Larry, Mom and me at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, 1979.
Larry, Mom and me at Doi Suthep. [Thailand, December 1979]
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.

Nothing like spending Christmas at a Buddhist temple. [Wat Chamthewi, Lamphun, Thailand, 2013]
Nothing like spending Christmas Day visiting Buddhist temples with family. Hey, at least it’s Christmas tree shaped! [Wat Chamthewi, Lamphun, 2013]
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.

Monks at our house blessing [Lamphun, 2007]
Monks at our house blessing. [Lamphun, 2007]
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.

Mom, me and tree. [Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2012]
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?”

“What? 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!

The buffalo investigates the Thanksgiving pies. [Chiang Rai, 2014]
The buffalo investigates the Thanksgiving pies. [Chiang Rai, 2014]

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.

40 replies on “Asian American American holidays

  1. This really resonates with me. American holidays, especially Christmas, mean nothing to me here in SA. For me, Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas in summer. And it’s almost a relief — I can let go of all the holiday pressure and just enjoy the day like any other. However, this year will be the first year that I spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family here in Joburg, and apparently they do take Christmas quite seriously. I’m curious to see how it makes me feel.

    Anyway, I loved your stories about your Thai family’s adjustment to American holidays. And I agree that Thanksgiving is the best holiday because it’s so easy to relate to. Everyone likes to eat! I wish all the holidays were that simple.


    1. I’m pleasantly surprised to hear it. Yes, I suppose something about hot weather takes the “feeling” of Christmas away. Especially when you are away from family and your birth home.

      I’m sure you’ll have great stories to tell about your first Christmas w/ Ray’s family. I remember spending Christmas with my former b/f’s Southern family and they were so normal and nice…that it was strange! 😀

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Heather. Glad you liked it. xxoo


  2. This is so true with me. American or Western holidays never resonated with my family. Christmas meant nothing to us. There was a point in my childhood where my parents did give me gifts for Christmas but I think it was more of they wanted me to “fit in” with my white Australian friends who celebrate the occasion. For Halloween, once a bunch of trick-o-treaters knocked on our door for candy. Mum didn’t bother opening the door and though they were a nuisance. They sprayed our door with sticky stuff and that got her mad.

    Asking for rice at Thanksgiving at your friends’ place. Classic. Classic Asian. I’m sure there was no rice around 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahaha. Yeah, sometimes I think they have actually cooked some quick instant rice for me. Maybe that happened once? I seem to remember that, and the offering which I usually turned down, not wanting to make a fuss.

      I think many of us at one time or another have hidden ourselves during Halloween or over-prepared and no one shows up. But I was wondering what you were going to say about Christmas. I wondered what your take would be. How do you feel about the holiday now?


      1. I still feel the same way about it. I don’t celebrate it. Of course there is the office Christmas parties each year, but that’s as far as I’ll get “celebrating” Christmas. Last year my parents decided to have a BBQ at their places and invited me and my brother over – which we went not because of Christmas, but because it was the day when we were all free and could spend time with each other.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow. I’m surprised to hear that you don’t celebrate it, being in Australia and all. But why not, do what feels right. It probably is a nice way to escape the pressures of the holiday, too.


  3. Nice to read you again, my friend! Dunno if you’ve been away from blogging or it’s because I’VE been away from blogging. Just don’t have the energy these days to stay up late and all night writing and media-socializing. I am not supposed to also — I haven’t said it publicly and this is the first time, but I am again with a little one. The doc has advised me to stay at home.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your holiday experiences. Maybe I’ll do my own reminiscing one of these days. I like Christmas when I am able to buy gifts, even little ones, for family and friends. It sucks when I can’t and these past years have been like that. I am really more of a New Year-kind of person.

    I do hope you enjoy your holidays in your own special way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks J.Gi. It sounds like you have good reason to be away from blogging 😉 I hope you are taking good care of yourself. I know you are.

      Yes, my dear Filipino friend JP and her family love Christmas, growing up Catholic and such. She probably my only AA friend (first generation, yo) who makes such a big deal of it.

      I will say I did enjoy the holidays much more when I taught children. Holidays are really for them 😉

      And thanks, I will!


