A well-known carol declares this is “the most wonderful time of the year.” And it’s easy to see why: From decorated trees and twinkling lights to festivals and tasty treats, it does feel in many places as if an extra touch of magic and joy are in the air. Yet the holidays are not only about gift wrap and shopping mall Santas, but are a time for connecting with the people who matter most. Unfortunately, for those who live outside the norm by being expats and repats, this time of year can feel perilous.
For expats, the pressure to manage relationships is especially acute when you consider that many people are returning to their passport or birth countries only one time each year, and will be spending an intense number of hours sharing space with people they care about, but who may not really understand them. Weary travelers can feel torn between keeping the peace and standing their ground about their lifestyle, smiling and nodding or countering cultural stereotypes, and sharing their full stories or putting a pretty bow on the messy reality of their current sojourn. (Of course, there are many expats who cannot go home each year, but this piece focuses on the challenges of those who are doing so).
Repats, on the other hand, can experience far-sickness for the holiday atmospheres they have left behind, and may find that missing the Christmas Market in Prague, for example, sets off a spiral of longing for their former global lives and self-doubt about where that journey is taking them now that they are home. Being surrounded by the well-meaning embrace of loved ones (who assume being home is a positive change) can create a feeling of alienation at a time when we are meant to connect. It can also spark an identity crisis at a time when we are already emotionally vulnerable and taking stock of our lives at the year’s end.
I am often asked what to do in these situations, but unfortunately there is no secret formula to guarantee that you won’t feel twinges of nostalgia for the holidays you spent in London or that your uncle won’t ask you (for the umpteenth time), “so what exactly is it that you do over in China?” (when you work in Korea). However what you can do is take steps to ensure that you get as much out of the holiday as possible. After all, the reason you subject yourself to this inevitable stress is that deep down you think it is important to gather together, and sincerely want to have a good time.
1. Examine your expectations. You probably know those whom you will be seeing and the environment you will be visiting or living in fairly well. Is it reasonable to expect your friend to support your career choice of working in international development in Bolivia? Are you holding onto a fixed idea of the holidays as including snow, even though you are back in Phoenix? Don’t set the bar so high that disappointment inevitably follows.
2. Identify what matters most to you. Is it important that your children’s identities as TCKs are validated? That you simply get some face time with your aging grandmother? That you have a quintessential holiday experience for your country? Or that new traditions from your expat years are included? Focus on these as the primary goals, and enlist someone to help you make them happen.
3. Practice mindfulness. One of my go-to exercises is called the 4-7-8. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7, and exhale for 8 counts. By focusing your breath, you can slow down your mind, calm your body, and actually feel restored. It can also re-center you amid a torrent of thoughts and emotions.
4. Try not to see the holiday as a teachable moment. Really. It can be hard to see that while your outlook and repertoire of doing things have vastly expanded, others’ have remained static, but you are not going to succeed in convincing everyone to change their lives or minds during the course of a holiday meal (see #1 and #2).
5. Do practice your elevator speech so that if someone asks you “so, how’s Poland?” you will have an answer that is short, sweet, and lets you feel like you’ve shared something important without going on so long that you lose their interest and wind up feeling rejected. Try this: “Oh, thanks for asking! You know, one of the things I have enjoyed most is touring the old palaces. And every once in a while, we like to sit at a café on the main square.” For those who are returnees, try saying something like, “You know, it is nice to be home surrounded by the people I love, but I have to admit I feel wistful this time of year for the places that I once called home.” Put it in your own words, remembering that the idea is to offer a glimpse into your life when given the chance.
6. Remember that it’s not all about you. Seriously. Sometimes as expats and repats, we can become so focused on our own experience of having to reintegrate with people who no longer seem to know us that we forget to consider what it is like to be those people. Engage your empathy, step outside yourself and consider that everyone gathered is also on their own personal journey. Are there topics of conversation or activities that you can share to bring your lives closer together?
7. Be present. Sometimes the holidays fly by and sometimes they drag on, but regardless, you know that they will indeed end. Whether you will be boarding a plane back to “your real life” or continuing on your process of reentry, this moment only passes once. Open your eyes, take photos, and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Pay attention to the little details, just as if you were arriving or living in an exotic destination, and consider the scene as a newcomer would. Play with the duality of being both insider and outsider. Scribble notes in your journal, watch the clouds pass, give your cousin a hug, find hidden gems, and remember that the most important lesson for those who are constantly swapping realities and destinations is to be here now.
And while some relationships are truly toxic, most families and friends only want that simplest of gifts: For you to be here, with them, while the moment lasts. Happy holidays to you and yours, and may delightful memories soon follow you!