Travel, Surviving the Holidays, Life Stories, Life

Surviving the holidays in a foreign land

In November 2017, I moved to mainland China. I arrived in a middle of a pitch black night after multiple airplane delays to a city I’d never been to. I was alone. I was freezing. I was without a working phone.

As if the task of creating a life for myself in China wasn’t overwhelming enough, the holidays were quickly approaching. While most people were flying home to be with their loved ones for Christmas and Thanksgiving, I had flown to a place that could not have felt more foreign.

At first, the giant Christmas trees at the many shopping malls near where I lived gave me comfort, like I wasn’t so far away from my friends and family preparing to gather for festivities in New Zealand and the U.S.

Soon, however, the Christmas sales kicked off and the rapid consumerism somehow magnified the fact that I was in a city of ten million people, and none of them were my loved ones. Hoards of people finding the perfect gifts for their fathers and mothers, while I wouldn’t even get to see mine except over FaceTime.

I could buy a plastic tree and string up lights, but I’d be decorating that tree in my studio apartment alone, and that felt isolating and sad. Christmas isn’t a recognized holiday in China, so all the decorations around the city were sort of empty marketing tools to get people into restaurants and shops– the meaning was utterly lost. What made it all worse was that because so many Western companies, like Amazon, have factories in China that produce and ship online Christmas orders, the pollution during the winter is suffocating. Yellow dust particles fill the air day and night, and I had fallen terribly ill with pollution sickness (sore throat, dry cough, burning eyes). Christmas was days away and I felt like a total Grinch. I needed to figure out a way to pull myself out of the Yuletide slump.

Immediately, I gathered three of my co-workers, who had quickly become my lifelines in China. Together, we made a plan for surviving the holidays without our families and friends. We found a German owned and operated bakery that was selling pastries and baked goods like the kind we were accustomed to back home. None of it was baked by our grandmothers, but it would be present at our feast. An IKEA on the other side of the city sold mulled wine, which we decided was well-worth the hour-long metro ride to scoop up. Luckily, one of us had a copy of the Bing Crosby classic “Holiday Inn.”

Christmas morning arrived and I spoke with my family over the phone, which instantly made me feel better.  An influx of messages from friends who knew I’d be celebrating thousands of miles away reminded me that no matter where I was, I was being sent love from across the big blue planet.

That afternoon, us girls piled on our warmest clothes and hunkered down in an  ill-insulated apartment. We ate our German goodies, drank our mulled wine, and watched Fred Astaire tap dance on a tiny HP laptop screen. We spent hours sharing the family traditions with each other, cuddled up underneath blankets and sleeping bags. Towards evening, we braved the cold for dinner at a nearby Indian Restaurant.

There I was, eating Aloo Gobi and Garlic naan with a group of new friends in a new country. Despite how unconventional it was, we were together and that was the trick to making it feel like home– being surrounded by good people.