Celebrating the Holidays Away from “Home”

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Beth Rutkowski, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist & Psychology Team Lead, Shanghai

Beth Rutkowski, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist & Psychology Team Lead, Shanghai

Expatriate life provides us with all sorts of new opportunities and types of excitement. However, there are times when missing our home country and the people we love is inevitable. There is no time of the year that is more associated with family, togetherness, and tradition than the holiday season. This can often be an especially difficult time for expat families, who may feel they are missing out on things that have defined the most wonderful time of the year for them. So how can you maintain your holiday cheer from afar?

Maintain the traditions that matter to you and your family. Make a holiday playlist. Decorate your home. Make potato latkes or Christmas cookies. Whatever makes you feel like you are experiencing this time of year as special. Especially if you are unable to make a trip back, go all out. We may feel pressure to acclimate to our new life abroad. However, do not try to force yourself to leave behind the things that you love about the holidays. They can be a part of your new life as well. Ask your children or partner what is most important for them to experience during that time of the year and be sure to include those as well.

Add aspects of other countries’ celebrations to your holiday season. This can include both Chinese festivities and those of friends who hail from different places around the world. Ask friends to join you for a holiday gathering and take the opportunity to learn more about other their ways of celebrating. As you learn about the different traditions, choose those that resonate with you and integrate them into your own celebrations. This can make it easier when you cannot find some of the usual foods or decorations that you associate with the holiday.

There is plenty of research that demonstrates doing kind things for others makes us happier. Volunteering is therefore a great way to lift your spirits and there are many worthy organizations from which to choose. Pick a cause that matters to you and your loved ones- a children’s home, a homeless service, an animal shelter. Dedicate time to this organization, not just money. Get the entire family involved. It can be easier to feel lonely and bored if your children have time off of school or if you have time off of work. Volunteering gives you something to do and something to feel good about. It can also help you put your difficulties into perspective.

Keep in touch with loved ones back home. It may be difficult to be reminded of the gatherings and joyful reunions you are missing however, there are ways for you to participate, aided by technology and the commitment of friends and family who miss you as well. Ask your loved ones to set a seat for you at a holiday meal and participate via a video call. This will not be the same as being there in person, but it allows you that time and communication with loved ones- which is always important.

santasDo something you could never do if you were engaged in your typical holiday routine. Have a Christmas dinner of street food at the night market in Vietnam. Light the menorah beachside in Thailand. Ring in the Western New Year with Chongqing hot pot. It’s okay to be sad about missing people and happenings back home, but take advantage of the opportunity to have holiday experiences you will be able to remember for a lifetime. It’s a great time to make memories you will be able to think back on years from now and say “remember that time when…?”

Don’t worry too much about the kids. Remember that you will be able to structure your children’s own traditions as you go. They will associate the holidays with whatever you choose to incorporate into them. You may have associated Christmas with a tree and Hanukkah with huge gatherings of extended family, but this does not need to be the same for them. Integrate things that make them happy and matter to you, and these will be important to them in the same way your traditions matter to you.

However you choose to celebrate, remember that the most important thing is the happiness of you and your loved ones. Don’t feel pressure to match your holidays to those of family back home or compete with the festivities planned by friends here in China. Investing time in the things that matter to you and those you love will make you feel all the joy you hope for during this holiday season.


Dr. Beth Rutkowski is the Lead Psychologist at LIH Olivias Place in Shanghai. If you have questions or concerns about your mental health or that of loved ones, you are welcome to contact her directly at ber@lih-oliviasplace.com or the LIH Olivias Place team at (8621) 5404-0058 in Shanghai and (010) 6461-6283 in Beijing.