People are with their families, celebrating their new year and the return of light the new year brings after the darkness of the winter (I think. There are other deity-related stories around this festival, I hear).
We had a quiet night in after a very brief foray into the festivities in the early evening. We had hoped for a restaurant dinner, but after going around a few block it was apparent there were none open, and the combination of the noise, crowd and the general frenzy before the big family dinner time (for everyone else who were out, we imagined) was a little too much.
Once we found our way back up the hotel, I went back out to forage. Bananas, bread, water and some newali snack (three pancakes with an egg dropped in the middle with a mysterious yellow stir-fried thing that turned out to be: fish cakes? Rice balls? Soft, slightly chewy, savory and yummy)—we spread my loot out on the rooftop of our guesthouse, which was darkly but thankfully lit by fluorescent light. “I wish we had candles,” I said out loud, half jokingly, fully aware of the irony that in the night when more candles are being lit than there are people in this city, we had not one.
This feeling is a familiar one, so much so that it almost feels sweet, to me. Being in a foreign country during its major holidays can be a very interesting cultural experience, but not without its inconveniences. When everyone is with their family, we tourists don’t have a place to be, things to do, or people to be with. Thanksgiving breaks in college in the Triangle. St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Christmastime in Seattle. I remember, once when I was in Grad school, my parents and a friend visited me in North Carolina during my winter break. They wanted to tour around a bit during their stay, so I stupidly planned a visit to Asheville on Christmas Day. We arrived late that evening, and found that the whole town was shut for business. We scrounged together packs of mini-bar snacks that night for dinner.
Even after I felt adjusted to the culture and had friends and their family to visit, I never once felt fully integrated and at home in these holiday time rituals. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I am, for all the hospitality and graciousness extended toward me all these years in all these places. But I never was able to forget that I was at best an honorable guest at these occasions, with really no role to play nor obligations to fulfill.
Nor did it change after I made a decision to marry into an American family, have a default-by-birth American kid, and settle in the U.S. I didn’t become comfortable dressing up for Halloween, or getting a tree for Christmas, or visit the in-laws for Thanksgiving. If anything, it all felt even more awkward now that I was expected, somehow, to act as if these were part of my tradition all along.
But it’s not because I keep moving around so much. When I left my home culture nearly twenty four years ago, I became an expat, or nomad, in a larger sense of these terms. I lost my home, in lieu of mobility, freedom and opportunities.
Twenty four years is a long time. Perhaps, if I tried really hard and spent time cultivating my home where I settled, and adopted and adjusted to the host culture, wherever that may have been, I could have become integrated to that culture. And maybe, as I believed for some time in the past, there’s a way to create your own, hybrid culture wherever you are by blending what’s yours with what’s natively there. And you could argue, that’s all what “culture” is: a blend of individual traditions, melded and institutionalized over generations.
But my feeling is that for me, no matter how many years you are in a place, if you aren’t of the place, you’ll never become one. You are a guest, forever, however accepted, respected and somewhat integrated.
And, once you have left, you can’t go home again.
Such is the dark side of being an expat/nomad/immigrant.
The bright side, though, offers a plenty to celebrate, too, it turns out. Dipika, our son and I have many real references to the feelings, sights, sounds and smells of many different cultural festivities. St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, Christmas time in New York, Halloween in Seattle, Diwali, Dashain in India and Nepal, New Year’s Day in Japan… We can relate to them all, albeit from a “guest’s” point of view, as real events, with our own personal memories. Every March is a chance for us to reminisce about our time together in Ireland. Every January 1, we celebrate the new year as we remember the smell of pine branches and Japanese incenses.
It’s not necessarily a choice (I had no idea what the real cost/benefit of my leaving my home country at the time), but it’s overall a happy circumstance—I’m comfortable accepting the awkwardness along with the chance to keep exploring and discovering.