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Surviving the Holidays Away From Home

Holidays and special occasions we celebrate year after year, become rituals that play an important role in bestowing peace of mind. These annual observances help us feel that, whatever else is going on in our lives, there are some things we can count on, and in a deep psychological way these give us a sense of reassurance that there is order and some degree of predictability to life.

For this reason, the holidays are a particularly difficult time for people living abroad. Expatriates not only miss the events and the people with whom they traditionally gathered to celebrate the events, but they also lose the sense of security and well-being that come with them. Those living overseas for the first time, even if they have experienced little culture shock from their relocation, may be surprised at how homesick they suddenly become when a holiday they are used to celebrating is upon them.

In my own experience, and verified by the experience of people we train to go overseas, it can be helpful to reproduce your tradition as best you can. This means that if you are a manager or human resources expert who is responsible for relocating an employee or employees abroad, with a little forethought, there is much you can do to ease this challenging time for your expats.

If you can, ask your relocating employees before they leave for the dates of their most important holiday celebrations (these could include birthdays) and a description of their traditions for celebrating them. This should give you a good idea of how you can prepare "care packages" that will go a long way to helping your people get through a difficult time.

On the other hand, if you are responsible for a foreign expat here, it may take some information gathering to uncover their needs.  The efforts you put forth, however, may be immensely appreciated. In addition, you should make sure they have an invitation to experience how we celebrate holidays, especially if the expat is single - being alone in a foreign country when most things are closed, can be a dismal experience.

If you, yourself, are moving overseas, try to pack little things that carry the spirit of the holiday for you. If you are an expatriate overseas with your family, there is much you can do to reproduce your traditional holidays, although you may need to be creative. For example, finding a turkey for Thanksgiving is difficult in Japan, but impossible in India. Although particular foods often play an important role, if those foods are not available, try to find a good substitute. You never know, this "hybrid" you have created may become your new family tradition, no matter where you are.

For the single person abroad, the holidays are even more of a challenge. The important thing is to try to spend these days with a friend; at the very least take a special trip with a friend.  Personally, I spent my first years overseas forsaking my own traditions for those of the culture around me in order to feel more a part of the culture I was in rather than trying to create a "little America" around me. Over the years, however, my attitude changed. I found that sharing my childhood traditions with local friends turned out to be a lot of fun and had the added benefit of building stronger bonds between us. In addition, this set the stage for reciprocation, which meant I always had an invitation to participate in family celebrations of local holidays.

The important thing to remember is that gaining new experiences does not need to mean giving up everything you are used to. Just be sure to plan ahead - those little things that played an important role in your image of the holiday may take a lot of time to find in your new location. And don't forget the importance of being flexible in your expectations: it will certainly be some sort of brand new blend of where you came from and where you are now!

 by Diana Rowland, author Japanese Busines: Rules of Engagement

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Rowland & Associates is a premier cross-cultural consulting firm, providing essential international business skills since 1985. Our passion is bringing intercultural business success through heightened insight and agility. We believe that bold steps with exceptional preparation can create dynamic solutions.


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