As an American based in London, writer Meriam Ahari explains why spending Christmas without family represents so much more for expats.
No holiday brings me more joy than Christmas. It’s an excuse to press pause on work for a couple of weeks as we surround ourselves with loved ones while unwrapping our shiny, new toys and eating copious amounts of mince pies and pigs in blankets. Only during this magical time of the year is it socially acceptable to wear matching pyjamas with mum and dad, outdo friends in a search for the world’s most grotesque sweater, and sing unabashedly to Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You (with a glass of mulled wine in hand or not). But in 2020, what’s seen as the most wonderful time of the year has become a day of dread for so many, thanks to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
As an American living in London, I am one of the people for whom Christmas is not materialising the way I had envisioned it would. My husband is British, so past Christmases have been built on a compromise to alternate the holidays in each other’s hometown.
This year, it was our turn to head to my hometown of Washington DC – and to say that I’m excited to be under one roof with all my cousins and be reunited with my family dog Lady would be a serious understatement. But with the alarming rise in coronavirus rates in America – over 11.8 million reported cases of infection and a rising death toll of 252,000 – everyone (my family included) seems shocked that I’m even considering traveling to the US.
Of course, I can’t blame them. I know it sounds ludicrous to head towards a fire, but there’s no reasoning with someone desperate to be reunited with their loved ones.
In all of my 35 years, I have never spent one Christmas without my parents – and as selfish as this sounds, I don’t intend to start now. You’d think that after getting married, I would have succumbed to the inevitable compromise of having to alternate holidays between families. But even then, spending Christmas without my parents has been non-negotiable. Each year that my husband and I were meant to spend the holidays in the UK with his family, we arranged for my parents to join us (praying that everyone would get along) or even planned for both families to meet somewhere in-between for a shared holiday.
Why is it so important that I’m with my family on Christmas? It may sound extreme, but for many of us who have chosen the life of an expat, Christmas means so much more: it’s our chance to make up for lost time. To make right for all the missed birthdays, graduations, baby showers, Mother’s and Father’s Days, and all the other milestone events that make us feel guilty and selfish for choosing a life abroad. Sure, we get to live a thrilling and exotic life in the eyes of our friends and family, but it comes at a great cost.
Jessica Louise-Goodchild, a Brit based in Melbourne, feels the same. Over the course of eight years, she’s lived everywhere from Hong Kong, to Singapore, to Japan – and now Australia where she works as the director of sales for Compass Offices. “As an expat, Christmas has become so much more important than when I was living in England. I spend the entire year looking forward to it. It’s my chance to spend quality time with friends and family that I haven’t seen in such a long time and to celebrate all those symbolic moments that I’ve missed out on while living abroad.”
Despite living in Asia, Jessica has never let thirty-plus hours of travel time keep her from seeing her family – whether that involved heading back home to Surrey or organising a trip for her family to meet halfway. However, the pandemic has made it impossible for her to spend Christmas in the UK this year. Because of Jessica’s working visa and the Australian government issuing international border closures, she wouldn’t be able to get back into the country after leaving. In fact, when speaking with immigration about traveling back to the UK, an agent informed her that there’s an influx of Australian citizens still waiting to re-enter Melbourne due to the strict import limit and quarantine protocol in place. The only way Jessica would be able to get to the UK would be on repatriation terms (returning permanently), which of course would compromise her job and the home that she has created in Melbourne.
So instead, Jessica has made plans to spend Christmas in Tasmania with other homesick expats stuck in Australia. “I try to stay positive and optimistic in tough situations, but to be honest, I’m utterly devastated that I won’t be able to come home this year. Moreover, I worry so much about my Dad who [after recently losing her mum to cancer] is now living alone.”
But even if expats like Jessica or myself are able to get home, would Christmas even feel the same? I come from a massive family. My mum’s side alone consists of three aunts, one uncle, sixteen cousins, and thirteen nieces and nephews. But unlike previous Christmases, social distancing would never allow for us to celebrate together under one roof. How could we possibly pick and choose which family we’d like to spend the day with, without hurting each other’s feelings?
Even with my resolute determination to go home for Christmas, being in a second lockdown has made it impossible to plan anything. Lockdown 2.0 might be lifted in the UK on 2nd December, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that our world could be turned upside down at the drop of a hat. What’s to say that Boris Johnson won’t extend the lockdown or close the UK’s borders as Australia has done? Will different states in America mandate that we quarantine at a government-designated hotel like in New Zealand? Will my British husband be able to enter the US as a non-national or would I be able to return to my job and home in the UK? Planning the holidays is stressful enough, but throw in the uncertainty of a pandemic-ridden future and my anxiety levels are enough to warrant some serious therapy sessions.
When the thought of not meeting my cousin’s newborn, tasting my mom’s famous millionaire’s pie or hugging our family dog feels unbearable, I try to take a cue from Jessica and think about how lucky and privileged I still am – despite the fact that we’re in a pandemic. I think of the people whose loved ones have devastatingly been taken by the coronavirus – or the Beirut explosion, or the Australian wildfires, or at the hands of police brutality – and I try to remind myself that my family and I are blessed to be alive. That one day, we will feel each other’s warm and loving embrace – maybe not this December, but one day.