Sunday, November 27, 2011

I'll Not Be Home For Christmas which I admit I'm a total sucker for the holidays. Including the cheesy music and glittery decorations.

I love Taiwan, but it can get a little depressing around here between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the weather is almost uniformly crap and the only places that decorate or really do anything for the holidays are the department stores, Starbucks and IKEA - and the Holiday Inn Shenkeng, as I've recently discovered. I've been known to peruse IKEA just for the holiday music and goods, and go to Starbucks even though I don't particularly like their coffee, just to get an infusion of holiday spirit.

Yes, of course, it's clear that Christmas is not a local holiday and I can't expect it to really be celebrated in Taiwan, but well-decked halls are a part of not only my culture but also my life, since childhood. It's hard to go without them. It's hard to watch the streets go by from a bus window, with overcast skies - no snow, of course - and no decorations in sight. Going out into Taipei City at this time of year is like preparing for a sad little Holiday of One (now Two).

Joseph, Becca and Alex at Thanksgiving
I'm all about the cheesy music, plastic garlands and shiny ornaments and lights hanging from everything in sight. I don't even mind that half the time it's done in an attempt to get you in the spirit to buy more stuff - maybe it's the result of being totally in love with Christmas but having a very secular moral code. To me, Christmas is about family - which includes shopping carefully to find them gifts that will bring them joy* (or spending time making them, which I have also done). It also involves baking cookies with my mom and sister, going out to the fire department's Christmas Tree sale in a shopping center parking lot to pick out a tree, always a real tree, the livingroom redolent of evergreen as the cats sized it up as a climbing post, visiting Grandma and burning wrapping paper in the fireplace, watching the flames catch the dye and change color.

In Taiwan I don't have the chance to do any of this. No real tree, no fireplace, and this year is the first one in which baking cookies is a real option. Sometimes I feel like I drink Toffee Nut Lattes - which I'm not even all that fond of, if I'm going to drink a gussied up holiday beverage I'd go for gingerbread latte or peppermint mocha or good ol' egg nog, but those aren't things you can get in Taipei - just to pretend it's good enough to make up for what I don't have.

And that's just it - most of the time, living abroad is great, but this is the one time of year when it's not quite so great. Christmas in Taipei is not the same as Christmas in a city that actually celebrates, and definitely not the same as going home for Christmas. All of the traditions Brendan and I have adopted for Christmas are great, and I love that we have our own little family unit with our own way of doing things on the holidays, but my childhood always included larger family gatherings on Christmas and Thanksgiving and it's hard not to have that every year. The party is great, but it doesn't quite adequately substitute what the holidays are back home: in part because it's not family, in part because the weather is all wrong, in part because the run-up to the holiday is so devoid of holiday cheer everywhere except in my own apartment and at Starbucks.

There is something really missing in that lack of a feeling of communal celebration. Something about the holidays is made richer by knowing that your friends, neighbors and extended acquaintances are celebrating too. I guess I have an inkling now of how it might feel to celebrate Channukah in a community that isn't very Jewish, or Chinese New Year in a community where you might be the only Chinese (or Taiwanese, or Singaporean) family celebrating. It's true for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Of course, we do have some holiday traditions that we've built up in Taipei. It's not a complete wash. We put up a plastic tabletop tree - pretending, again, that it's good enough - and put gifts for each other under it. We stuff stockings because - why not? I play Christmas music on iTunes and buy foods that remind me of the holidays at City Super and IKEA (Glogg!). This year I'll invite people over to bake cookies. Every year we throw a Christmas party on Christmas Day for other expats at loose ends - some years big, some years smaller. I never take pictures because I'm generally enjoying myself too much to remember my camera, and anyway, what happens at the Christmas Party stays at the Christmas Party.

Thanksgiving Beijing Duck with Cathy and Alex
I love that Brendan and I have our own way of celebrating Christmas now that we're a family unit. I love that this year we get to celebrate in our new apartment, which I'm hoping to have painted and decorated by the time the holiday comes around. It's not quite the same, though, as being near family - everything I associate Christmas with includes family gatherings, big or small (more often than not "big").

Which, you know, is how expats have been doing it ever since the dawn of expats. I'm not the first to feel like I'm celebrating alone, to spend the day with friends rather than family. I'm not the first to get a little misty-eyed when I'll Be Home For Christmas plays, not the first to throw a big party in a land far, far away in lieu of a family gathering at home, and definitely not the first to put up a plastic tree and proclaim it "good enough".

On Thanksgiving we get whatever size group we can together, not always on Thanksgiving, though, and go out for Beijing Duck. This is actually great, because duck is clearly the superior bird to tasteless turkey. It may not include Grandma L teetering around with a Manhattan in hand, green bean casserole, pumpkin and cherry pies, uncles passed out on the couch, or cousins arguing over which Thanksgiving special to watch on TV, but it's got a big dinner, a group of friends and a convivial atmosphere.

In all the ways Christmas comes up short in Taipei, Thanksgiving has the potential to be just as good - if not, in some ways, better. This year I think it lived up to that, although everyone was a bit tired (I have bronchitis, too, so there's that). I've written about previous Thanksgivings in Taipei in 2009 and talked briefly about it in 2008. This year we went to Tian Chu (天廚) near MRT Zhongshan. Better service, we got two ducks instead of Song Chu's paltry one (I still call that place 北宋廚 - which utilizes some slightly rude Taiwanese slang), and really good duck.

Next year, for Christmas, I think we're going to try to go home. No idea which family we'll spend the holiday with, but it's high time we had a real American Christmas, with family and shopping malls and tinsel and all that fun stuff.

*before y'all judge me for being all about the shopping and the gift-giving and less about the religion, I just want to say this. Last year my mother was coughing terribly at our wedding. The family ganged up on her to see another doctor. She did, and by Thanksgiving was diagnosed with lung cancer. Serious lung cancer. By Christmas she was starting chemo. I bought her an iPad to watch movies or whatever else she wanted while she recovered from the chemo sessions as a Christmas gift. I couldn't be there in person - we were still recovering financially from the wedding - which was totally worth the cost, I might add. She'd already started losing her hair when we did our annual Christmas Skype session. She got through chemo and despite being given a prognosis of "you've got two years at most", she's made a full recovery since. Complete remission! Her words: "I spent days on the couch after the chemo sessions, especially the later ones. That iPad got me through it. Thank you." So I don't want to hear any "you're so materialistic!" BS in the comments, 'k?

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