Away From Home compiles meaningful little reflections close to the heart of the international student experience.
Every international student knows that when they go abroad, some things have to give. Be it the comfort of home-cooked meals, the warmth of having a parent’s shoulder to lean on, or the joy of celebrating traditional holidays with family — these are all the inevitable sacrifices that international students, many of whom are in their teenage years, have had to make in the name of education.
For some of us, culture shock hits the moment we set foot on foreign soil. For others, culture shock creeps in around the holiday season, the moment it truly dawns on you that you are alone.
Being isolated during the holidays, a time meant to be filled with family and joy, is a feeling no one should have to go through. But for those of us who are away from home, there is not much of a choice. All that we can do is find comfort during this uncomfortable time.
As someone who’s all too familiar with such feelings, here is a survival guide that will bring you some solace during the holiday seasons spent alone.
1. Call Home
With many people having to get accustomed to the virtual world as part of the pandemic, this could mean an easier transition onto a virtual calling platform that allows you to see your family. Especially if you’re in a foreign country that doesn’t celebrate the same holidays in the same ways as at home, such as the lack of Lunar New Year festivities in many parts of the world where Asian and Asian American communities aren’t concentrated, seeing reminders of the customs you grew up doing and observing may remind you of warm memories of childhood.
Though it is not the same as being there together, sharing a meal or having a laugh, exchanging well wishes, and being in each other’s company for a few minutes through a phone or video call could be enough to ease the loneliness you may be experiencing.
2. Don’t force yourself to keep up old traditions
If keeping up old traditions that you’d usually do with your loved ones makes you feel more comfortable during the holiday seasons — go for it! For others, doing so is only a reminder of all that they’re missing out on. And oftentimes, being abroad also means the logistics of keeping up old traditions, or even getting traditional dishes usually had for special occasions — such as banh trung for Tet or banh trung thu (mooncakes) for the Mid-Autumn festival — is not possible.
While this is not ideal, it opens a way for you to create new traditions — and memories — of your own. Think about the activities that you loved doing during the holidays and want to keep, and perhaps the ones you don’t love as much and want to put on the back burner.
Ultimately, you have the freedom of picking and choosing to continue what brings you joy. As difficult as creating new traditions or merging your favorites together may be at the beginning, it will pay off in the long run. After all, the beauty of traditions is that they adapt over the years — and are created in a lifetime, not in a season.
3. Get in the spirit: Decorate!
When you’re thousands of miles away from home, especially if you’re in a country that doesn’t celebrate the holidays that you are your family adore, such as Tet or Mid-Autumn Festival, the lack of festive spirit can soon spiral into internalized feelings of sadness.
However, just because those around you aren’t getting into the holiday spirits doesn’t mean you can’t. From putting up family photos on the wall to remind you of the fond memories you all made together, or getting small decorations that resemble the ones you’d see at home during this time, inviting in some festive spirit could help you feel closer to home — no matter how far away you are.
4. Allow yourself to feel your feelings
Being away from home, let alone during the holidays, will inevitably bring a range of emotions. Whether you are excited to explore, and even create, new memories, you could also feel a wave of sadness and fear that you are missing out during this time.
No matter what or how you’re feeling, those emotions are valid. Allow yourself space to get accustomed to whatever feelings come up during these times, and tap into your support resources and network. While a conversation or a small get-together may never compare to the spirit of family that you’ve grown up surrounded by, recognizing your emotions is the biggest step to ensure your mental and physical wellbeing when being far from home.
5. Spend time with friends!
For international students, friends soon become your second family, and they are often the ones who make a foreign place turn into a home. Finding a community while overseas, be it through Facebook groups, affinity groups at your institutions, or creating one among your small friend group will come in handy when any of you are going through the holiday blues.
While being abroad often comes hand in hand with feelings of isolation, the holiday seasons are a reminder that you and your peers — many of whom may come from different countries and carry customs from their own cultures — all have something exciting, warm, and fun to offer to one another based on your culture and heritage.
Perhaps consider teaching them traditional Vietnamese board games, like O An Quan (Mancala) or Ca Ngua; introduce them to the customs you share with your families during this time, such as giving out red envelopes as a symbol of luck, well wishes, and prosperity during Lunar New Year; or even make an effort to learn holiday wishes and traditional songs in one another’s languages. These are the things you can do to make one another feel more at home — even when you’re all away from home.