5 Ways We’ve Experienced Christmas Abroad

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

We hope everyone enjoyed their holidays, whether they went back home or traveled in some random location.

We spent our break in Japan and South Korea and got back to Bangkok in time for the New Year.

This time of year can be hard for expats and long-term travelers, and it might be one of the few times we really don’t want to be away from our hometowns. But most long-term travelers do spend at least one Christmas, if not several, somewhere unfamiliar out in the world.

We have both done it many times now, and the experience is always a bit surreal and different from the last time.

Here are some of the experiences we’ve had:

We’ve spent Christmas in our “home away from home.”

My first Christmas as an expat was in Guangzhou, China and I didn’t get enough time off to go home or travel. Simon’s first year in Bangkok was the same.

The good news is that 1st year ESL teachers usually have great friends and plenty of enthusiasm for the place they’re living, so the holidays are weird but a ton of fun.

In China, a big group of us found a restaurant serving Christmas dinner and then went to a party that lasted until the wee hours of the morning (even though we had to work the next afternoon).

In Thailand, Simon had the best night out of his life on Christmas Eve and then spent most of Christmas Day trying to recover while forcing down Christmas dinner (which admittedly doesn’t sound great, but he always looks really happy when he’s reminiscing about this).

I’ve spent Christmas with another family.

My next Christmas abroad was in England with Simon’s family. If I’m not with my own family, this might be the next best thing. It was nice to spend the holiday in a more traditional setting with a big tree, a home cooked meal, parents and grandparents around, and plenty of gifts. I was still on the other side of an ocean from my own home, but I felt just as cozy and nostalgic and as ever.

We’ve spent Christmas in the perfect Christmas location.

Another excellent Christmas recommendation for a traveler? Iceland! Everything was covered in snow, decorated just right, and full of holiday spirit. It was just the two of us, but it felt like we had walked into that perfect scene on a Christmas card.

We’ve had a backpacking Christmas.

This year we experienced Christmas with bags strapped to our backs, and although we spent the actual Christmas day in a (weird, empty, slightly pay-by-the-hour-ish) motel in Busan, South Korea, we spent most of our two week trip going from hostel to hostel. Backpacking in Asia couldn’t be more nontraditional, but it is also a very social way to travel – so if you want to feel part of a community rather than alone in a foreign land, this might be the way.

We’ve spent Christmas where they don’t really “do Christmas.”

For many of our holidays abroad, we’ve been in Buddhist or otherwise Non-Christian cultures that don’t really celebrate during this time of year. Decorations are put up, but there is something slightly off about them – whether they are using strange pastel colors or making the characters a bit too cartoonish compared to what we are used to.

The day itself is the most bizarre, as all the shops and businesses stay open and you’ll find everyone just going about their lives as usual. This can be extremely interesting or extremely depressing depending on your attitude.

But no matter where you are, you are likely to find a group of fellow expats and travelers who are determined to celebrate together have an amazing time. In Busan, we holed up in a cozy pub to drink mulled wine and champagne for two days. There were many other foreigners around doing the same. It wasn’t the most traditional, but it was a great time and will make a great memory.

Have you ever spent Christmas abroad? We’d love to hear about your experience! Share with us below.

Tips for Traveling Vegetarians

When traveling, many people discover that they actually need fewer things than they once thought. If you want it to be, life can surprisingly simple.

I’m happy with a bed to sleep in, a few changes of clothes, and my phone to help out with local maps, translation, keeping in touch, and entertainment.

And a few meals a day, of course. Sound easy? It is! But many think finding these meals would be a challenge for me while traveling since I am a vegetarian.

My favorite pasta dish in Italy

It’s true that many cultures around the world eat very meat-heavy diets, and the concept of vegetarianism isn’t too popular.

But I have never gone hungry anywhere. I’ve eaten a few strange meals, usually on my first day somewhere, but in the end vegetarian food is always accessible without any worries.

Spring rolls and egg coffee in Vietnam

If you are also vegetarian and you’re worried about an upcoming trip, here are my best tips:

Learn a little about the food before you go. No matter where you’re heading, it only takes a quick google search to discover the most popular dishes. Find out if any of the common local cuisine is suited for your diet. Then keep a look out for these items on menus.

Learn how to say “vegetarian” or “I don’t want meat” in the local language. When I lived in China, I would just say “bu yao rou” (don’t want meat) if I couldn’t figure out the menu. A few minutes later, I’d be handed something vegetarian. Thailand has been a little trickier as not all food vendors will make something vegetarian for me, but if I say “mungsawirat” (vegetarian) I will usually at least be pointed to a place that can serve me.

My first couple meals in China

Combine sides to make a meal. I have actually done this my whole vegetarian life, even prior to my time abroad. It’s why I constantly reassure my friends that I can figure out something to eat no matter what restaurant they choose. I don’t need any of my food to be labeled a “main course.” Give me a salad, potatoes, and some beans. Altogether it fills me up just fine.

