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The Importance of Celebrating Your Traditions as an Expat

In this article series, our contributors share their experiences of spending the holidays abroad, tips on how to combat homesickness during the festive season, and their musings on their favorite time of the year.

In the past few weeks our intercultural family has celebrated the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival and Canadian Thanksgiving. We have also been invited by a close expat Muslim friend to celebrate Eid Al Adha with her family. Being a part of all these festivities in such a short period of time has not only been incredibly fun but has also got me thinking about how important it is to maintain your own traditions while living as an expat.

The Core of Our Cultural Being

Traditional celebrations are some of the core aspects of any culture. Whether it is a wedding, a harvest festival, a religious holiday, or a national observance, our celebrations are woven tightly into our overall cultural identity.

When we move overseas, part of the excitement of living in a new culture is exploring and joining in the celebration of the local holidays and traditions of our adopted country. Some of these experiences will provide memories that will last a lifetime.

Getting deep into the local culture is a fantastic way to adapt to your new home, but there are numerous reasons why maintaining our own cultural traditions when we move overseas is just as important.

Stay Connected

Celebrating your traditions helps keep you grounded in your own culture while adapting to a new one. This is especially important when going through some of the phases of culture shock that affect many of us in the first months after moving overseas. Celebrating one of your traditional holidays can brighten up your mood for weeks as you become absorbed in preparations for the event and the excitement of the day itself.

Celebrating a special day can also help you connect with fellow compatriots in your area who can add to your mutual support group. When we hosted our recent Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, we invited a new colleague and his family who had just spent an exhausting couple of months going through the trials of getting settled into a new job, finding appropriate housing, and jumping through the usual bureaucratic hoops that accompany any move to a new country. They were extremely grateful for the chance to wind down, meet new friends and exchange tips on local life.

Give Your Expat Kids Some Roots

Celebrating your traditions is perhaps most important if you have expat kids growing up in another culture (the so-called 3rd culture kids). It can help them keep one foot firmly rooted in their home culture, while also offering learning experiences that might not otherwise occur. As we were preparing for our Thanksgiving dinner, our seven year old daughter was quizzing me on the differences between the American and Canadian Thanksgiving, and why one was observed later in the year than the other. I don’t think this question would have arisen in her British curriculum school classroom!

Share Your Culture

Traditional celebrations are also an excellent opportunity for intercultural exchange and understanding. Both kids and adults learn about other cultures through these celebrations. For the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival, our daughter invited all her friends over to parade through our neighbourhood holding lanterns and to eat moon cake back at our place. As our rather large group of parents and children wandered along the local roads, drivers stopped to watch, ask questions, and even take pictures.

For our Thanksgiving dinner, we had two Americans, one German, one Burmese, and two New Zealanders in our midst. And when we went over to our Malaysian friend’s home to join her in celebrating Eid, there were many non-Muslims helping her celebrate this important day and, perhaps most importantly, helping her eat her amazing Malay cooking!

Experience Something Unique

Finally, observing your traditions while living overseas will give you some unique experiences that you will remember years later. I will never forget Christmas of my first year living in Vietnam 15 years ago. I had befriended some Europeans working for Medicines Sans Frontieres who invited me to go to the seaside with them for a few days over the holidays. On the way there they pointed under my seat to a box which they said held two turkeys. Where they found turkeys in the middle of the Mekong Delta I will never know! However, I will never forget cooking those turkeys over the BBQ (a rather unique experience in itself!), eating Christmas dinner overlooking the sea of Thailand with prawns, fish and all kinds of other delicacies, and afterwards gathering around the fire with music from a guitar and millions of stars twinkling overhead. Yes, all was well with the world.

So next time you see one of your traditional holidays approaching on the calendar, start planning. Invite your friends, involve the kids, and create your own lasting memories.

Written by Scott Rousseau

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