With Christmas right around the corner, culture shock and homesickness are very much likely to set in. For those who understand Christmas, it is obvious why homesickness will spread through the foreigners like a rampant disease; however, for those who don’t understand this is where the culture shock sets in. Last year, I remember showing up to class on December 26th, and my professor asked if we had partied all weekend for Christmas. I was immediately upset from the pain his words caused and forced myself to remain composed, “It isn’t his fault, that he doesn’t understand.” While many places in Taiwan will cover themselves in Christmas decorations and you’re quite likely to see many Christmas trees, this event is often perceived as a time when foreigners party and exchange gifts, an opportunity for commercialism. Those of us who know Christmas know that it is a time for family and not just a mere day but a season, far more similar to Chinese New Year than the picture of a jolly old white man in red may suggest.

The weekend of the 25th, we surrounded ourselves with those nearest and dearest and banded together in celebration of the family of friends we had formed here in Taiwan, and cried together the absence of our true families. As the tears dried, we threw ourselves into the homework and projects that we were all overloaded with, grateful for those moments of celebration. Culture shock, by my own definition, is the experience of having certain things about a new culture surprise you and quite often, get under your skin. It can be truly frustrating if you let it, but with great experiences come great sacrifices, and Taiwan is one of those great experiences. The misinterpretation and indifference towards a key holiday for Westerners such as Christmas can be such a truly frustrating shock to the system. However, with the support of loved ones and an understanding outlook, we might not have our families, but nevertheless, can enjoy quite a Merry Christmas at our home away from home.

For Chinese New Year, I found myself, in the company of a very good Taiwanese friend Chien-Hui and her family. She was a Taiwanese ICDF volunteer in my country and had returned home to be with her family for the Chinese New Year. Spending that time with her, I really got a chance to learn more about Taiwanese culture, but I also got a chance to truly experience Chinese New Year. The same way Christmas cannot truly be celebrated without family, even if it is a family of friends, Chinese New Year was the same. Everything closes down for a week as the Taiwanese drop work and school to return home and celebrate with their loved ones. They eat together and in the days following, travel to see extended family. My borrowed family kept feeding me, as Chien-Hui repeatedly translated their words for me, “My mother, my aunt, my father, my uncle, my cousin… says ‘Eat more! Eat more’”. We travelled to Chiayi, where I met even more uncles, aunts, cousins and even her Ah mah (Taiwanese for grandmother). Everyone welcomed me into their midst, even if most of them couldn’t speak to me. I was offered food and drink wherever I went, as eating is a big part of the Taiwanese culture. Chien-Hui with her hair in braids and me, simply being a foreigner, were the center of attention quite often. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I could clearly pick out the Bei Li Si (the Mandarin pronunciation of Belize) every so often and even Tsing Hua Da Xue (Mandarin for Tsing Hua University). I could see the pride in her parents eyes, as I’m sure the conversation explained that Chien-Hui was volunteering in Belize, and that I was her friend from Belize who was studying here in Taiwan at NTHU. I could easily imagine the same pride in my parents’ eyes, as they had likely explained to friends and family in Belize that I hadn’t been there for Christmas because I was studying in Taiwan.

At the end of the trip to Chiayi, I, too, had received a hong bao (red envelope) from my adopted Ah mah. For some, this is a sign that a foreigner is becoming Taiwanese; for me, it was a sign of acceptance and having been welcomed into a Taiwanese family’s home during their time of family and friends. In my heart, this was a second Christmas.