When You’re Homeless for the Holidays


I stared in bleak desperation. Two burners, one pot, one frying pan and a microwave. The logistics of preparing a full-fledged Thanksgiving Dinner to remember seemed impossibly complex. Maybe we could eat dinner in several courses, and do dishes in between? Maybe I should give up and forget my favorite holiday? Plus, throngs of mopeds stood between me and the grocery store; the adrenaline rush seemed counter intuitive for a pleasant holiday.

My Thanksgiving in China wasn’t my first homeless holiday. I had already experienced the Kenyan Christmas, the Ugandan Thanksgiving, the Vietnamese Christmas, the American Thanksgiving in Canada, the Kenyan Thanksgiving, and a birthday in Kenya, Uganda, China, Canada. I cherish my holiday traditions and memories, and feel it keenly when each new holiday abroad comes with its own struggles and failures, triumphs and victories.

Ultimately, holidays are not about “my” traditions and “my” favorites and “my” culture.

Holidays are about celebrating a joy-filled, love-filled event that – ideally – should be unrelated to the traditions and cultures in which I find myself.

Isn’t Christmas in Kenya celebrating the same as Christmas at home? Is Thanksgiving in China any less thanks-filled than a Thanksgiving in America? Does a birthday abroad not “count” as a birthday to remember?

With each holiday, it’s a challenge; I am forced to battle through the bad attitude and grumpy morning to ultimately find my “holiday spirit.”

(It sounds like a sappy Hallmark movie, doesn’t it?)

1. Embrace the Different.

One year in Uganda, I had soup for supper – dished over rice, a fish head stared up at me with it’s black beady eye. Thanksgiving dinner will never look the same, but it makes for one great story. I couldn’t eat the eye (it’s a delicacy that my stomach just couldn’t handle), but my fish-and-rice soup has become one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. And, really, what is more fabulous than a warm Thanksgiving day? No need for sweaters and coats and scarves – a holiday on the equator is the bombdiggity! It isn’t the easiest attitude adjustment, but if you can embrace the different, the unique can be what make the holiday so special.

2. Make new memories, don’t just bemoan the lost traditions.

Let’s face it: some traditions become so routine, the memories get lost in a haze of sameness. By embracing the different and making new memories, I create a very distinct holiday to cherish. Like the weekend I spent in Shanghai for my birthday. No other birthday will ever be like that one. Granted, it didn’t involve honey-baked chicken and mashed potatoes. Sadly, I didn’t have any candles to blow out. And, no, my house wasn’t decorated in celebration when I woke up. However, I was in Shanghai. And I walked along the Bund, people-watched on Nanjing, and navigated the Metro system like a pro.

3. Pick one thing that stays the same.

While embracing the different and making new memories, I think it’s completely legitimate to pick something that remains constant. After our fish-eye-stew in Uganda, we Americans scurried away to gorge ourselves on the pumpkin pie we’d spent all afternoon making completely from scratch. For my Chinese Thanksgiving, I brought a pack of Stovetop Stuffing Mix to eat alongside my mashed potatoes and teriyaki chicken as a little taste of “my” Thanksgiving.

4. Find kindred spirits and celebrate together.

I can almost guarantee that every expat you see is just as lonely as you are during whatever holiday you’re facing. This is the perfect time to deepen friendships, make new friends, and bond over some Christmas carols. No matter what country I’ve been in, I’ve watched incredibly diverse personalities blend into joyful celebration, unified by the keen desire to celebrate a traditional holiday outside its usual culture.

Holidays are established to celebrate and remember. What better way to celebrate and remember than enjoying a new experience in a new country?

(originally published in 2013)

Photography: JenniMarie Photography


  1. Such neat adventures you’ve been on, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing and reminding me–in the midst of an adventure-filled Christmas, for sure–that adventures laced with loneliness are okay, too. 🙂 Needed that today.

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