An American Expat’s Advice for a COVID Thanksgiving

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.

Life in Lockdown

We’ve been in “lockdown” since Monday.  We only found out about the new restrictions the day before, on Sunday.  The order for schools to close came late last week (effective Monday), as well as for almost all shops to be closed.  But on Sunday, it was expanded:  don’t leave your house unless required, don’t go out except for groceries, prescriptions, or necessary work (written permission required), no gatherings of more than 5 people, no gathering or going out with anyone not from your household, playgrounds shut, military and police to patrol, borders closed.

That escalated quickly.

That being said, the feeling here is tense, but not frightened; dutiful, not panicked.  There is a collective hope that by taking drastic measures, upending our lives, changing basically everything, that we can mitigate this disaster.  We’re happy to do it.  We want to help, and it feels good to have a role to play.

We’re on day four of “remote learning” today.  It’s a ton of work.  I know that some (most?) kids in the world are stuck at home, glued to screens all day, bored, and bothering their parents as the parents try to work from home.  I know that some parents are trying to navigate their full-time jobs as well as childcare that DOESN’T involve full-time TV or video games.  (Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure that doesn’t work.  If you manage to figure it out, please let me know.)  But my kids are still having school.  ALL of school.  The same classes, at the same times, as they would if they were in school.  For us, that means two different schedules (elementary and middle school) with classes changing at different times.  And their schedules are different every day.  Some classes are being taught by conference call, some are being conducted by text, or by email, or by prerecorded video.  Regardless, it’s intense.  There’s a ton of work, new tech challenges to sort out, and almost none of the mitigating social interaction that 3rd and 6th graders survive on.  I am lucky to have a very small workload right now (silver lining to being without a new freelance contract).  If that weren’t the case, either the kids would not be getting their school work done, or I or my husband would not be getting our work done.  As it is, most days, the kids are not finishing their school work and are sometimes following up 6 1/2 hours of “school from home” with another hour or two of “homework from home”.  I am fighting against feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the expectations of the teachers (even while I am immensely grateful for and truly impressed by their efforts) and I’m trying (and, I think, probably failing) to not compound the kids’ stress with my own.

Our grocery stores and pharmacies are still open.  The shelves are not bare.  My neighbor went out and got five new chickens on Saturday morning, so we’ll survive on eggs, I guess, if things get tightened down further (and as long as our neighbors continue to like us).  Dan was able to go out and pick up some staples at the store this week (including toilet paper, although we did get the last package).

Being expats comes with its own set of considerations, as it often does.  We’ve contacted some friends and asked if they will care for the boys if Dan and I were to fall sick at the same time.  With closed borders, airports shut down, and a pandemic raging that makes it especially dangerous to our parents to travel abroad (if they could even get into the country), we have to have a plan with a local solution.

As of now, we’re all fine, and life goes on, but these are very strange times.  We are not isolated in any real sense — I see my neighbors when I hang up my laundry, or when the kids go out to play — but we FEEL very much on our own.  As I tuck my boys in to their cozy beds at night, our home feels like a little island in an infinite sea, a tiny fortress of protection in the night.  I sense that we are on our own in a way that we have never really been before.  I hope that these efforts that we all are making, these minor sacrifices, have real consequences and maybe even help to save real lives.  This will be worth it, a million times over, if that is what we get in exchange.