Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Expat Christmas; then and now

It's the last day of November, and the Christmas cards are bought, but not yet written. The first trip to the post office to buy UK stamps has been made. You still have to be a little more organised about Christmas when you live abroad. But this time of year makes me think about my childhood, as the daughter of expatriate parents in Hong Kong, and how being an expat has changed such a lot in 30 odd years.

In the 1970s and 80s, all Christmas cards and gifts were sent by sea mail from Hong Kong (I suppose air mail would have been outrageously expensive). We would avidly, then, wait for the 'last posting date' for the UK to be advertised on TV - usually this was some time around late October. My mother's Christmas cards, all carrying meticulously composed handwritten messages about our family (she didn't believe in round robins), were therefore ready for posting before Halloween. I clearly remember one year, aged about six, when I was helping her carry them to the post office. We lived in a block of flats, and as we stepped into the lift on the way to the car, I managed to drop half the cards down the lift shaft.....as you can imagine, my mother was not impressed.

Christmas cards were sacrosanct in those days; they were the only way we ever heard from some friends, and we relished their arrival, because we could read all about how people back in the UK were doing. Now, in these days of keeping in touch via Facebook, email and the like, they've become less necessary - but I'd be sad to see them go the way of the aerogramme letter (how many expats still send those?). I still write them, and it's lovely to receive them, especially from friends and relatives at home. (This year I've even ordered some personalised ones with photos of the boys on them - after having realised last year that I was the only parent around here who hadn't produced such a thing).

With no online shopping, it wasn't possible to do as I did last year and arrange all the gifts to be sent straight from Amazon to UK addresses - or organise online gift vouchers. (This year we've decided to package the nieces and nephews' presents up and send them, as it seems a little more personal - I just hope they arrive intact). Nevertheless, we always received proper wrapped presents from our UK aunts, uncles and relatives, and my mother would send them special gifts from Hong Kong - little silk purses, embroidered cushion covers, Chinese slippers and the like. So much thought went into it- no doubt partly because it had to be thought about so early on.

Christmas Day itself was perhaps the only day of the year when we telephoned the relatives in England. Today, we can make Skype calls whenever we feel like it, but back then, international calling was both expensive and complicated (involving going through the international operator before you could make the call). But hearing those voices of grandparents on the phone, so far away, was something very special. (I always found the distance between ourselves and our loved ones quite confusing when it came to Father Christmas, though. How could he bring the presents from the UK to Hong Kong in one night - unless he travelled on the Cathay Pacific nonstop flight?)

In the evening, we would sit down and watch the Queen's Speech from London - live, via satellite, which made it somehow seem quite exciting. In this outpost of the British Empire, such traditions were still going strong. We also attended carol concerts, nativity plays and Christmas parties galore - although real Christmas trees weren't available, so we had to make do with a fake one. My mother always cooked a turkey with all the trimmings, and we had homemade Christmas pudding - I have no idea where she bought the ingredients. It's a bit different here in America - if anything, they embrace Christmas more than we do - but you still notice the differences (for example, no-one's heard of mince pies).

Technology means the world has certainly grown smaller - as an expat now, I feel pretty connected to what's going on in the UK. I even know, from Facebook and Twitter, if it happens to have snowed in the last hour. But sometimes I think that it means we take the distance for granted. We're still not there - and, as Michelloui's post today reminded me - if there was a crisis at home, we'd still have exactly the same issues to deal with. Being an expat then was certainly harder; but we really appreciated the contact that we did have with those back in the UK. And my memories of those Hong Kong Christmasses, and the effort my mum put into them, will remain with me forever.


Emma said...

It would have been so much harder for me to leave the UK without the internet!
My uncle lived in the USA when I was a child and we spoke maybe once or twice a year, it would be so different now, the world has got smaller.

So glad you have great christmas memories, I think lack of technology made us appreciate things more.

susie @newdaynewlesson said...

Things really have changed. I still find the time difference from where I am to the west coast hard.

Expat mum said...

Great post (Sarah). I was just thinking how different it was when I moved here 20 years ago.

mtff said...

lovely, poignant post.
It is different here. But much easier when you're connected by the interwebs.
Also, you can get your mince pies at World Market and even Costco is selling crackers this year. Ho ho ho!

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, folded aerogramme letters and the long distance phone calls on Christmas Day with the confusing delay on the line. Takes me back!

geekymummy said...

ah, lovely memories, your mum must have put in so much effort.

I didn't realise you could still get those areogram letters! I remember sending them to friends abroad. I guess all mail is 'airmail/par avion' these days, with so many more planes going back and forth. Sadly these days I just email anyway.

nappy valley girl said...

Emma -me too, keeping in touch with my friends has been a lifeline since I left the UK.

Susie - yes, technology can't fix everything, can it.....

Expat Mum - actually, I've been wondering if they confused me with Brit Gal Sarah - could be an explanation!

MTFF - don't think we have World Market on Long Island. I did manage to buy crackers last year at the local supermarket, though - and I just bought an advent calendar (albeit a very cheesy Disney one) at Rite-Aid.

Mud - there must be hundreds of those aerogramme letters somewhere in one of my many boxes in the UK. My mother wrote me one without fail every week when I was at boarding school.

Geekymummy - I'm not sure if they still exist in the UK, but according to Wikipedia, they have been discontinued in the US due to lack of demand. These days, the only letters I send to the UK are birthday/Christmas cards or letters to the bank etc.

Mwa said...

I think I know what you mean. We felt pretty cut off when we lived in Scotland. Now with the internet, I'm not sure if it would be any better. I still really miss my faraway friends.

Michelloui said...

I remember being so excited to get online a few years after I moved to the uk. I used to write great long emails to everyone. Then I had a baby. Now all I can say is, Thank Goodness for Skype!

And thank you for the mention and your comments on my blog. x

Grit said...

oh that is lovely and touching all at once. and i don't know whether to feel sad or happy about not being in hk for christmas. (whose foolish idea was it to fly home to the uk for that event? not mine!) but wherever we are, i now feel rather guilty that i am usually such a grumpy christmas sport. i just drink the gin and fall asleep.

Iota said...

You're right. You DO have to put more effort into celebrations, when you're away from family and other support networks. But that can have its rewards. My husband and I were just talking about how we're going to try and make Christmas special this year (no visitors from UK), and we've come up with one or two ideas which I think the children will enjoy. I'm guessing they might become annual traditions - who knows? We wouldn't have thought of them if we'd had grandparents/uncles/aunts/cousins around to fill up the time.

nappy valley girl said...

Mwa - no, the web can't do everything. But at least I can see pictures of my friends' children - that way I won't get quite such a shock when I next see them and they are huge.

Michelloui - a pleasure. My friends need to get more into Skype. I keep telling them it's free!

Grit - Love the idea of you necking the gin and falling asleep. Try and enjoy the Christmas run up in HK - and the best thing is, it's the best time of year for weather.

Iota - Yes. I forgot to mention, we always had Christmas lunch with the same friends every year in HK. It became a tradition. They felt like family.

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

I've done the trip from NY to London so many times that it's on par in my mind with driving down to Cornwall. But then I remember that I can't get in a car and drive to my family or friends in the States any old time. It's a reality that I don't think about too much or else it would probably just make me feel sad.