Look for western restaurants. We’ve yet to visit any city that didn’t have a least a couple western restaurants. Even if the traditional local meals always include meat, you’ll likely find some familiar vegetarian food on a more international menu.

Talk to other travelers or expats. Meeting fellow vegetarian or vegan travelers has been very common for me. I’ve probably met more abroad than I did back home. Ask them where they have been eating and share tips.

Pastries, crepes, cheese, and chocolate in France – maybe not the healthiest, but it’s all vegetarian 🙂

Go to the grocery store. If you’re really stuck (which, again, has honestly never happened to me) then you are guaranteed to find vegetarian food at the grocery store. There isn’t a country in the world that isn’t selling rice, beans, potatoes, fruit, and veggies at the market.

Cooking in India

Pack your own. This is completely unnecessary, but it can give you some peace of mind if you are still worried. The first time I left the country I was heading to Tanzania and I had no idea what to expect. I stuck several jars of peanut butter in my bag for safety.

I’d love to hear from other vegetarian travelers! How do you usually find the best food abroad? What country was best for meat-free diets? And where was it more of a challenge?






How to Handle Culture Shock

As we’ve recently discussed, living in a foreign country as an expat is hugely different from traveling during short-term trips.

In July 2015, this difference really hit me, and it wasn’t a subtle realization.

I was sitting at the dinner table in my soon-to-be apartment, uncomfortable and confused as my new real estate agent and potential landlord rapidly spoke Chinese to each other. It seemed like they were shouting most of the time. They weren’t smiling. Occasionally I’d be asked a question that I never knew the context of – was I Russian? Who was my employer? Was I taking Chinese classes? I’d answer, the landlord would nod curtly, the real estate agent would sigh or roll her eyes – because of me? Because of the landlord?

This conversation lasted from 6pm to 11pm, and I still wasn’t sure if I was getting the apartment at the end of it.

Leaving, I didn’t remember where the metro was – I got pretty lost looking for it. Taxi drivers were baffled by my hotel’s address, several just shaking their heads at me and driving off. I thought the street I was walking down was terrifying after dark. It smelled strange and I saw more than a few rats that were basically the size of small dogs.

This was a whole new experience and assortment of feelings for me. I felt out of place, vulnerable, and overwhelmingly confused.

Before I moved to China, I had been warned about the culture shock I’d most likely encounter. I wasn’t taken completely off guard by any of my negative thoughts. I knew they were natural, and that they’d pass.

Five Stages

True to my nature, I had done plenty of research before beginning my life abroad, and I repeatedly read about these 5 stages for expat life:

1. Honeymoon – At first you’re just thrilled with everything about your new home. It’s a bit like falling in love, where every quirk is fascinating and beautiful. You can’t imagine ever feeling differently.

2. Frustration – But no infatuation lasts forever. Soon little cultural differences will start to rub against you and irritate you. Things were just easier at home. You’ll start to compare your routines, values, and world views with those around you – and secretly you’ll decide that your way is the better way.
3. Adjustment – Hopefully you’ll reach this stage sooner rather than later. It will begin to dawn on you that there is no “better” ways, just different ways. If you’re going to live somewhere long term, you’ll have to learn to live like the locals do in many ways.
4. Acceptance – Here’s where you’ll find a good sense of peace. At this stage, your foreign environment now seems normal to you. You are comfortable and at home.
5. Reversal – But you still have one hurdle left: going home. Whether you’re returning for a short visit or to move back permanently, most expats say they feel a bit out of place when they try to rejoin their old communities. It’s not until you’re back in a familiar setting that you’ll realize how much you’ve been affected by your new culture.

What Does Culture Shock Feel Like?

Just being able to name an uncomfortable feeling can cause it to lose power, so knowing what thoughts can be classified as “culture shock” can definitely help you to not be overwhelmed by your first few months abroad.

Helplessness – It’s normal to feel a bit lost when it comes to many of the tasks you’ll need to complete upon arrival, from finding an apartment to setting up a bank account. These processes will likely work differently than you’re used to, and you’ll be trying to communicate with people who speak a different language.

Mistrust – After I had been in China awhile, it became easy to spot a newbie expat because they often seemed kind of paranoid. They’d think that all taxi drivers were trying to scam them, or that all local food would make them sick, or that they needed to be safely home every day before sunset. An unfamiliar environment can stir up a lot of fear, whether it’s rational or not.

Annoyance – Irritability is another tell-tale symptom of culture shock. Maybe you’ll find the locals to be too loud, too polite, too slow, or too pushy. You might want to change the way things are done to make everything easier, clearer, or nicer.

Loneliness – Finally, it’s normal to feel lonely at first. At home you had relationships you spent years building. Now all your friends are brand new. It takes time to build intimacy and genuine closeness.

