The second half of December blew by unbelievably quickly, and now here we are in the new year. I’m looking forward to a major change coming my way in a couple of months, and in conjunction with that, doing some tweaking to my blog theme and name. When that’s done, I’ll cease to blog here. The site will still remain, but I’ll move my posts elsewhere. This marks a start to what I fully intend to be an exciting new year!
While the blog move was happening, I was busy with end-of-the-year wrap ups and the holiday season. It’s the time of the year here in America when there’s a marked increase in activity around town. People are generally upbeat on celebrating, but the added hustle and bustle almost feels like a final ritual that we must undergo before crossing over into a new year. The more effort you put in, the more good luck will come your way — yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic but if you know where I’m coming from, you might understand.
Businesses start peddling their holiday season wares as early as right after Thanksgiving, reminding us all to get ahead with the holiday shopping. Luckily, traffic around here doesn’t start growing to maddening proportions till December. When that time rolls around, try to avoid weekend travel and shopping in general, if you want to keep your sanity.
Radio stations will play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town and other catchy Christmas jingles so often that you’ll remember it all by heart by the end of the week. After hearing the same track for the thirtieth time, I broke it up by tuning in to WETA 90.9. for choral music from the Renaissance era. Those beautiful and melodious harmonies reverberate with a joy that will fill your heart — impossible not to like.
But what does become impossibly tedious during this festive season is going shopping at the malls and other stores. All over town, everyone converges at TJ Maxxes, Targets, Walmarts and at departmental stores with young children and in-laws in tow, checking off their gift lists as they work their way through different stores. The popular ones are guaranteed to be extra crowded; lines of shoppers snaking through the store on their way up to the checkout register.
Hours of shopping would yield a few bags full of gifts, but you’d have to be pretty careful as you made your way back to the car. Most drivers do stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks that connect them from mall to parking lot, but occasionally there’ll be the one raging renegade, possibly losing his mind with all the holiday traffic and hence, the inability to find parking. I can empatise, but that’s no reason for sadistically trying to run pedestrians down. Yes, even if they’re taking their own damn sweet time.
Back at home, there is plenty to be done. If you celebrate Christmas, a tree goes up in the living room and everyone gets roped in to decorate it with LED string lights, glittering glass ball ornaments and personalised tree decorations of all shapes and sizes. Here in the the D.C. area, the White House Historical Association ornament is a popular gift, as they feature a different theme and design every year. I respect the White House as a symbol of American power and greatness, but I don’t really care about collecting the ornaments. My personal favourite is a pendant ornament the size of a penny souvenir — a portrait of Schubert, my very sweet little cat.
I suppose it’s all in the spirit of the season — a reminder of loved ones to keep that warm fuzzy glow in your stomach going. Provided you’re on good terms with them of course.
Another type of glow that I never fail to be amazed by are the holiday lights. The effort in which people put into decorating their lawns and roofs with brightly colored lights and holiday time decorations is mesmerising.
Growing up in Malaysia, all we ever did during Chinese New Year was to set out trays of sweets, oranges and cookies on the coffee table in the guest room; maybe if we were motivated that year, we’d also make paper fish out of empty angpow (small red envelopes) packets and hang them on a tree made of plastic. But over here…just look at those displays! I admire the dedication to designing how it should look, and then spending, not only hours putting them up, but what must be quite a bit of money on decorations and electricity bills.
In some neighbourhoods, residents actually put their heads together and get everyone living on the street to decorate their houses. Like the residents on the 700 block along 34th street in Baltimore, who since 1947, have been decking out their row homes with the most elaborate lighting and are known collectively as the “Miracle On 34th Street.” I was able to enjoy the Miracle from a resident’s viewpoint a few years ago; I visited a couple I know who live on the street. We sat in the living room with the front doors wide open as one of my friends made squealing UFO sounds on the theremin, much to the fright of passing children who were there to catch a glimpse of the streets most well-known Xmas tree, made entirely of hubcaps.
All these lights and shopping — as pretty and well-intentioned as they are — seems like such a waste of money and energy.
