For those of you that don’t know, I spent the last three years living in South Korea. Do I miss it? Absolutely. But am I glad to be home? Yes, especially now that the holiday season approaches. It is hard enough to be separated from your loved ones during the holidays. That feeling only got worse for me without the comforts of my culture to fall back on. Having weathered a few holiday seasons abroad, I can confidently say it got easier each time.
So whether you are relocating for work or following a spouse abroad - like I did - this post is for you - the reluctant, the reticent, the excited, the ecstatic, the nervous, the ambivalent. I was all of those things - usually within the same hour. Simply moving across the country can feel just as overwhelming! Stick around these tips are applicable to anyone living outside their comfort zone this holiday season - the expats and the out of staters - we’re all in this together. Yes, I did just quote High School Musical.
I learned how to make the most of my situation and – dare I say – embrace it for what it was. You can too.
1. Make new friends.
Now I will admit, I had it easier in this department, working within the American Military Community. When your life is tied to the military, either as a service member, a dependent or civilian support staff, there is a feeling of inclusiveness, especially overseas. I have found that this shared experience makes it easier to approach others. In a way, you are under a time crunch. I am only here for two or three years. I need to get in and make friends now because soon one or both of us will be moving on. While it lends a certain bittersweet air to each friendship, it also means you tend to make friends quick. And not just “acquaintances” but friends. People that you wouldn’t mind sharing Thanksgiving with. So create your support network and don’t be afraid to invite across networks – your work friends, book club friends, randos you met in the coffee shop – you might just end up loving the results!
2. But keep the old!
Living abroad means that you have to work to maintain ties to friends and family from home. For most, you can’t simply call home on a whim. You have to do the time zone math, make sure you have access to the internet and more. What worked for us was weekly Skype dates. Every Sunday night we knew that we would be seeing our families. With this precedent already established we simply switched it up a bit for the holidays. For example, for Christmas we made sure to send our presents home at least 6 weeks ahead of time, since military post is notoriously slow, especially during busy seasons. Then as tempted as we were we did not open them until Christmas Eve when we could all be on Skype together. If we were lucky, my parents would set up the laptop so we could Skype in Christmas morning as well. My husband’s family was less tech-savvy, so we settled for a phone call with them. But the point is you can see your family, you just may have to work for it.
Or? Bribe them to come to you. I was fortunate to have adventurous friends who made the effort to come see me!
3. Get creative.
Depending on where you are, you may have to get creative when it comes to holiday decorations. We lucked out; South Korea is predominantly a Christian Country, so as Christians we could walk into any E-mart or Lottemart and buy Christmas decorations comparable to what is available stateside. However, for me and my husband, this wasn’t a viable option. The companies we worked for did not offer assistance transferring our home goods back when we returned. And while I love a festive home, I couldn’t justify buying big ticket items like a tree, only to turn around and chuck it a year or two later. So we made a few strategic purchases and got creative! I bought several garlands of white lights and constructed a huge floor to ceiling tree in our living room. This was possible because one whole wall of our living room was made entirely of cork board. Rather than purchasing ornaments I adorned the tree with the pictures of family and friends that usually decorated the walls. Any unpleasant negative space was filled in with cheap dollar store bows. Add garlands of cranberries and popcorn and a few vaguely festive throw pillows and voila! It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
The point is you may not be able to buy decorations, but that shouldn’t keep you from decorating. You can go minimalist and decorate with items found in nature: moss, pine cones, pine boughs etc. You can get crafty and make everything. Anything can denote the holidays if you look at it from the right mindset.
Or go native - in a way that respects the local culture, please. If I had been able to find these colorful lanterns used to denote Buddha's birthday I would have gladly invested.
4. Reframe it as an adventure!
Now as they say “hindsight is 20/20.” I did not manage to have picture perfect Holiday seasons each year. Some of my best and worst memories of my time living in Korea were of this time of year. I did not always manage to find the good in my situation. My last Christmas seven months pregnant, working 12-14 hour days, I was too exhausted to try. As a result, I allowed myself to be fairly miserable. But I believe in the happy-centric world we live in, we shy away from negative emotions when they can be healing. Be happy happy happy! But I allowed myself to be tired. I allowed myself to be miserable. I hibernated. I came out the other side ready to give birth.
It might not be what you are used to. It won’t be what you expected. Experiencing the holidays abroad is a once in a lifetime experience – whether it actually does happen once or you are lucky enough to live abroad longer. But if you try to make the most of it - in your own unique way - you might be pleasantly surprised.
How about you, have you every lived abroad? What did you do during the holidays?
If you found my story compelling or - dare I say - useful? Come back for more!
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Ariel and Brianna are friends who met while working in a library. Now they collaborate to develop life-enhancing book club experiences.
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