As an expat in Japan, I may always miss the sights, sounds, and smells of a traditional Christmas in England, but I am learning to be creative about a new kind of Christmas that my husband and I, with our young son, can create together.
When the nostalgia for home creeps in at holiday time, the first thing I do is remind myself of what I appreciate about Japan.
Find Appreciation in the Adopted Country
1. The Weather
I know, how unoriginal for a Brit to be talking about the weather. But in winter time Japan wins hands down over the UK.
It’s late November and although it’s getting pretty cold there are still plenty of warm sunny days with the temperatures in the low 20’s. Weather which would not be out of place in a British summer.
Japanese winters are typically clear, sunny and very dry. The British Isles can go all winter without seeing the sun and flooding somewhere in the UK seems to be becoming a yearly norm.
2. No Theft!
In cafes in Japan people leave belongings on seats while they go purchase their drink. Designer bags and expensive smart phones included.
I’ve heard of teachers deliberately leaving a wallet unattended in the classroom just to demonstrate how devoid of petty theft Japan is.
During my ten plus years in Japan I have lost the following items: my iPhone on a bus; my ID card in the street; a bag full of student assignments on a station platform.
Each one of these items was returned to me. The iPhone was delivered by the bus staff back to my local station where I’d originally got on the bus.
My ID card was turned in to the Police and they called me.
And the bag of student papers (how would I’ve explained that one away?) was found and kept for me by the station staff.
On the other hand, in the UK, my husband and I left a bag of presents on a train on Christmas Eve. We realized before we left the station and we rushed back to the train. It had just departed for its the final stop. The platform attendant looked at us like we were insane. He had no intention of even trying to get our bag back.
I tried phoning Lost and Found later that week, their response was similar. In fact, they hung up on me. I’ve obviously been in Japan too long because I was shocked by their attitude.
3. The Postal Service
Japanese Post is fast, efficient and reasonably priced. There’s also several little ways the Japanese mailman goes the extra mile.
If you are out when the postman calls and he needs your signature, you can arrange to have the item re-delivered at your convenience. If you get home before he’s finished his round there may well be a cell phone number you can ring and he’ll come straight back.
In my native Britain this is an unheard of level of service. Undelivered items are usually returned to the depot and then you are given a specific time during which you can go and pick up your package. This window of time is usually inconvenient for working people.
Creating a Meaningful Expat Christmas in Japan
Since becoming a mother, I’m more eager to create family traditions that my boy will grow up with and remember. But in Japan, the things I associate with the Christmas spirit are missing; the sparkling lights on all the houses, the cheesy music, (Aled Jones’ “Walking in the Air” or Slade’s “Merry Christmas everybody” never quite made it to Japan), the traditional roast dinner of chicken or turkey with all the trimmings, to name a few.
Japan does celebrate Christmas to a fashion but it’s relatively new import to the Japanese calendar and as such it lacks depth.
In the UK, I love Christmas morning, when its still and quiet and there’s a reverence in the air that makes it feel different from any other day of the year. Here in Japan it’s another working day and that feels incredibly strange.
Which is why we booked a beach holiday in Vietnam this year. We’ll fly there on Christmas day so we will celebrate our own sort of Christmas on the 23rd. It’s the Emperor of Japan’s birthday so my husband won’t be at work that day. There will be a tree and presents, there will be Christmas music playing and there will be food. I don’t know what food yet. But we’ll sit down and eat it as family.
On Christmas Day itself I will embrace whatever our hotel has waiting for us on that evening.
So I take on the challenge of creating a different kind of Christmas, since my son won’t miss what he never knew. In some ways I have the freedom to make Christmas whatever I want it to be. And as Advent is about to begin, I focus on being thankful for the little things and remind myself that expat life is great training for life in general: it is what we choose to make of it that will determine the quality of our experience.
Kamsin Kaneko is a British expat living in Yokohama, Japan with her Japanese husband and their young son. She teaches English at a Tokyo university by day and blogs at http://lifeinthekeyofe.com . She recommends this site for nostalgic Brits wanting holiday music when away from home.