Come home for Christmas

Living a world away puts the holiday season in a very different perspective.

The flights have been booked, the cats have a sitter, and the sweaters have been dug out of the back of the closet. This could only mean one thing — Christmas is around the corner.

Being far away from the Western world here in Dubai helps to temper the commercial overkill we usually overdose on this time of year — although that’s not to say that you can move more than a few meters in a mall here without walking into a massive Christmas tree. You can’t.

But as with anything, distance makes me feel more nostalgic and whimsical than I think acceptable in everyday situations. So as we tick those who’ve been naughty and nice off our list, I wonder: what is the correct thing to bring back from this corner of the world?

A partridge in a pear tree

One of the reasons I like to travel so much is to ‘properly’ live in different countries, rather than just pass through. That’s not to say tourism doesn’t serve a purpose, but I rather like digging in to get to know a place if I can. So, when it comes to buying souvenirs and tokens for loved ones back home I really struggle with finding something that isn’t insulting. While it’s tempting to buy the miniature camel key-chain that lights up if you press its tail, I don’t think it will have the kind of impact I’m going for.

I was at a loss for ideas so I asked some of my co-workers who have been here longer what they usually do. Almost everyone said without fail, “Just bring boxes of dates.” Hmm. Not the most delightfully unexpected gift I could imagine. There must be something I could bring back that isn’t ridiculous or tacky — or at least something to go on the side of something gaudy. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Charting a course for Christmas

In the truest brainstorming style of an English Language teacher, I drew myself a mind map in an effort to come up with gift ideas. To those who are not well-acquainted with the excellent tool that is a mind map, allow me to briefly explain. You write the topic word of what you want to think about in the middle of a piece of paper (or a whiteboard). From there, you draw categories that branch out from the main idea, and then ideas that pop out of those sub-categories, and so on. I highly recommend throwing in different colours and doodles along the way. But I digress.

National Day, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Nancy Cater.
National Day, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Right. So I was brainstorming and trying to think of what comes to mind when I consider my life in the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly enough, key-chains that light up never really factored in. One of the biggest things that will stick with me forever is also the thing that I struggle to interact with on a daily basis — the weight given in this society to honour. But what does that even mean in everyday talk, and how on Earth can I turn that into something tangible?

Without suffering through an undergraduate degree in sociology, or having to read mountains of work about how to navigate different cultures intelligently, let’s agree for now that of three choices (innocence vs. guilt; power vs. fear; honour vs. shame), Western society elevates innocence vs. guilt above the others.

Once you move out of the western world, honour starts to play a much more important role than one would recognize growing up in Newfoundland. That isn’t to say we live without honour — it just occupies a very different space in our everyday lives. I don’t ever remember feeling pressured to go into my father’s line of work because it would bestow honour upon the family name. However, when I taught in South Korea it was common for my students to seek jobs that would make their parents happy, rather than careers that interested the students themselves.

There was such a tight fist of societal pressure wrapped around the idea of not doing anything that would shame the culture, history, or X–ness of being Korean, it left me baffled again and again.

More recently, I was struck by this during the UAE’s National Day. Massive flags adorned skyscrapers, cars were befitted with the nation’s colours and leaders, and kids had the week off school to celebrate.

As someone who is hardly enthusiastic about pinning flags on lapels, I think the last thing you’d ever find me doing would be screening an image of Stephen Harper on the hood of my car. Perish the thought.

Our finest gifts we bring

Christmas trees and wind towers in Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Christmas trees and wind towers in Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.

While I may not do as the Romans do, it’s comforting to find myself better understanding where the roots of actions lie, even if what’s going on is still confusing. I see the similarities in our differences — of course I do. I want to honour and respect my family, too. I want to recognise and appreciate my history and my roots. I don’t want to ignore or disrespect my culture in a way that would shame that part of who I am. But, how? Perhaps like the little drummer boy, I’m not entirely sure I have gifts to bring in celebration of this.

Well, maybe that’s just it. No gift I bring will be as good as appreciation for how comforting the house smells when mudder’s banana bread is in the oven.

I can’t buy anything in the mall that would really sum up how I feel about sitting on the chesterfield at nan’s with a cup of tea.

Mummers, December snowfalls slow and silent, the smell of pine trees, tattered Christmas stockings stuffed full of memories and chocolate.

There’s nothing to give to history, roots, and traditions, so I’ll let them give back to me. And tell them how I carry them wherever I go.

Merry Christmas!

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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