  4. Well we celebrate all these western holidays except Halloween as it is just not really a thing in Finland and Germany. Also thanksgiving ain’t really happening so we basically have Christmas, new year and eastern…I guess that’s it 🙂
    My wife learned over the years to adapt to these festivities and nowadays even looks forward to Christmas in order to decorate everything and give/ receive gifts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be a fun holiday to adopt or inherit. Especially if you live in an area that embraces it with all the decorations and lights. Magical, really.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Here in Germany there is of course also tons of decoration for Christmas (but not as much as the US!). With my wife we celebrate the lunar new year as well as the mid autumn festival. Not as much as it would be in China but still I adapted to her culture as she adapted to the north European

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Holidays are actually a great example of how we intergrate (or not) into another culture, don’t you think? Nathan will get the opportunity to experience two very different worlds 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I no longer eat much rice anymore –for the past 6 yrs. So it’s not necessary for me for a celebratory meal to have it.

    Very interest about Buddhist holidays in Thailand and what you didn’t know/took for granted.

    Do you consider Christmas as family time (ie. with bf?). That’s how we place our emphasis with admittedly memories and recreating at a low level, the magic as children and even now. My partner’s mother (they are from Germany long ago), loved Christmas. Decorating house with freshly cut everygreen boughs (a low cost way), baking Christmas German cookies that took several days (but last for 2 months in her cookie tin with apple slice for freshness), multi-layered cake tortes, etc. Quite German. So my partner, minimally likes to buy and have a potted red pointisetti flowers, etc.

    Yes, our family was poor, but my parents did want us to experience some of magic…just a few presents under an artificial silver foil (no kidding) tree, that had socks, cookies, etc. We played Christmas carols…. I know my sisters with children have carried on with this and similar traditions.

    We see it as snow/night light/star magic, giving and sharing time with loved ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like you have beautiful memories and got to wonderfully experience very German/Western Christmases, too. I imagine being in Canada must feel very Christmasy as well, with the snow, lights and wood-burning stoves 🙂

      Family time is family time and we had our abundant share of it through our own rituals and gatherings. And I feel the same way with the b/f. We spend a lot of time together and try do something nice on the holidays and birthdays, but we try to do something nice on a regular basis, too.

      In any case, different worlds…same time of year, but different experiences.


  6. I love that first picture of you. It seems like you haven’t changed much.

    Holidays require a community to celebrate with. When we lived in the Philippines, Thanksgiving was not a big deal. We couldn’t get a turkey, so we had a couple of friends over for roast chicken. And we pretty much skipped Halloween and the Fourth of July. It just didn’t make sense, and I didn’t really miss it. The kids had “American” costumes for UN Day–a big day at the International School with parades and shared international food. We celebrated Christmas. The Philippines is a Christian country. But we couldn’t get a fir tree during the first 7 or 8 years we were there, so we had farols, the Filipino Christmas lantern, to decorate our doors and windows. No snow, obviously, but the church service was beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was in Ecuador, I wanted to stay until Christmas just to experience the holiday in a Catholic country. I can imagine the church service was quite lovely.

      One day, I’ll be in a country, once again, that celebrates Christmas in all its beautiful glory and it will be fun.

      Until then, I’m like you when you were an expat, I’ll keep having my internatiional holidays and outsider’s point of view 🙂 Cheers!


  7. Rice with turkey! No rice for me please. We have rice on the menu practically every day in the canteen. I count my blessings I don’t have to bring lunch to work and it’s free. Sometimes the food is a bit greasy but it’s food.

    For Christmas, there’s nothing in Turkey the country and not the bird. I understand some Turks celebrate Christmas (they have Western friends/been abroad/Western influence). Some celebrate Thanks Giving without knowing the meaning behind it according to a Turk colleague.

    Istanbul is very quiet on Christmas Day, too however its very pretty but it’s a count down for New Year’S Day.

    I’m aim to book my flight and hotel for my Christmas getaway in Athens today. We, foreigners have been granted 24th and 25th day off. I will not be surprise if it doesn’t go down well with other colleagues; we have a much bigger workload. No one has our workload in other establishments. When you take the cash, you have to take the responsibilities!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Run away for the holidays if you can! No, I don’t imagine Turkey is big on Christmas 😛 I understand after living in Buddhist countries for the past 5 years, but Christmas in all its commericalism glory has hit Thailand. There is no meaning for them, of course, just presents and pretty tall trees.


      1. I’m surprised with the commerisation of Christmas in Thailand.

        There’s is no flight from where I’m to Istanbul (for connecting flight)on 24th December. I’m prepare to go on unpaid leave on the 23rd December so I can escape to a city with a bit more life.

        There’s no life in this sleepy city where I am but my Turk colleagues told me that many Turks are in debt; the more they spent, the more respect they earn. What a way to live!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Scary! I can’t imagine spending like that anymore.

