Most days, I feel all alone. Geographically isolated from all that is familiar and linguistically isolated from what I know. The foreign language around me is easily tuned out and processed as white noise. It’s soothing and I am alone with my thoughts.
Parenting in cultural isolation can provide a new type of freedom in many ways. I have gladly discarded holidays and traditions that I never enjoyed. Without the cultural pressure to honor them, they quickly disappear. Anything that I am not willing to import myself will not get passed down to my children. It requires a lot of work to celebrate a holiday that isn’t observed locally. Sorry kids, but Valentine’s Day isn’t going to be that important for our family. You’ll survive.
Some traditions, only the ones I hold near and dear to my heart, are kept. Celebrating holidays abroad is a bit like moving abroad—you discover that not so many things are important and you only take the essentials. It turns out that I only care about three American holiday celebrations—the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Everything else is quickly forgotten.
As an American mother, I don’t feel bound by the cultural expectations of either Americans or Swedes. The geographical separation from the American societal pressures is liberating, and I am mostly oblivious to any parenting pressures held by Swedish parents. This blind bumbling around has led to some social faux pas but nothing too damaging. Maybe a few cold stares or shaking heads from the elderly Swedes, but we bumble on in ignorant bliss.
We have acquired new traditions and holidays over the years and have blended bits of our American selves into the Swedish way of life. I think the resulting outcome is more Swedish than American (a 70-30 mix, perhaps) which is a natural reflection of our environment. How much can we fight the tide? More importantly, do we even want to?
In our case, we gladly ebb and flow with the Swedish traditions and eagerly buy the Easter witch and St Lucia costumes. We eat pepparkor, drink glögg, and watch Kalle Anka on Christmas Eve—all things we would never have done before.
As the holiday season approaches, I think of the cultural hierarchy and that the winter months are when our Americanness really shines through. We get to impress our Swedish and international friends with the homey warmth that accompanies Thanksgiving. Friends and family who sit around our Thanksgiving table come from around the world and speak different languages.
We usually find last year’s Macy’s Day Parade on YouTube and every year we astound our guests with the wackiness that the parade embodies. Seeing our traditions through their eyes leads to some interesting conversations. “I’m not entirely sure why those men are dancing in sequin dresses and heels in 3 C weather…Happy Thanksgiving!” It makes you question things you take for granted.
Parenting abroad creates a cultural island, and as a parent, you get to decide what home traditions you want to pass onto your children without the cultural pressure to do anything at all. It distills your culture into the purest form. If it’s worthy of your time and energy, you keep it. If not…you discard it.
In the absence of any cultural pressure, what holidays or traditions would you keep and which ones would you gladly discard?