As an expat, I haven’t been with my extended family at Thanksgiving in almost 10 years. I get it. It’s hard. On this holiday, which is so much about togetherness, being far away is so tough. But flying home 8 hours for a long weekend that isn’t a holiday where I am currently living … just won’t work. The kids are in school, we are working, flights are expensive, and travel is unpredictable. So, we don’t come home for Thanksgiving. And, it’s not easy. It isn’t a holiday here, so we have to conjure up all of the festiveness ourselves. No one else is celebrating, so we have figure out how to make it happen — we have to hunt down supplies (if we want to make dinner ourselves) or figure out how to mark the day (if we choose not to cook).
Over the past nine years, I’ve met many other expat Americans navigating the same challenges. We make different choices, fight different battles, but we’ve sorted out how to make it work for us (more or less). We celebrate (or we don’t), we honor our traditions (or we make new ones), we share our culture with new friends from other countries (or we gather together with other Americans in order to feel more at home).
Along the way, we’ve tackled a lot of the same challenges that are facing many Americans this year. Due to COVID, many people are having to cancel or seriously alter their Thanksgiving plans. You can’t see the people you want to, or celebrate the way you’re used to. Believe me, I understand. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years, in case it helps.
- Accept that it *will* be different. Don’t try to replicate “normal” Thanksgiving in an abnormal time. Accept that this year will not be a perfect copy of what you’ve done in the past. It can’t be — circumstances are different. You’ll make yourself crazy trying to “get it exactly right.” So don’t.
- Allow yourself to miss what you’re missing. Being away from people you love on a day that is ABOUT being with people you love is really hard. It’s sad, and it can definitely be lonely. Let yourself feel sad, lonely, disappointed, or angry at the circumstances. Don’t try to feel like everything is normal. It’s ok to be sad about what you’re missing.
- Figure out what’s really important, and figure out how to do that (or to approximate it). Is pumpkin pie your favorite? Make or buy one! Are mashed potatoes the thing that makes the meal special? Make some! Would it not be Thanksgiving without football? Find a game and watch it (even if it’s old, even if it’s recorded, even if you already know how it turns out). Whatever feels essential to you that you CAN do, do it. Don’t judge or criticize yourself, just go with it. And don’t be afraid to try something that’s not quite right, but might be close enough. (This is definitely a “close enough is good enough” situation.)
- Let go of everything else. All the other “stuff” that you don’t care about (candied yams, or whatever) just drop them. Don’t waste any of your energy on stuff you think you SHOULD do, but don’t actually want to. One of the silver linings for this year is permission to abandon anything that doesn’t bring you the joy of the holiday.
- Remind yourself of why you’re doing this. Why *aren’t* you doing a normal holiday this year? As an expat, we think about the job, or the lifestyle, or the relationships that brought us to our new country. This year, everyone can appreciate that we are spending the holidays apart to PROTECT each other. It’s as important as it can possibly be. It helps to remember that this is all happening for the greater good.
- Connect with the people you love. If it’s at all possible, figure out a way to connect with the people you’re not able to be with. Call, exchange photos of your day, video chat, arrange to watch a movie or a football game “together”. Anything to feel as close as possible, while you’re apart.
- Look forward to the future. This is temporary. It’s not for forever. It’s what’s happening right now … but it’s just one year. Think ahead to what you will be able to do next year. Make plans! Having something concrete to look forward to really helps.
- Appreciate what you created. However it turns out, whether you ordered pizza and pretended it wasn’t Thanksgiving, or cooked the whole meal from scratch, you made it through. Give yourself a pat on the back, and give yourself some real credit for getting through what might have been a really tough day. It isn’t easy, it isn’t what you wanted, but you made it.
Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck, from one American who can’t be with her family, to another.