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Third Culture Holidays – My ex-pat experiences

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In Egypt you will never find a nice round, orange pumpkin to carve for Halloween.  In Indonesia, you will not find familiar food for Christmas or Hanukkah. A large chicken will be a dressed up as a turkey, and you will substitute whatever vegetables are in season for the familiar standards.  Instead, you will go to Road 9 in Cairo and buy a brown gourd and paint it orange. Or, you might scour the sidewalk markets in Jakarta for odd-looking Santas made from batik fabric with some unidentified beige animal fur for a beard. It is so easy to feel out of sync when you really need to re-adjust and adapt to what kind of experience your family will have for the holidays. You must adapt.

holidaysThe holiday season has begun and some American Moms in a foreign land are agonizing if her kids will have memories of Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas which “synch” with your notions of what makes those days special.   Will they hear Christmas carols in Egypt?  No. Will they ever taste a pumpkin pie? No. It’s painful to know that you are unable to re-create your vision of the holidays for your children in the country where they are growing up.   Not even to mention if these holidays will even be able to appear like their own childhood with the smells, sights and sounds.

After moving their young children half way around the world, watching them start another new school and fearful of eating lunch alone again, she is trying to reconcile reality with childhood myths.  That was me.  I searched for pumpkins in lands where they did not grow, turkeys in countries where they did not live, and trees for Christmas where they did not grow. 

Here’s what I learned. Here’s what you need to know about my experience. Your childhood was yours – cherish it, but when it comes time to celebrate traditional holidays, you must adjust your expectations and guide your children to appreciate the culture of your host country.  They need to feel at home wherever they live – that was kind of the point of moving around the world with young kids – to provide a “global citizen” experience.

The holidays serve as an emotional touchstone that connects us to our youth. Moms everywhere want to reproduce their picture perfect youth moments for their next generation. Holidays mark the passage of time, change of seasons.  The desire to share those good memories guided my expeditions to Road 9 or to sidewalk markets in search of symbols familiar to ME.  I was looking for the impossible.  Then I remember that the familiar flees in the face of the reality of life overseas.

You must adapt.  Maybe the pumpkin is a spray-painted brown gourd and maybe you decorate a palm tree instead of a pine tree. Years later, when the boxes of decorations come out, the batik Santa with the creepy beard, the handmade flimsy decorations – all slightly “NQR” (not quite right) are cherished and celebrated just as much as the holiday decorations of my childhood.  We all remember the adaptations we made fondly and my kids definitely know what “NQR” means, first hand.

A longtime expatriate, Phyllis Ripple has lived and raised children in Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt and the United Kingdom. Many of these stops along Ripple’s journey were within great weaving regions of the world. She is now the founder and CEO of ecoFiber Custom Rugs and 4Favorites Rugs, based in Boulder, Colorado. 

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