How It Feels to Spend the Holidays Away From Home

By Nguyen Khanh Ha Doan


Family is perhaps the purest existence of love, comfort and trust. That is why when there is a special occasion, a chance like winter break, people return to their families; they go home for the holidays.

However, there are people who can only celebrate family holidays through phone calls and brief video calls, like me. This year, I celebrated Christmas and New Years halfway around the world from my family: in a different country, a different continent, a different time zone and a very different culture. It’s not that I didn’t want to go back home, I really did, but more than two thousand dollars for a plane ticket feels like too much.

It was my decision, yet when I went through my Facebook feed, my friends’ Instagram stories, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit down, wishing I could be them, going back to my family as well. It was not envy or regret. It’s hard to explain how I felt when I saw my friends going home; the only word I can think of is homesick, but I know it was way more than just that. Being an international student, I started questioning my choice of coming to Canada, coming to this country that gave me so many opportunities to grow and be a better me, that gave me a chance to open my mind to knowledge and possibilities I’ve never known I could reach. Although I recognize that I am luckier than a large part of Vietnam’s population who’ve never had  a chance to go further than the country’s border, at that time, I didn’t feel grateful for this opportunity.

I knew it was just my holiday blues messing with me. We all have those times when your negative thoughts get the better of you, and I knew too well about it. Ryerson University closed its campus during winter break and I took that chance to go to my friends’ house and spend my break there with them. I knew that being around people I care about would ease myself from these toxic feelings. That was one of those moments when I felt like I was the luckiest person in this world. They are the reason why, though I did feel lonely from time to time, I didn’t feel sad-- they became my second family. My friends are all international students, and they’re all far away from home. I knew that if I was homesick, they were as well. We helped each other move past it.

First, we stocked the house with food, enough food so that we wouldn’t have to go out for the rest of the week. We filled the house with food from home or the best version of it that we could find in Asian markets. We cooked all our dinners ourselves, to have a taste of home after an entire year of consuming Western food. We bought a Christmas tree, trying to blend in with the happy holiday atmosphere to distract ourselves. We didn’t go out much except for on New Year’s Eve, but isn’t it just wonderful to be relaxed with your friends after a very stressful semester?

Homesickness struck again on New Year’s Eve when we were at Nathan Phillips Square attending the countdown. I was always with my parents for the countdown back home. We would go to our city square together, drinks in hand, and watch the giant clock, waiting for the fireworks. It was not that big of a difference here-- there were still people who had drinks in hand, there were still fireworks, but there was no mom and dad. I think it was the similarity in scenery that triggered something in me: suddenly I didn’t want to be there anymore, but I knew that going home would only make me feel worse. So, even though it was pouring with rain and we were all hungry and cold, we didn’t leave until after the fireworks.

What made it worse was when my grandmother called. Of all people back home, I contact her the least, mainly because she doesn’t know how to receive calls, and that she isn’t aware of different time zone so when she calls me I’m sleeping. This time, she called me and asked me a question that made me wanted to tear up: she asked me if I would be home for Lunar New Year.

The Lunar New Year atmosphere in Vietnam is indescribable. You can see the excitement in the air, you can smell the anticipation in the atmosphere, and you can see a smile on everyone’s face. The streets are filled with decorations, everyone rushing up and down the streets preparing themselves with food as most stores will be closed during the first three days of Lunar New Year because it is bad luck, buying last minutes apricot or cherry blossom as they are the representation of wealth and wish of a better year. In our culture, a new year means a new start, and that all last year’s bad luck will be gone as the clock hits New Year of the Lunar calendar.

One thing that my family does every year near Lunar New Year is making sticky rice cakes (or bánh chưng in Vietnamese). We would gather together, and that we would make it together. The cakes take up to twelve hours to cook, so we would stay up all night together and watch the cakes around the fire. That is my favourite thing about Lunar New Year at home. Yet, it is the thing I regret the most. I never learned how to make sticky rice cakes. My parents and my grandparents offered to teach me so many times in the past, but I never wanted to learn, because it never occurred to me that I’m going to have to celebrate Lunar New Year somewhere other than home and I assumed I could just buy them. I was so wrong. I’ve tried sticky rice cakes here in Canada, at Chinatown or any Vietnamese market. They’re different. They’re not terrible, but they’re missing something. Home was missing. The taste of home was not there, and it was not made by home.

So when she asked me if I wanted to go home for the Lunar New Year, I wanted to scream out that I did. But I knew that if I said yes she would pay for the ticket, and my grandmother is retired; she doesn’t have a huge income (social welfare is not that good in my country), so the money she is going to spend if I said yes was from the savings for her elderhood. The money she saved all her life to live comfortably as she is older and older. I wouldn’t want her to do that, so I said no, using school work as a reason.

I know that there are a lot of international students out there that may from time to time feel like I did. No matter where you came from, we may not share the same culture, but I know you could relate to it on some level, and there are things you may be missing from your home country, too. If you’re homesick, I am too-- being in university is stressful, and sometimes you just want to go back home and be a kid again, and let your parents look after you. It is fine to feel that way.

Homesickness during the time of family holidays is inevitable, but you will grow to accept and be okay with it, knowing that you’re doing this for your future and potentially carrying your parents’ hopes and dreams on you as well.

Happy New Year everyone, and Happy Lunar New Year, too.