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Monday, December 22, 2014

Holidays Abroad

I played around with different titles, from more melodramatic ones like, “The Truth Behind Holidays Abroad” and less serious ones poking fun at my dramatic tendencies, “Holidays Abroad: Kaley Whines” but decided to settle for something a bit simpler. As a preface, this may come off as emotional nonsense to a lot of you but this is my blog and my emotional nonsense, so I’m sharing it.


It’s easy to forget that you’re living in a foreign country. You get used to being constantly surrounded by a foreign language, eventually just toning all of it out unless someone acknowledges you directly, shoving the sounds into the background with the heater or the clicking of keyboards. You get used to the characters on signs and storefronts, your eye easily drifting to the English option written underneath. Visits to the supermarket become routine and after a while you forget what it is like to buy anything in your native language, replying to the same set of questions over and over so that they become engrained in your mind. Moments of anxiety still happen, you need to visit a bank for some money transfer, you need help finding something in a store, announcements about train delays are spoken in deep, muffled voices you know even native speakers have a hard time comprehending.

But, you adapt, life goes on and the thought of living in your native space, in an area where simple questions don’t evade you, where ordering a hamburger doesn’t require practice, where you can walk up to anyone and just say exactly what you’re thinking sounds like a nice dream you had Once Upon a Time.

There is a time, however, when the feeling of being away from home really gets to you, and that’s during holidays. Every country is partly defined by its holidays, you ask someone what makes someone in Canada different from someone in the US and, outside of a borderline obsession with hockey, it’s that Thanksgiving is on a different day, they don’t have the Fourth of July, etc.

Japan itself has a smattering of national holidays, random Mondays or specific dates that everyone gets off, once a month on average. Most people don’t really keep track of which holiday is which outside of a specific few, Golden Week in March/April (which is more like Golden Random-Days-Off-In-A-Week-Or-Two), New Year’s Day, and the August vacation. The other days include “Respect for the Aged”, “Culture Day”, “Day of the Sea”, and the Emperor’s Birthday.

Japan has adopted Western holidays as well, stores will sell Halloween candy in October, girls confess their love on Valentine’s Day, and Christmas music is played in every shopping center for the entirety of November and December. But, these holidays are not the same as they are back home, they are mere adaptations in a country that doesn’t really grasp the meaning behind these days, that has taken a basic idea and shaped it to suit their culture and their desires.

Children don’t go trick-or-treating and costumes are mainly worn by people going out drinking for Halloween parties, and even those are usually just very basic cats and devils and men in strange full-body suits. Valentine’s is usually just a school tradition, where girls will slave away on chocolates that they will give to that boy they’ve had a crush on, hoping that he’ll return his affections on White Day a month later. And Christmas is purely commercial, where people may exchange gifts and eat a bucket of KFC (due to a clever marketing campaign in the 70s) with some Christmas Cake.

Christmas is what gets to my emotions. I can handle no Halloween, as I grew out of trick-or-treating years ago and can easily enough find a Halloween party to go to. Thanksgiving I can easily find myself surrounded by friends and eating familiar foods, Valentine’s Day is a nonissue, since in the States I never really had anyone to celebrate with. Japanese people are more than willing to try out a Fourth of July barbecue on a weekend, and New Year’s Eve is still New Year’s Eve.

Christmas, however, is not Christmas. There are not roads lined with houses covered in lights. There are no elderly white men in red suits in the mall, there is no holiday cheer and people wishing you “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. There is just a stark reminder that you are outside.

This year, I’m working on Christmas; something that in my 25 years has never, ever happened. This fact alone has formed a gray cloud over my entire month, a looming reminder that I am out of place and that Japan is not my home. I need Christmas, I don’t need to sit in a gym for two hours listening to speeches I can barely understand and then sit at my desk feeling depressed for hours with nothing to do.

I’ve tried to explain to Japanese people just what Christmas means. Why is it so important? What makes it special? Why is working so bad?

It’s something I can’t put into words, it’s a feeling that I can’t express. For my entire life it has just been Christmas. I don’t expect understanding from people who didn’t grow up with a traditional Christmas. I don’t expect my job or my Japanese friends to feel the same way that I do about Christmas. It’s not their holiday, it’s mine, and living in this culture, living in their country, I need to make concessions to be like them, to push my feelings aside, suck it up, and do what is asked.

I realize I could have taken the day of Christmas off. Many of my friends have done it this year and last year I even took four days off to go home for Christmas. When I received my yearly schedule and saw that my last day before the official start of winter vacation was December 25th my heart sank, but I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. I could spend the time teaching my students about Christmas. This week I am doing nothing but Christmas lessons. Yet, Christmas Day is a closing ceremony, an aspect of Japanese culture I don’t understand the value of just as they don’t understand why Christmas is important to me. So I will sit in a gym for a couple of hours, and then sit at my desk waiting to leave.

But as the day draws nearer and my Christmas lessons are met with nearly zero enthusiasm, with children who don’t care about how a different culture does this holiday that means next to nothing to them, I feel more and more dragged down by the weight of having to come in on this day that I value so much.
Some Christmas gifts from home.

It’s a hard spot to be in, and when living abroad it is a situation you will be forced to deal with constantly. You will always be torn between two places, two countries, and two homes. I can’t just pop home for Christmas for a few days. I can’t just hop in my car and go to a friend’s wedding for a weekend, I can’t be there when someone I’ve known my entire life gives birth, I can’t be there when my dog dies.

With all of the great and wonderful things that comes with living abroad, all of the things I have learned about myself and what I am capable of; I’ve become more accepting of things that are different from my normal, I’ve learned to adapt to things that scare me, I’ve seen places that people only dream of visiting, comes a special weight that you will never really understand until you’ve been there. You never hear people talking about the stress of living overseas, of family and friends telling you how much they miss you, asking you when you’re coming back. Of looking at your life that you have and knowing that it can never be permanent, that at some point all of these people and places will be in your past.

I am not writing this to complain, though I do feel better having typed my feelings out, I am writing this to paint the full picture. It’s so easy for us to show only our perfect, cookie-cutter, edited lives to the world. But, that’s not life. Living abroad is great and wonderful and life-changing. It’s the best thing I have ever done and I regret zero moments of it, even the bad ones. But, it’s not always happen. In fact, it’s often very stressful. It’s often putting your own self aside in favor of a culture different than yours. It’s often about sitting in a gym for two hours on Christmas.

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