folks who don’t like Christmas. It’s a holiday of traditions and the only tradition we had was visiting my father’s grave at Punchbowl Cemetery on Christmas Day (and other major American holidays). It’s also a holiday of gifts and we never had a lot of those either.
I have tried to get into the holiday spirit. It’s not like I’m evil or heartless or something. I’ve gone caroling, tree-cutting, I’ve cooked great Christmas dinners and desserts, I’ve appreciated the beauty of winter, I’ve drank eggnog, hand-wrapped and crocheted gifts, ice-skated, snow-shoed, skied, snow mobiled gleefully, and even got teary-eyed when I saw the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
But I’ve also had some depressing Christmases/holidays, too. I also hate the pressure to have a magical day when often the day is quite ordinary. I understand the bad memories help make the good ones better, but it’s not my holiday, what can I say? I think this stems from the day being devoid of meaning and significance, and the pressure to give when children don’t understand that putting food on the table was plenty good enough.
My mom has given me a lot, more than I can ever repay, but we Thais don’t do Christmases. Maybe in the future, as family gatherings have become rare and special, something new will happen, but for now, I’m okay with not being part of the crazy Christmas clan.
Thanksgiving though was an easy holiday for my mom to master because she’s a great cook. Oh, yes, there was a learning curve involved regarding how to use an oven and roast a turkey. Like when she and my father couldn’t find the rest of the turkey. Where were the giblets? So, they ended up cooking the giblets still sealed in the plastic bag in the cavity of the bird. But soon enough she was roasting turkey like a champion American mother.
The funniest surprise for me though was when I started to spend my Thanksgivings away from home. At my friends’ houses, I’d scanned the tables for the steamed white rice. Where was the rice? Oh, my, god. There is no rice. Of course. They’re white. They don’t eat rice unless it comes in a box. Do not panic. Smile. Smile!
Now, you do realize that I have asked before, “Where’s the rice?”
“Yeah, don’t you have rice with your turkey?”
Laughter. “Uhhh, no! We eat mashed potatoes and stuffing! Don’t you eat that?”
“Yeah, duh, of course, but we have rice, too!”
Recently, I saw that one of the barang (foreign) restaurants in Siem Reap is hosting Turkey Day meals. I got excited and thought about reserving two seats for us or doing some research on other venues, but now I’m thinking, eh, we’ll just be spontaneous. Last year, we ate extremely well and it hurt. There was meat hiding under more meat. My b/f swears it took him two weeks to digest that meal. Maybe it’s time to break with tradition and not eat too much. I know, blasphemous!
Maybe it’s time to create new holiday meanings and enjoy an expat lifestyle away from the pressures of my own culture. It’s hard because I think gratitude, gift-giving and good food should be part of your everyday fabric. Yet, crafting extra special days for you and your family is perfectly natural and wonderful. It just becomes a little more challenging for some families more than others and for those of us that are in the “some” category, I’d say, “take it easy” – and have some rice.
This year I’m participating in Bethany’s Simplify the Season Calendar. She asked a number of bloggers to write daily tips to help us simplify the holiday season. I wrote a follow-up post on my minimalism journey.
In any case, “The calendar costs only $2, but you are invited to donate more if you wish, because 100% of the proceeds are donated toward financing a Kiva loan to an entrepreneur in a third-world country. Kiva will provide updates on our beneficiary, and Bethany will post those throughout the year.”
I hope you are able to participate. No pressure though. That’s got to be the message this holiday season. Do what feels good and right. Cheers.