Matthew Fontana, 126
With the arrival of December we are officially in the thick of the holiday season. This is the time when, back home, friends and family are gathering together; throwing parties, sharing meals, and just having a good time in general. Meanwhile I’m stuck in my village, mindlessly scrolling through an endless stream of Instagram photos showing people’s heaping plates of Thanksgiving food, waiting for the rain to stop so I can bike 20+ kilometers to a 7-11 and buy a microwaveable hot dog, then pretend to have some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal. The holiday season is tough here, there’s no doubt about it. In my first year of service I was entrenched deep in denial about how much I actually missed it. “Thai holidays are just as fun!”, “I can celebrate on my own here and it’ll be just as good!”, and “I actually enjoy not doing anything for once!” were some of the biggest lies I spoon fed myself in order to trudge through the season. This year is different. This year I’m not lying to myself: being a Peace Corps Volunteer during the holidays kinda really sucks. No matter how you spin it, you just can’t replicate the feeling of being with your loved ones on Christmas, Thanksgiving or even Halloween (otherwise known as the Big Three for me, suck it Easter). But with two years of isolated-village-living under my belt, I’ve learned to mitigate the feelings of holiday homesickness with a few bold and innovative strategies that aren’t bold and innovative as much as they are overlooked and underutilized.
Pull the Plug
The quickest and most sure-fire way to send yourself spiraling down a tunnel of dejection and longing during the holiday season is to glue yourself to social media. All those bright, colorful pictures of elaborate Halloween costumes, fanciful Christmas decorations, and of course the aforementioned staple of the Instagram world -plates of food – really do nothing but serve the singular purpose of heightening your sense of FOMO ( Fear Of Missing Out). Sure it’s nice to take a peek at what your friends and family are up to back home – but if your first move every morning is to pull out a device to see what you missed out on during the eight hours since you fell asleep, well then your head is gonna be in America while your body is still firmly rooted in Thailand; problems are sure to arise. If you absolutely must take a gander through the social media peephole of American life, a good strategy for mitigating the inevitable longing you’ll feel is to limit your cyber stalking to a specific amount of time per day. Setting a limit such as 15 minutes after lunch or 10 minutes before bed, and then sticking to that limit, will go a long way towards preventing your holiday homesickness from completely engulfing you. And if you’re scoffing at the notion of limiting your Instagram time to a measly 10-15 minutes then you’ve got bigger problems on your hands, my friend.
Sharing is Caring
If you’ve successfully powered down and gone off the grid, but still find yourself daydreaming of hand-knitted sweaters and warm cups of cocoa (that are more marshmallow than actual cocoa if you’re like me), then a good next step is to bring the holidays to your host country. Some Volunteers decorate their living spaces to be more festive or head into town to make special purchases to recreate a holiday meal, but sometimes it’s just not enough. The real magic comes from not just recreating the holiday spirit for your own enjoyment, but more so from spreading it within your community. This is probably the most overt and obvious suggestion I can make, but surprisingly it still
gets a lot of criticism; “Thai’s don’t appreciate our holidays the same”, “No one in my neighborhood is interested in learning about a fat white man that breaks into our homes to leave gifts”, or “Why would I waste all the effort it takes to make mashed potatoes and gravy if they’re just going to call it bland, push it around with their forks for a few minutes, then leave it for the dogs?” When it comes to celebrating the holidays at site, I’ve found that keeping it intimate is the key. If you try and get an entire school’s population to dress up for Halloween or wear goofy Santa hats, you might end up with mixed results. Alternatively, if you keep your celebrations restrained to just your host family or a small group of students, you’ll have a much easier time getting the whole gang on board. This is going to be much more satisfying for you as a Volunteer grappling with holiday homesickness.
When in Doubt, Get Out
Lastly, the almost surefire way to get your mind off what everyone is doing back home is to make a quick break to the nearest metropolitan area and have a meet-up with your fellow Volunteers. Yes, there is no bigger no-brainer to solve the it’s-90-degrees-in-December blues than to coordinate a meet-up with some fellow Americans that know exactly what you’re going through. In my opinion the key to making the most out of this tip, especially if you’re still in your first year of service, is to let go of any qualms you have about leaving site. Sometimes you absolutely need a break and you shouldn’t get down on yourself for taking a couple days to relax and unwind. Inthe long run it’s going to help keep your sanity, which will in turn increase your likelihood of completing your service. If you look at it that way it’s a win-win, your community gets a full two years working with an all-star Volunteer such as yourself, and you get a social weekend in Bangkok with all your friends – what could be better?
The common theme of all three of these suggestions is that they all require you to stay in the moment. Some of you reading this may still mentally have a piece of yourself back home in the States, and while that might feel comforting to you, it’s probably also keeping you from fully immersing yourself in this experience and appreciating everything that you have now. I’m not asking you to cut off all contact with the world outside of Thailand, but rather to keep the two experiences separate. When it’s time to Skype with your loved ones back home, by all means relish it, but once the laptop closes the best thing you can do for yourself is to shift gears back into your life here. You can’t exist in two places at once physically, so why would you think it would be possible to do it mentally? Once you’re able to be present here in all states of being, then I can almost guarantee that you’ll not only overcome holiday homesickness but also both regular and SUPER homesickness (which is something I made up to describe the feeling when you’re on the brink of calling it quits). It’s not an easy task, but if you work at it a little bit every day you’ll feel better before you know it, with hopefully enough time to figure out a way to spice up mashed potatoes enough for Thai people to stomach them.