Living the Dream: Mark Tilly takes on Christmas as an expat, why family Skyping is hard, and leaving the country to avoid your racist relatives.
There is often a sort of tragic image that springs to mind when thinking of spending Christmas day away from the family in a country that doesn’t celebrate the occasion.
One usually thinks of some poor 50-something whale who has willingly beached himself on the coast of Thailand or Bali.
He has a cheap cocktail in one hand and a sandwich that is presumably turkey, but really could be anything, in the other.
His children are spending the day with their significant others’ families and his ex-wife is gallivanting around Europe with her new lover.
And so, excluding a 10 minute Skype call back home, five of which consists of yelling down the phone as the signal drops in and out, he spends his Christmas either alone or in the company of strangers.
Some of this imagery rings true — the roasts that are put on are never as good as Mum’s, and the Skype calls are usually a one-sided affair, with six family members huddled round the phone trying to have six conversations at once.
However, there can be some positives.
After spending a second consecutive Christmas away from home, living in Phnom Penh, those positives come to the fore in the most unexpected ways.
One of the biggest is the lack of Christmas, consumerist madness that has devoured the West.
While many of Phnom Penh’s supermarkets and malls have donned the Christmas colours, with staff forced to wear Santa hats, Christmas lights shining everywhere and big puffer coats put on display (despite it being 33 degrees), it seems positively subdued compared to back home.
No customers fighting over the last turkey in the fridge, no mothers yelling at overworked service staff over sold out wrapping paper and no children in the toy isle screaming over what they want at their flustered parents.
No one is doomed to the drudgerous march to the nearest Westfield where you spend 30 minutes trying to park, 20 minutes in a checkout queue and another 30 minutes trying to get out of said car park.
This is all the while being harangued by other shoppers on the same laborious journey, that might as well be to Mount fucking Doom, for all the hardship it invokes.
There are also the benefits of being able to choose the ones you spend your Christmas day with.
No longer will you have to endure the inevitable barrage over refugees, the benefits of Donald Trump and the general moral decay of society at large by the red faced uncle on their fifth bourbon and coke at two in the afternoon.
And at the end of the day there isn’t the horrible realisation as you stumble into bed in a turkey induced coma, that you’ve spent dozens of hours preparing for this one day and now it’s over you simply have to get on with your life, pretending It didn’t involve a stupid amount of stress.
Instead you can spend the day sitting on a rooftop pool with a few close companions, drinking cocktails, wandering to a bar for a makeshift roast, and go to bed knowing you exerted very little effort on a day that for most of us involves about as much spiritual thought as a hipster nativity scene.
Cambodians for one are quite open in acknowledging they celebrate the more shallow aspects the day entails, rather than what most of us do back home and celebrate it for the exact same inane reasons, but with all the pressures included.
That said, maybe I spent too much of my early twenties working in retail, enduring the worst aspects of the western Christmas experience.
Perhaps living in a place that provides a much more muted Christmas experience for an ex retail worker is the equivalent of a war veteran playing laser tag.
While the frustrating Skype call leaves a trace of loneliness and longing for home, the roast occasionally comes out half cooked and your company of friends can become limited to the ones who chose not to or couldn’t afford the flight back home (me), Christmas abroad is a thoroughly different and therefore enriching experience.
And If that little baby, non-violent, revolutionary, middle eastern Jew was asking humanity for anything, wasn’t it to meet and experience as many people from as many places as possible in order to gain empathy and understanding for and from those around us? One would hope.