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5 Strange Things That Happen When You're Abroad for the Holiday

United States Insider Guides
by Louise Hung Dec 7, 2015

1. You make the most boring holiday wish lists.

This is the holiday wish list I gave to my family in the US last year:

– 60 oz bottle of Yellow Mustard
– 6 pack of Gluten Free Macaroni and Cheese
– 2, 12 oz bottles of extra spicy Buffalo Sauce
– socks that fit my giant feet
– deodorant that actually deodorizes my American swamp-pits
– NyQuil

Norman Rockwell Americana it wasn’t, but when I got that those bottles of extra spicy buffalo sauce I heard the hallelujah chorus sing in exultation. While in years past I’d asked for new clothes, snazzy electronics, or a pony, my time abroad made me long for the little comforts I couldn’t get abroad.

Never underestimate the merry-making powers of an effective deodorant and well-fitting socks.

2. Friends and family want “local” gifts.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Just get me something REALLY Japanese/Chinese!” — depending on where I’m living. I know my friends and family back home in the US mean well, but they often aren’t prepared for the reality of a “local” gift.

Visions of authentic (read: EXPENSIVE) kimono, REAL samurai swords, or sexy cheongsam “like in the movies” may dance in their heads, but it’s hard to muster the same amount of enthusiasm over authentic dried and preserved fish, REAL “thousand-year-old” egg cakes, or gooey, fermented soybeans or natto.

A lot of people just ask me for “nice fans” now.

3. Gift shopping can become a language lesson.

For Christmas last year, I got my little niece a kitty-cat sweatshirt from a very kawaii or “cute” shop in Tokyo. Rainbow colors, cartoon cats, ice cream cones — all manner of wacky Japanese adorableness adorned it. There was also some Japanese writing on the shirt, but after recognizing the word “cat” and “meow” on the front, I figured it was safe.


When I got home with my find, I noticed more writing on the back of the sweatshirt, writing I couldn’t quite read. Come to find out, the darling little sweatshirt said, “Touch me!” and “Pet me!” all over the back. And while I’m almost sure that nobody in her kindergarten class would be able to read the Japanese words on her shirt, I couldn’t in good conscience have my niece walking down the street commanding random Japanese-literate people to “pet” her.

Fans for everyone that year.

4. Embracing new traditions.

Nothing says Christmas like Colonel Sanders in Japan. Yes, I’m talking about the Kentucky Fried Chicken guy. Move over Santa, the Colonel gets decked out in a red suit and hat to ring in the holidays with a bucket of chicken.

Japan loves KFC, and they REALLY love it during the Christmas season. Forget your roast turkey, ham, and sweet potato dinner from western Christmas past (good luck finding a turkey, let alone a home oven to roast it in), a KFC feast is the way to go when in Japan for the holidays. That and a “Christmas Cake.”

Of course, if you’re like me and are a vegetarian and are unable to eat wheat (I have Celiac), the closest you can get to a KFC Christmas is a photo op with the Santa Colonel.

But don’t fret non-meat/wheat-eating expats in Japan. Get thee to a Don Quijote discount megastore, and pick yourself up a spooky Santa Claus ski mask to add a dash of holly-jolly to your ho-ho-home invasions!

5. You realize how strange some of the traditions back home are.

Sometimes I ask my friends abroad what they find odd about western holiday traditions.

“What’s weird to you about how Westerner’s celebrate the holida—“

“— Eggnog. That stuff is so weird. And all the presents. So much stuff!”

I honestly don’t think they are wrong about the eggnog. Sure it’s tradition, but it’s a thick, egg-based drink called nog. I don’t blame my friends in Asia for being dubious of the boozy, milky substance.

And after spending a couple years abroad in Asia, the intensity of gift-giving in the US is quite shocking in contrast to the subtlety I experienced in Japan, and with the Chinese side of my family in Hong Kong. Instead of a holiday season brimming with gifts, one or two thoughtful presents are exchanged.

Aside from the fact that there is simply less space for STUFF in Hong Kong or Tokyo, it seems to me that the spirit of giving and togetherness is emphasized more. A Japanese friend of mine told me of the near embarrassment he felt when his American girlfriend’s family showered him with gifts on Christmas morning.
“In Japan, I would get one, maybe two gifts on Christmas eve,” he told me, “Then sometimes my parents would go out for a romantic dinner, just the two of them.” Christmas eve is for romance in Japan, a day not unlike Valentine’s Day in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot I miss about the holidays in the US. I’m a sucker for a Christmas special involving Muppets or claymation.

However, even though my holidays abroad don’t quite align with the nostalgia I cherish from back home, life here has given me the opportunity to create new memories and traditions that have in many ways gotten me back in touch with the “holiday spirit.”

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