It’s a crisp 65 F in Hong Kong. Locals are in puffy jackets, boots, scarves. The sidewalk carts roasting chestnuts over an open fire (a phenomenon which, before I moved here and witnessed in the flesh, thought was just a weird opening lyric to a Christmas carol) have sprung up on the street corners.
Not completely acclimated, even after five years in Hk and three in Rio with a similar climate, I still sweat most of the time and take the elevator up two floors to the staff room. But when the thermostat hit the chilliness, I did in fact put on shorts, open the windows, and pull out my slippers to light my fake fireplace. I poured a glass of wine from Club 711, hit ‘play’ on the Christmas playlist and then I scrolled my sister’s and my dogs’ instagrams all the way back to their first posts.
I think I just want to feel closer to home.
I have a million things to be grateful for in Hong Kong, surrounded by friends, teaching small classes at a small school walking distance from home. My plants and a subscription to Deliveroo, ten fingers and ten toes. But everyone’s posts over Thanksgiving weekend put me in a bit of a tailspin. I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving stateside in nine years. And being an American overseas is exhausting – we’re constantly made fun of, or defending or explaining something. For the first time in a long time I wanted to be there in the midst of it – running a 5k in the morning, spending all day in a house that smells like pumpkin and gravy, sipping “this will help us get ready” mimosas with my sisters, Mom running around with a curler in her bangs, taking posed family photos, playing new board games that take too long to explain, claiming couch space to watch football but taking a nap instead, crunching on leaves on a short walk with the dogs to “clear up some space for pie.”
The draconian Covid rules in Hong Kong make my home home feel really far away. Holidays are a whole three month time of feeling things, aren’t they? I want to feel like a kid again: to wake up to a stocking filled with razors and hair ties, for someone else to make the decisions, for my grandma to say “Hi, baby” every time I walk into the room and then we can work on a puzzle for a million years.
But as I tell my students – we get what we get, and we
try not to cry at work as we scroll pet videos on instagram in the bathroom don’t get upset! And man, the getting is pretty good if I summarise blessed moments of the last few months to remind me of the good times.
October was fast – a week break with a typhoon, staycations, a junk on the coldest day, a literal sausage fest, a night at a speak-easy, police visits. Halloween was a delight. We got dinner facing the escalators – HK randomly having the world’s longest escalator – and interacted with a ton of people going by. Nick ordered me a jello shot with a WORM in it. A few kids reverse trick-or-treated, handing candy to us adults, which was a hoot, and we had to go buy some to redistribute the sugar load. I made friends with strangers and sipped drinks that tasted like high school and shouted out costume names at people as they walked by, giving thumbs ups or candy when we had it. An absolute blast of an evening.
My bestie Cindy from my first teaching job sent me what I will call a “box of love” full of snacks and goodies that say 1. She knows me and 2. I probably talk about food too much. Pumpkin spice things, candy corn, rainbow chip cakes, my fav teas, headbands, nacho cheese, green salsa, tortillas, so many wonderful things that made me feel loved. I send her an unboxing video every time I consume something from the box and pretend I’m Tik Tok famous. It’s fun.
Partially because I’m terrified of getting dementia and partially because Covid times have taught me to make more room for hobbies, I’ve been trying to learn Sudoku and finish one crossword a day, started taking Spanish classes and play on a volleyball team. Volleyball is my favorite bit, with a cast comprised of super encouraging gay Filipinos, a few really young locals, one very tall Indian with a crush on me, a French guy I have a hopeless crush on, a girl from Belgium, and me. It’s the best – once or twice a week, I pull on spandex and knee pads, run down to the park, and pretend I’m in high school again, when I lived and breathed my volleyball team. Everything hurts in the most delicious way the day after.
Thanksgiving was another precious moment – full of drama, food, fun. In true Rachel-style, an hour before people came, I thought it would be a good time to pour a pot of boiling water over my right hand. When my bestie arrived, I had to order her around the kitchen to finish Grandma’s potatoes while I attempted to do my makeup left-handed and kept the right under a stream of running water. Being incapacitated actually made it more of a working together vibe – I had to tell people where to put napkins, mop, set chairs, etc. And they just did! Because I generally pick good friends.