        Good luck with the future flights 🙂


  8. Oh, the rice. Yes, since marrying a Chinese guy, there is ALWAYS rice. Since Andy does the cooking, I’ve forgotten what potatoes taste like. And since I’m of Germanic/ Celtic heritage, we ALWAYS had potatoes at dinner. Now I only get them on Thanksgiving.

    Andy’s like you. Holidays and birthdays are just not a big deal. I think he humors me. But when I was growing up, holidays were the best. There was plenty of food, and our parents were nicer than usual. My best memories of my mom are from holidays, in fact.

    But had I spent Christmas in a graveyard, I might give that holiday a pass!

    Also, the girl in the monkey t-shirt has the best expression. And the hippo/ pie picture is hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so funny Autumn. I like how you’ve “forgotten” the taste of potatoes. You know, for the record, we Asians are friends to the spud. Bought a whole bag of them I did.

      And you mentioned how your parents were nicer during the holidays, my goodness, is that so true or what. It’s amusing how our attitudes change just because it’s someone’s birthday or it’s Christmas. Now why can’t we act nice all the time? Hmmm?

      Ah, my cousin Urng. I think she makes that face a lot. It’s not a hippo! It’s a buffalo 😛 Thanks, xxoo


      1. Apparently I need to get out more. Or watch National Geographic. Apologies to Mr. Buffalo.

        Being nice all the time is hard. Especially when you are hungry, tired, and stressed out by a million children. Seriously, I am in awe of teachers like you.

        And, of course, anticipation of presents can definitely make one nicer. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mr. Buffalo is accepts your apology 🙂 and I kind of needed that – your nice words about teachers, had a rough one yesterday and let me tell you it really takes you down. But I’ll be fine…it’s part of the job.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting, Lani. We always celebrated pretty big, maybe because my mom was a school teacher or maybe because I spent ages 1 – 5 in Germany, which is Christmas central. I do remember rice with turkey (which my family in Hawaii still does). I love mashed potatoes more than anything, but I have to say that rice with turkey drippings…..the best. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I didn’t know you spent those formative years in Germany. I can only imagine how magical it is during Christmas. Yes, heh, heh, Christmas central.


      Liked by 1 person

  10. Christmas was probably the most important holiday when I was a child, but it was definitely not as huge as it appears in American movies. We would have dinner on Christmas’ Eve at my grandparents’ place and my uncles, aunts and cousins would come to visit. After my grandparents passed away, the holiday lost all its meaning. I don’t even go back to Spain for Christmas any more, or even celebrate it. I will try to re-take it if I have kids, though. So they can experience both Chinese and Spanish holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting, Marta. So, your grandparents kept the tradition alive in your family? But I’m really surprised to hear that you don’t celebrate it. I feel like so many expats make the trek back “home” so they can have a proper holiday with their families. Or at the very least, they try to celebrate it in their new country as best as they can. I have a strange new respect for you because I think it takes a lot to not celebrate the biggest Christian/Western holiday of the year.


      1. Haha well, I’m not sure there is anything worth respecting. It’s just that the holiday is not a big deal in my family anymore. I’d rather go back to Spain in the summer, when my parents and friends have holidays and we can go to the beach!

        And about celebrating it in China… I just can’t see the point! It is a normal day, we even have to work! So it doesn’t feel like holidays at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. The rice and turkey part amused me!

    I think it’s important to make the holidays what you want to make of them. Whether it’s just a day of vegging or going out with friends, or nothing at all. Especially when you’re so far away, physically, from the place where you grew up. This year’s the first time in 3 years I’m going to be having a family Christmas – I’m both terrified and excited.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you and well said. I wish mainstream media and culture would advertise THAT kind of holiday – the kind that works best for you and makes you feel good inside. It can be a very lonely time for a lot of people and I try to be sensitive and understanding to the variety of ways folks celebrate and find peace.

      Hugs from Cambo!


  12. It is interesting celebrating the American holdiays here. Phuket has everything and there are many places that offer brunch or a buffet for every American holiday. But often I would rather just do something with friends and family at our house. It’s more fun, less expensive, and more genuine.
    Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here and we are having friends over for a BBQ… I actually had forgotten that it was Thanksgiving and planned the BBQ, but it all worked out for a celebration. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure how I remembered it was Thanksgiving! As I’m looking at my Thai calendar – it’s Loy Krathong and here in Cambodia it’s the Water Festival. So, Thanksgiving is in there, too, somehow.

      And you’re right. Holidays are less fussy and more authentic when we just enjoy life at home!

      Liked by 1 person

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