Now What?

So you’ve determined that you are experiencing culture shock – what can you do about it?

Don’t pack up your bags quite yet. This phase is only temporary, and if you understand why you’re feeling the way you do it’s much easier to overcome. Try these tips to help yourself deal better:

– Talk about it with another expat.
– But then take your mind off it by doing something you enjoy.
– Take note of positive things you observe. Write them down.
– Ask a lot of questions and make very few judgments about your new culture.
– Guard your thoughts – don’t allow yourself to compare this culture with your home culture.
– Befriend locals, not just other expats.
– Stay in touch with loved ones back home.

Have you ever experienced culture shock while living abroad? How did you handle it?







What Travelers Should Know Before They Go Home

There are many milestones in an expat’s life. Finding your favorite coffee shop or bar that you visit weekly. Having your first basic exchange in the local language. Making your first good friend. Saying goodbye to a friend who is moving on.

And going back home for the first time.

Visiting home can be both exciting and daunting. Kristin is about to do it for first time after being away for over two years, and I’ve also gone as long as two years without getting back to my hometown.

Kristin’s heading back to Anna Maria in December after 2 years away.

If you’re also about to go home after an extended period abroad, here’s what you should probably expect:


Interest in your life abroad will be minimal.

You might be fantasizing about your return, envisioning yourself as the life of the party – everyone will want to know every detail of your adventures. If this is what you’re hoping for, you should start readjusting your expectations now. Most expats are surprised, or even a bit hurt, when their friends and families show very little interest in where they live or where they’ve traveled to.

It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you – but if they haven’t been overseas themselves, they just don’t understand enough about your lifestyle to really ask that many questions. When you live abroad, you are always surrounded by fellow travelers who have similar interests and experiences at home. That’s not going to be the case at home.


You won’t relate to their stories the way you used to.

While you won’t spend much time talking about your life, you’ll probably hear a ton about their lives.

Your friends will be gossiping about people you’ve never met or barely remember. Your family will complain about a local shop shutting down. People will overreact to things you think aren’t that big of a deal – a mild traffic jam or a wrong order at a restaurant. You’ll find that their stories or ways of thinking now make you feel disconnected, like you don’t really belong there anymore.

You might find yourself daydreaming about other things


Everything will be the same.

One fear expats might have is that they’ll find their hometown has completely changed when they return. After all, we’re always told that “you can’t go home again.”
But in reality, I’ve found that home actually feels like it’s frozen in time. Small, insignificant changes will have occurred, but the things that matter stay the same. It won’t seem like years have passed. You’ll fall into a familiar, comforting, even boring routine very quickly. Your friends and family will still love you and be happy to spend lots of time with you. That will never change.


You’ll see just how much you’ve changed.

What changes during your time abroad isn’t home – it’s you. Your personality will stay the same, but your worldview and ways of thinking will be challenged and reshaped by different life experiences. Most travelers don’t realize these changes have taken place until they go home again.

You’ll realize you don’t worry as much about things that used to really stress you out. Rush hour will be a breeze after getting stuck in the congested roads of Bangkok. You’ll have more patience with cashiers, waiters, and other customer service workers simply because you speak the same language fluently and can communicate clearly. You’ll be more thankful for what you have, rather than complaining about any financial pressures, after seeing how intense poverty can be around the world.


You might realize that your hometown isn’t that interesting.

This one depends on where you’re from. Kristin’s from an island off the coast of Florida, but when I went home to my boring town in the UK I was hit with the realization that there just wasn’t much going on, and the rest of the world offers so much more.

There’s a lot more interesting places out there.


Get ready for prices you aren’t used to anymore.

Compared to a lot of other countries, the U.K. and USA are just over-the-top expensive. If you’re used to prices in Southeast Asia, South America, or somewhere else with low costs of living, the prices back home might be hard to readjust to when you return.


Doing chores again will be a struggle.

Because it’s so affordable, we have a cleaning service in Thailand. We can also eat out every night for barely any money, so we never cook. As lazy as it makes us sound, suddenly having to clean and cook for ourselves again is a rude awakening. It’s definitely a part of our old lives that we don’t miss.


You don’t actually miss some things as much as you think.

Maybe you have a favorite food that you can’t really find anywhere but home. Maybe you miss an old hobby that is difficult to keep up abroad. Some expats are disappointed to realize that they’ve wrongly idealized these little things when they weren’t available, but at least going without them won’t be such a big deal anymore.


The reality is that nothing really changes when you return home. Your hometown is not going anywhere, and your family and true friends will always be there for you when you return. Your visit probably won’t be perfect, but what is? You will still have what matters – time with the people you love most. So enjoy it for what it is, and then get back into the world for your next adventure.

Enjoy your travels! You’re missing nothing back home. 

Expats – how long has it been since you’ve been home? If you’ve already been home for the first time, what was it like?