I think if you are going to experience Culture Shock or homesickness, Christmas might be a good time to go for it and get it over and done with. It will certainly feel strange if you have never been away from home, family and friends at Christmas. Even if you are settled and happy with your family, it’s certainly going to be a different Christmas for you. But don’t worry, Santa knows where you are and of course he knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, because you are on that list and he’s been checking it twice, so you’ll be fine.
So, culture shock at Christmas – you might be OK, you might love being with new faces and places, but if you are a recent arrival to the US you might be getting to the so called ‘one month slump’ stage. This tends to happen, you’ve guessed it, at the thirty day point after you arrive. The pre-departure excitement is a thing of the past – you managed to work out how to pack for a year, waved goodbye to your family and you got through orientation – took in all that information, had a blast in NYC and finally got to meet your host family. So now, you’ve got used to the kids, made your room your own and met your local coordinator. Life is feeling a bit more settled, you know the routine, you’re OK driving on the wrong side of the road, you’ve found the park, the store and the school. So this is when culture shock tends to happen, you’ve found a ‘new normal’, the honeymoon period is over and your adrenaline slows down, you start to come down a bit.
This happened to me when I was an au pair, but at about two months in, and it was all due to Christmas. I was loving being with my new family. I arrived in October and the hot weather had carried on right up to Thanksgiving. I was living in the Rockaways which is a spit of land with the ocean either side (and more recently the ocean right on top of it thanks to Hurricane Sandy). I went running along the board walk most days when the kids were in school, the skies were blue, and I had NYC a subway ride away. I was getting to know the family and what was expected of me. The kids thought I spoke funny, all was good. Then suddenly Christmas was coming and I felt like I was 3000 miles away from it. Like loads of families in the Rockaways in Queens, the family I was with were Jewish (they most likely still are). So, Christmas isn’t really a thing if you are Jewish – there are loads of other holidays and they loved nothing more than a massive extended family celebration, but Christmas just didn’t feature, in the way that Hanukkah had always passed me by I suppose. The children went to a local school that was Jewish, so December 25th was just a normal school day that year – I dropped the kids off, came home and wondered what everyone was doing back home… in fact that train of thought had started the night before when I’d imagined all my friends meeting in the pub by the canal and doing all the usual Christmassy stuff without me. I suddenly felt a bit flat. If Skype had been invented I might have Skyped home, but instead I called and sort of felt a bit worse.
I think that’s the only time in the whole year I was au pairing that I felt like I’d rather be at home. Later in the day, and this might be a good example of cultural exchange in action, the host Mum said ‘C’mon let’s go for a drive and have a look at the decorations’. You might already know this but in the US, some people go totally wild decorating the outside of their houses with Christmas lights, life size Santas on the roof, flashing neon, moving elves and drummer boys – and massive electricity bills for December. I saw a house where they had built on a sort of temporary annexe and filled it with a replica Santa’s workshop. In some residential areas people start to get a bit competitive, ‘more is more’ and subtlety doesn’t win any second glances at all. Lights are flashing and Christmas is coming in a big red, gold and green hullaballoo. People drive to the best decorated areas just to have a look.
It was great for me, it was a reminder that I wasn’t alone in expecting Christmas on December 25th and I felt a bit better about everything – it was just one day, next year, I knew au pairing would be behind me and I’d probably be home telling everyone about this year and perhaps even wishing I was here (there). However, not everyone felt the same way. The little girl looked at me and said quietly ‘We don’t like the Christian houses’. So there we were, slowly going up and down roads to a quiet chorus of ‘Boo’ for the decorated houses and ‘Hurrah!’ for the undecorated ones, which gradually got louder and louder. Boo! Hurrah! Boo! Boo! BOOO! HURRAH! Boooooo!!… Well, it made me laugh out loud, I love it when kids are honest and sort of rude at the same time and I’d never met anyone that didn’t love Christmas before. Once she realised what was going on, their Mum was mortified of course, not knowing me well enough to know if I was going to be offended or upset , she gave them a right old serious lecture about it not mattering what religion anyone is until they said ‘OK OK fine! We DO like the ugly Christian houses! ‘. Then we stopped for pizza and hot chocolate, and the kids asked me lots of questions about Christmas, ever so slightly suspicious about the whole thing. The main thing they wanted to know was why Santa was killed on a cross? Wasn’t that a mean thing to do to somebody that brought you presents!? Once we’d cleared up that little bit of mistaken identity, they were a lot happier about the whole idea of Christmas. So we moved on to why we hang stockings and why we eat turkey and how come I celebrated Christmas but wasn’t a Christian, and loads of things I’d never really thought to question in the past. When we came out of the pizza place (hang on, why were they open on Christmas Day?) it was frosty and cold and everything seemed right. I knew I’d never have a Christmas day quite like this again.
I often wonder if they remember that night, in fact when I send them a Christmas card (which is going to be late – but won’t matter, because next Thursday is probably going to be a regular school day, and oh yes the ‘kids’ are in their thirties now, so most likely won’t be going to school) I should ask them shouldn’t I?
Like InterExchange say – this is one of those Memories that Mean the World – you’re making your own memories now…I’d love to hear from you, so come on it’s Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Mid Winter Fest, get in touch and share your au pair stories!