I was the only American in the cast, which is fine. I love standing in the spotlight and telling people that we have a holiday just for eating and being thankful. I forced everyone to eat too much, play silly games, say what they were thankful for, and made them try to take me seriously while my hand was bandaged in the shape of a pistol. We fought over the rules to Family Feud. There were pie crusts and melted ice cream drips and half-empty beer bottles nearly everywhere to clean up the next day. So. Pretty on brand for an American holiday, actually.
I decorate the Navidad heck out of my classroom once Thanksgiving is over – the daisy chains of red and green paper, light strings with eight settings, a full Christmas tree, wreaths, etc. Almost everything from December first until the end of term is somehow Christmas-related. It’s wild going that hard here in Hong Kong, where so many of my students don’t celebrate Christmas at all, and have little understanding of my full-tilt passion for such a day. Even though much of HK is decorated, the stores won’t be closed, the local people won’t do anything about it.
This year, I decided to read from “A Christmas Carol” every morning and sometimes during lunch just to keep them quiet. I’d never read the book nor seen any film version, so it was also new to me, but what was most captivating was watching my nine and ten year old students fall in love with a story and beg to be read to. I often looked up from reading, their gorgeously chubby cherubic (for the moment) faces staring at me in awe, completely in my power for the moment, and I thought, “I could totally start my own cult.” To finish the story off, we watched “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” and they were so weirded out yet intrigued by the puppets. I loved it.
The last weeks of school I was all of the kinds of exhausted. I haven’t yet learned that I can say “no” to things and took on too much, and there were also unavoidable work obligations. We took the kids to outdoor education camp, finished assessments, wrote reports, planned Christmas activities. I sang at our staff party and then again for the school Christmas concerts and rehearsals beforehand, which meant I could barely speak on Friday when I had to throw a party for my students. So the first few days of break, I just said to myself “Rachel, you don’t have to anything.”
So I didn’t. When I’d normally be out at a Friday happy hour celebrating the start to Christmas break, I was in jammies at home ordering pizza and queueing up “Christmas Vacation.” I didn’t get dressed properly for two days. And I don’t feel guilty about it. My plants were watered and my fish fed and it’s my right as a single, childless, over-extended teacher surviving her second year of Covid overseas away from family during the holidays to drink wine from 7-11 and recite all of “Elf” from memory while liking all my friends’ instagram family pics in matching jammies with my thumb stained in cookie dough.
I got depressed, friends. I did. It’s hard not to feel lonely during the holidays at the best of times, but the world has been unkind for a while now.
But then I did activities. I went to book club and won the jackpot with the new Brene Brown. My voice nearly recovered and sang and played guitar at an event I used to partake in for years before Covid called “Beer and Hymns,” and led a packed room full of people in “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” and “Come Thou Fount” and got goosebumps and drank IPAs and hugged longtime friends. I spent a day with my Aussie family, braiding hair and watching cartoons and getting snuggles. I had a classy Christmas Eve with mostly strangers and got to remember how to be social. On Christmas Day, we dressed in our most obnoxious and had a brunch with a White Elephant exchange and ended with drinks and card games at my house, which is my favourite thing. And the next day I was able to Facetime people I love for hours because of sweet, sweet technology.
It was tough to wake up alone on Christmas Day. I hadn’t set an alarm. Made myself coffee and just sat watching the birds for a while as I had nothing to open, no special breakfast or anything, no church to attend. A lot of the “holiday” has felt like a non-event. Time has a lot and yet so little meaning during this pandemic.
I will say, staring at a new year (a manmade construction of time, because calendars were invented for convenience and the world can’t even agree on one so New Year’s Eve is made up, and therefore we can control or shape or deny or ignore any ideas about change and the turning of new leaves and resolutions we will never keep) that a gift of this bloody pandemic and the warped sense of time I’ve gained with it, is that I am so grateful for the time I have had with those I love, with those who make the effort to carve out time with me, to share their time and moments with me. Our social circles have contracted. But I’m okay with the size of mine.
Thanks for being in it.