Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Expat’s Christmas in Oman: Some Lessons for Travelers

I woke up, stretched, and looked out the window, half expecting to see a gorgeous winter wonderland. Instead, I got the same old desert and blinding sun. But it was still Christmas, and it didn’t matter that I had sand instead of snow. There had been no celebrations to go to. No parties, no stockings, no children opening presents, no snow. It wasn’t even cold out. But it was a time that I knew and understood. It was a time focus on me and not on my surroundings. Despite the distinctly untraditional scenery, my first expat Christmas turned out to be one of the most Christmas-y of them all.

As an expat in a very different country from your own, you learn to adapt and make the most of what you can get. You learn to appreciate the little things that make you feel more at home, because that’s all you are going to get. I’ve never considered myself a sentimental woman, but this holiday season I might have merited the name. Things that I never really cared about before, I suddenly craved here in my sandy wonderland. I was unusually excited about baking cookies and I listened again and again to the same dozen sappy Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra songs. I desperately wanted to feel that Christmas feeling. Christmas food, music, decorations, greetings, and gifts—all those things did help create a warm holiday atmosphere. But that isn’t what made this Christmas in Oman so meaningful.

For the past four months, I have been struggling to create a balance between culture immersion and personal sanity. Living in a rural town in the mountains of Oman, it has been difficult to maintain a “safe place” to be able to recollect and relax in, free from constant social challenges and cultural clashes. People don’t celebrate Christmas here. In Muscat, the capital, it’s a different story, but here, you’re lucky to find some tinsel in the birthday aisle at the store.

Living in a culture that is so different from your own, it’s sometimes a challenge to find a focus and identity. People are constantly talking about things you don’t understand and celebrating things you don’t celebrate. Perhaps it sounds egotistical, but it’s nice to have an occasion that you celebrate that they don’t. While I hate to use the “you-they” rhetoric that causes so many problems in the world, I believe that it is healthy and necessary to maintain an understanding of real differences between yourself and people from other cultures. This doesn’t need to be something that causes hatred, but rather something that gives you a lens through which to see the new culture. This is not a view through rose-colored glasses, but rather a clear and realistic look at another world that is as flawed as any other.

Christmas for expats in Oman, as in other countries, is an opportunity to solidify your identity. It’s something special for us, and not for them, which helps us avoid getting lost in the whirlwind of constant social and cultural pressure. Living for months and maybe years in a profoundly different society, especially when you are making a daily effort to learn about it and understanding it, can wear away at your foundation. There’s a deep difference between understanding and even loving a new culture, and trying to make it yours. It’s not yours and never can be. Something that naïve travelers don’t always understand is the importance of retaining a strong sense of personal cultural identity when engulfing yourself in a new place. When you loose yourself, your background and your traditions, you loose your vision, your purpose and your stability. Traveling to an extremely different place isn’t just enriching and refreshing; it’s also exhausting and discombobulating. You have to have somewhere to come back to—mentally and physically.

Christmas is a beautiful time no matter where you are, but I gained a deeper appreciation than ever before for this religious and cultural holiday being an American in a conservative Muslim mountain town. As always, but even more so here, it was a chance to center and to focus on myself and those I love, rather than getting caught up in the daily bustle of juggling challenging cultural differences.