Sunday, April 15, 2018

International Marriage Holidays and Traditions: How We Ended Up with Zero

No holidays, no problem!

A friend's recent visit during Easter reminded me of this facet of our lives. My friend was so sweet: "what do you want to do for Easter? I remember sharing holidays with foreign friends when I was abroad was so special" was her inquiry before arriving.

The reality was, I was not particular one way or another about doing something "for Easter." I have memories of dyeing eggs and doing Easter-y things back when I was a student away from home, but after a few years of being the only one around with knowledge of this day--special in so many countries, but not here--it stopped mattering so much, and now it's to the point where it doesn't bother me that it doesn't matter. This is the case with all the holidays. How did we get here? I can think of a few reasons: lack of children, lack of an expat community, our personalities, and our faith.

1. Lack of kids
I remember reading expat blogs back in the day in which holidays and traditions were spun as a big plus of international marriages: "You can enjoy holidays from not one but two different cultures!!1! Yay!!!11!" but now I wonder, how? In my experience, the two different cultures only really serve to cancel each other out, and we end up with zero!

I'm sure this would change if we had kids, and the doubling of traditions come into play when children are present. So many holidays in both Japan and the U.S. revolve around kids and doing fun experiences with them: Christmas presents, Easter egg hunts, Halloween candy, and all the rest. In Japan it's otoshidama New Year's cash gifts, mamemaki at the beginning of February, hinamatsuri doll festival for girls, 7-5-3 Day, and many more that childless adults simply have no connection with, international marriage or not. Our experience of dwindling holidays is probably one shared by adults around the world who simply don't have the offspring necessary to get involved.

2. Lack of an expat community 
I first realized expat communities were a thing about 2 years ago when I read the book The Good Shufu about a fancy NY lady who married a Japanese man. One of the first things she did was seek out a fellow foreigner friend, and several pages deal with the troubles of finding good foreign connections in Japan. Things were different as an exchange student, of course, because then I lived in a dorm full of foreigners, but since I came here for work the year before our marriage, I have had a grand total of 0 foreign friends who live nearby. I have a few foreign co-workers, but that's not really an "expat community."

So many American holidays revolve around "get-togethers" and potluck culture! Family and friends gather and each person brings a dish or two to share in a roomy house decorated for the occasion. It is very hard to have a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey (or chicken substitute), gravy, mashed potatoes, some kind of vegetable, bread, pies--all the fixings--when you have to make each dish yourself, and then there's just the two of you to enjoy it anyway. All of our local friends are Japanese, and their work and personal lives aren't cut out for these kinds of get-togethers. In Japan, people gather in homes once a year at New Year's, and that is typically a family-only affair. Ohanami (cherry blossom picnics), and summer barbecues are the instances I can think of where Japanese friends can have a potluck-style get-together, but they are not related to a specific holiday or having days off of work.

If there is no surrounding community to have a "get-together" holiday with other than your significant other--who, by the way, happens to share zero of your cultural expectations concerning it--the holiday shrinks year after year, until your nod to it is practically nil. For Thanksgiving, I like to roast green beans wrapped in bacon strips. They look Thanksgiving-ish and are very easy to make. And that is about all I do. For Christmas, even less. Last year, I sent a few Christmas cards to friends and family, and that was it. And we survived!

3. Our personalities
We are probably the type of couple least-suited to the preservation of holidays and family traditions. Husband seems oblivious to them, and dislikes the social pressures involved, especially in Japanese-style Valentine's Day and Christmas. "So meaningless," he grumbles, "why not just eat chocolate or fried chicken and go on fancy dates when you want, why wait for when everything's packed and sold out and you can't get a reservation?" He once told me of an essay he wrote in elementary school condemning Japanese summer festivals and Japanese celebrations of Christmas, the reasons being that if these gods were real, they surely did not have in mind carnal displays of commercialism when they demanded worship from humans.

On the American side, I am most definitely not the get-together hostess type. I enjoy being invited to potluck events and bringing my one dish as much as the next person, but I have never dreamed of becoming the hostess. My introvert soul quivers in terror at the thought.

4. Our faith
We are Christians, and this causes us to second-guess the majority of Japanese holidays and traditions (all of which have unequivocal superstitious roots) and a few American ones as well. With the exception of New Year's, many Japanese traditions and holidays are simple affairs: there are no days off from work for a get-together, but a traditional dish is eaten on a certain day in a certain way for health or luck or longevity, with maybe a little display or activity for kids to enjoy. I don't think we will ever engage in any of them. As for American holidays, I have never been a fan of Halloween and don't miss it, though I have to put on Halloween parties for work. Christmas does not need a Christmas tree or lights or presents to be meaningful, and Christian Easter is wonderful without colored eggs. Living in Japan where these imported holidays exist in some form has made me question these trappings a lot. People complain about the commercialism of holidays and loss of meaning in the U.S. as it is, but in Japan, there never was any meaning to begin with, and commercialism is all there is and all there ever has been. At first the cheap tinselly Christmas tree displays were nice reminders of things back home, but then they became not-so-nice reminders, because they put me in mind of things I couldn't have (the get-together, and real Christmas things like food with cinnamon in it), then they were just silly. For all this display, no Japanese adults are actually taking time off work and enjoying Christmas, let alone going to church and participating in worship. Now I want to distance myself from it all a bit, the result being very little is done in our house "for Christmas."


At the end of the day, I think that's the question I come up against when it comes to traditions and holidays. The meaning of having to "do something for Christmas" "for Easter" "for Valentine's Day" "for New Year's" "for Setsubun." How much of the meaning is "for you at Christmastime" and how much of it is "for me/us so we feel normal"? Not that wanting to feel normal is bad, but as my time in Japan reaches the 6-year mark, I'm finding "normal" is pretty relative and fluid, changing with social status and life seasons, and it does not translate across international borders. This realization makes so many things I thought were important, and things I see Japanese people around me esteem as important, seem arbitrary. I don't mean that in a cynical way. Rather than serving to double our holidays and traditions, this realization cancels them out. My holidays do not have meaning here, and I do not share in the meaning of Japanese holidays. My husband is the mirror image of that same dynamic. For now, we have zero holidays, and for now, we're happy that way.

Related: New Year's in Japan and how we spend it 
              Christmas in Japan from a few years ago

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