Updated: Jan 31
From the end of October until January our house, like many households are bustling with activity, presents, dinners, parties, wrapping, surprises and joy. Our house has 3 birthdays to celebrate starting mid October, so we actually end up starting all of the excitement 2 weeks earlier. And living in Asia we also are lucky to celebrate Diwali and Chinese New Year.
This is a time that we all look forward to, but at the same time brings a bit of trepidation knowing how much work it is to keep matching or topping last year’s celebrations. This is 4 months of celebrations. Am I really spending 1/3 of my year in back to back holiday/party mode…um yes!
Being away from home, our kids place an extra amount of focus on how we will make the holidays feel right. They look forward to these as tent pole events that mark their childhood with happy memories of friends, parties, family gatherings, food, candy…so much candy. And I do feel that added pressure to make things just as magical as before or try to up the ante.
What I learned in my first year abroad was that you have to plan WAY ahead. This is no time for last minute dashes to Target, CVS or the corner store to get an item. Halloween costumes & real Christmas trees are few and far between in Singapore (although this year, I was impressed by how there seemed to be a bit more than last year).
So I made sure to order costumes in August, so we would have plenty of time to receive them and the kids would get to be any weird thing they wanted. And we ordered our artificial Christms tree so that I could have it up for a month and half as any Christmas fanatic would expect.
And the saving grace with living among so many expats was that their international school and our neighbors in our building were equally invested in providing the kids fun holiday experiences that held up to expectations.
Food Glorious Food
Yummy holiday food is something that I’ve always looked forward to at the holidays. I was blessed with a mom that cooked amazingly well, so any holiday at my parents house was going to be a stomach’s paradise. I would imagine what I would taste and know that as soon as my mom started to write her holiday menu, we would be in for an incredible treat.
As you may expect, finding a turkey in Singapore proved to be a challenge, as Thanksgiving is just a regular day in Singapore except for the Americans who are walking around craving sweet potatoes and pie. Even after locating a turkey, it felt kinda sad to know that it would just be for us 4. Frankly, all we needed was some turkey breasts!
Of course the food represented so much more. It was the memories that we would be missing. The process of deciding the very Haitian-American holiday menu, helping in the kitchen arm in arm with my family, the annual picture of the table spread, arguing with my brother over something, the fighting over the last spoonful of potato salad (the good potato salad- iykyk), having heaps of brown rice and beans, getting a piece of paté straight from Port-au-Prince or seeing what delicious desserts everyone decided to bring. I wanted the food, but craved the connections that came with the food.
We have been lucky to find a group of American expats that share in our love for Thanksgiving holiday traditions and became a familial touchstone of home for us. This year, we gathered together for a holiday celebration that felt like a slice of tradition. You never realize how much these traditions mean, especially as the years pass and at times things can look cheesy, but when you don’t have it anymore, even the corniest decoration is welcome.
I have never loved turkey, but let me tell you I was first in line at the Thanksgiving buffet this year, filling my plate, doubling down on the desserts and enjoying the meaning of the season more than ever.
Missing family gatherings abroad
The biggest bummer about living abroad is that you miss the little and sometimes the big family moments that previously you would have been right there to celebrate, plan or host. Having a close family makes these moments a must have during my “regular” life. And it’s when the heart strings pull especially hard. I would have loved to be there for the birth of my newest niece, my nephews graduation or to help my mom during a particularly trying year, but those are the unfortunate trade-offs when you live so far.
So what do you do? You try to insert yourself in other ways, by sending thoughtful presents ahead of time, video calling to try to be a part of the celebration and texting everyone to get recaps of what “really happened”. It helps to fill in the gap a bit until the next time you can be together IRL.
It also dawned on me that my Mom has long been the provider of all holiday outfits for the kids. She used to get them holiday gear way in advance before I even had time to realize they were needed once again. She would just show up with an abundance of cute shirts, headbands, hats, you name it, Grandma had it covered. I miss that!
Starting new traditions as a unit of 4
We’ve tried to keep some of the old traditions in tact so that there is some consistency for the kids and for us. Whether that’s dressing up for the holiday, making our traditional meal or opening the presents on a specific day, it’s those small things that keep us grounded.
Yet, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that we are living a very different reality, with opportunities to do things a bit different during these years. Whether that’s wearing fun Halloween costumes that don’t need to be layered in the cold since we are literally sitting on the equator, going to the beach on Christmas Day or not worrying about who’s family gets to see us this year, we need to appreciate the differences. Embracing this experience is the only way to enjoy it for what it is.
One of my favorite parts of creating new traditions is that we are allowing the kids to help architect what’s important and do away with what never mattered to them.
Even more so it’s embracing the traditions of other cultures that are widely celebrated by all in Singapore (most notably Diwali and Chinese New Year). Coming from the U.S. I wouldn’t necessarily celebrate another cultures holiday, unless I was distinctly invited to do so, but here it’s an integral part of life in this diverse country.
Singapore puts a high emphasis on inclusion, participation and celebrating those aspects of a culture that make it unique. I feel really lucky to be able to experience that. Our kids also want to ensure that they are honoring other cultures through the dance, song, food, games and clothing that can be a part of the celebrations.
The first year here, I didn’t realize how important this would be and was shamed by my daughter for “only” letting them wear brightly colored clothing to school for Diwali, instead of a traditional lehenga choli (long skirt and fitted top) or salwar kameez (drawstring pants and tunic top). Her look when she came off the bus that day from school just said “what kind of mother are you?” SHAME!
This year, I got it together and both kids were decked out in proper attire for both Diwali and Chinese New Year.
As a story teller, I think the best parts of learning and celebrating our traditional and new holidays are the stories that come along with it. Not just the origin stories, which can vary in importance, but what these holidays have come to mean. As varied as each culture is, the holidays are almost universally about community, joy, health, luck and new beginnings.
As the kids embrace the new cultures and traditions, it’s amazing to see how they are fitting these into their newfound vision of the world and how much they want to be part of making these days special.
Celebrating with new friends
Now ever since I was young, I’ve loved connecting with people and making lots of acquaintances. But friendship takes longer to create. Even when people are actively trying to establish a friendship, the trust and familiarity isn’t something that can be rushed, no matter how much you want it to be there.
This is very much like freshman year of college, when everyone wants to start new friendships and become besties with your roommates or hall mates. It all looks good on the surface until the friendship is tested or you find out they were just kissing your new crush.
Those folks who show up time and time again, both when it’s easy but especially when its inconvenient, hard to do or simply mundane, are the ones that transform from acquaintance to friends. It’s not always obvious who will become a good friend, but you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable to get there. Not always easy to do, especially as you get older, but I’ve found a renewed ability to be open to these new relationships and better understand the people that add joy.
To see how we’ve been embraced within these new friendships makes my heart swell, but they’ve truly begun to fill me up lately as we’ve been able to submerge ourselves into deeper conversations, sharing our fears and trusting each other with the parts of ourselves that we often tuck away in fear of judgement.
I didn’t realize how much I missed being vulnerable in that way, especially with my female friends. As much as I miss and keep in touch with my friends back home, these in-person relationships are crucial. I’ve seen my kids go through something similar as they seek relationships that can connect with and share their daily life with and the adults in the room are no different.
Although it took us almost a full year to get to those places in our friendships, the relationships I know hold are so special because they are real and they work because we nurtured and invested the time into them.