Celebrating an Expat Christmas

Celebrating holidays away from home can be difficult and, for some, stressful. I’ve written about my experiences of birthdays while abroad — it’s not always a cheerful day when you have no one to celebrate with you. But I’ve also had the opportunity to celebrate holidays, like Thanksgiving, during my time as an expat, with mixed results. And while I don’t celebrate Christmas, I have taken part in activities in some countries.


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Some of the best memories are of seeing decorations. Most are traditional in some way, but there are some that were just bizarre.

While I didn’t get to actually celebrate Christmas during my time in Tokyo, I did get to see what was going on at the time.┬áThere were plenty of decorations around the city to make it feel festive. I was also told that one of the most popular “traditions” in Japan for the holiday is ordering a family bucket from KFC.

tim burton christmas
Seems they let Tim Burton put up the decorations this year

My first year in China, the school at which I worked put up Christmas decorations and had some fun activities for students. I wasn’t big on teaching my students songs, so I wasn’t about to start with Christmas songs. The department gave me a CD and I taught my students the words and let them sing along to the CD. I decided not to torture my students with my lack of harmony.

colonel sanders tokyo
Colonel Santa in Tokyo

On Christmas, I was told to wear a Santa hat and refused. When my supervisor insisted, I replied that I would not wear it because I am not Christian and do not feel comfortable with it. The issue was dropped. (A year later, another teacher was fired and the official reasons were that he didn’t show up to the optional Christmas event and did not dress up for Halloween.)

christmas vietnam
Almost every shop on this street in Hanoi was selling decorations for Christmas

That same year, the school arranged a Christmas dinner for the entire staff at the Irish pub in the foreigner-friendly area. Of course, we had to pay our own way, and a $25 dinner (plus cost of drinks) is not affordable when your monthly salary is $750. But at least the school provided transportation instead of having to take the public buses for an hour and a half. Somehow we ended up at a club down at the end of the infamous prostitution street, with many of our Chinese staff tagging along.

My most amusing Christmas in China was during my final year, when I worked at the graduate school. My Canadian-Iranian colleague declined the invitation as she had experienced it the year before, but she insisted I go (for the record, I got along well with my colleague).

xmas tokyo
I’m a little confused by this one

Prior to the graduate school party, our small department went out for a wonderful lunch at a fancy Cantonese restaurant. Upon returning to campus, the administration building was converted into a Christmas festival of sorts — there was a large tree with decorations and presents.

The party itself was confusing, mostly as it was all in Chinese. I was the only foreign staff member present and the only foreign students were six PhD candidates from Pakistan who were excited that someone who spoke English, i.e. me, was at the party. We watched and wondered at what was going on around us. We enjoyed conversation and the snacks that were passed around.

My Christmas in Taipei was filled with work. As the only non-Christian editor, I volunteered to cover the slow day at the office so everyone else could take the day off.


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Possibly the worst Christmas I experienced was when I studied abroad in London. My parents and brother came to visit after my semester ended. On Christmas there was nothing to do — even the Underground and buses stop running. After wandering streets for a long time, we managed to find a little Japanese restaurant for dinner. Later that night, my brother and I found ONE pub that was open and advertised that it was open for those looking to escape their families.

Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, it’s still fun to go to parties with friends and coworkers. And having that expat circle can make any holiday less stressful while abroad.

I hope all my readers have a happy holiday wherever they may be this year.

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