At least that’s what I used to think; but the months of winter really can be a real downer — whether you live in the heart of a busy city or peaceful suburbia, the landscape is a chilly, bluish grey; a horrible wintertime dreariness made worse by the sun setting at 5 p.m. daily, and it’s not much better even when the sun is shining during the day. Snow makes it worse, and whoever says “they love snow” has never had to actually deal with the extra work that comes with it.
For me, snowfall is something to be enjoyed on a ski vacation, or if you’re really longing for that Christmas-at-the-North-Pole-with-Santa kind of vibe. If you have to live on a day-to-day basis with snow (or cold winters in general) you’ll see how pointless and annoying it is. Putting on extra layers of clothing to keep warm takes extra time. Shovelling snow off walking paths and away from your car takes extra time. So does scraping away ice so you don’t slip. Heating your home in the winter costs more. Freezing your ass off if you have to be outdoors for more than ten minutes? Not fun…and neither is falling on it because you slipped on a patch of ice…in front of a bus full of commuters.
Yes. So I can understand the need for plenty of noisy, brightly-lit and colourfully-wrapped distractions. Now, any kind of celebration that perks up this gloomy time of year and keeps that momentum going till the new year is good with me, and I looove new year celebrations.
I fondly recall my first new year’s eve in the U.S., spent with a group of fellow Malaysian undergrads, including my high school pal Qi Ming. Fresh off our first semester, studying at universities in the Midwest and Northeast, about 20 to 25 of us converged in New York for a week to share lodging costs. Then we split up in smaller groups to tour the made-famous-by-Hollywood sights of NYC, but gathered again in Times Square to usher in 2004. I was 18 going on 19, and it feels like a lifetime ago.
This year, I joined a group of fellow expats to await the arrival of 2014. Literally hailing from all four corners of the world, we got together at a one bedroom Petworth (neighbourhood) apartment. Over home-made Peruvian snacks prepared by my friend Carol, fried chicken wings from a nearby Chinese takeout, free flowing vodka and shots of Jagermeister, and a raucous game of Cards Against Humanity.
I think everyone had a great time, even though most of us had just met for the first time that day. The common strand that brought us together for that final evening of 2013, and the immediate camaraderie that’s conjured, due to our shared experience as expatriates living in the United States, far from close friends and far from a loving family. These strangers often become your (interim) family. You instinctively feel a closeness with others who travel hundreds – even thousands – of miles from everything they know, all for the sake of exploring a different life — in a whole new world.
You have to live by a set of rules, norms and values quite different from your own. Your learning curve may occasionally hit rough patches along the way, like homesickness for the familiar comforts of home and perhaps even a lack of kinship. The urge to hole up in your apartment might be tempting. It won’t help you get over those rough times, but a little support from other expats might.
Like our little international new year party. Nationalities from seven countries squeezed into one tiny apartment, cracking jokes and poking fun at each other like we’d been best friends for years. That kind of acceptance is immeasurable when you’ve been abroad for awhile, especially when you’re feeling jaded and lonely. Locals of your host country might not always respond kindly to your attempts at fitting in somewhere, but expats nearly always lend a friendly hand, even if it’s just a small gesture.
Like an offer to walk you home when it’s late. Giving you a ride to the airport because you don’t have a car. Or inviting you to a potluck dinner with others. Expats understand how these things matter when you’re on your own in a strange land. In a moment of fraternity, even racial and religious conflicts can be set aside. Because choosing to live abroad means that you should be meeting people who don’t share your cultural and geographic background, and finding commonalities to build friendships on – sharing with them what your world is about while taking in some of theirs.
This is one of the things I appreciate the most about being on the road. If you choose to think the best of the people you meet, you bring out the best in them as well. You get to stay optimistic about the world — that innocent wonder and happiness of experiencing a new place and new friends. Even the most insignificant details, can never be lost on you. And that, is what makes your time abroad that much more special.
Being a constant traveller, I count my blessings that I’ve never had trouble seeing the world in this light. Every country I’ve visited on every continent I’ve set foot on has been a wonderful adventure, and with the new year, I’m looking forward to brand new ones.
Cheers to an amazing, travel-filled 2014!