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How Trinis celebrate in other countries

I won’t be home for Christmas
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Raphael Jones, 29, poses with his students at a private school in Shanghai, China. In addition to teaching them English, he exposes them to different cultures, including Christmas.

The number of local songs describing the wonder that is a “Trini Christmas” would take too long to count out precisely. Our music is just one of the many things that we identify with at Christmas time, like good food, drinks, family and friends. When we’re away from home for the season, we feel it, possibly made worse if it’s in a country where there is no official Christmas. There’s at least one element we yearn for, whether it’s the food, the music, the limes, or plain old merriment that is a Trini Christmas. Some T&T nationals who have spent Christmas abroad shared their experience about what it’s like to live in a country where it is not recognised at all.

CHINA: Young and adventurous Raphael Jones, 29, had a case of wanderlust since his days in college. Now settled in China for the time being as an English teacher at a private school, the former Gasparillo resident said the big move after graduating college was exciting initially, but the first taste of a lonesome, non-Trini Christmas was bitter and depressing. Speaking via Skype while it was late at night in T&T, and the next day in Shanghai, Jones said his first Christmas experience in 2006, in a city called Zibo, was the lowest time he could remember since moving. “This is where it got hard for me. You know when you first arrive to a new place…All the new experiences made life interesting, then boom! December rolled around and I don’t know if you ever feel like a pressure in your heart. You’re sad and sick and cold.” 


Enduring a difficult break-up caused by the unbearable long-distance, no family, no friends, no Christmas tree, and no parties, John still got through it, but said Christmas without those things was no Christmas at all. “That was the most depressing moment of maybe my entire life. That first Christmas here.” He said he got through by playing Mariah Carey’s O Holy Night on a loop in his apartment, and by becoming friends with a small group of expats. He tried to teach his then adult students to play “Secret Santa” to bring some Christmas spirit into the classroom, but that turned out to be a bust as the students were so excited, they could not keep their identities a secret. Jones explained part of his job description was to teach about culture as well, so even though Christmas was not a civil holiday, he taught his students the basics. 


But now he is somewhat numb to it, or at least feigns apathy, as he is accustomed to going out to work every Christmas Day—a regular, non-holiday, working day in China. “Last year, there wasn’t even a Christmas, let me put it that way. I forget what it’s like not to work for Christmas.” He thought the move to a bigger city like Shanghai would mean finding other Trinis, and getting to recreate the Christmas vibe he missed. But that has not happened. He attended a Caribbean Christmas party in 2012, where there were predominantly Jamaicans, and the only music played was passa passa and dancehall. “They had like a wining competition for something like Christmas!” he said incredulously.


That was his first experience with the Caribbean community in Shanghai. He tried the party again this year, and to his absolute delight, as he entered the room, Baron’s It’s Christmas blasted from the speakers, which was all he could have wished for. “As I went in, Oh, It’s Christmas Again,” he began singing. “You cannot have Christmas without parang. No words could describe that feeling. I felt great, I felt like home. I will never forget that moment.” Jones said the DJ played two more parang songs, but he was more than satisfied. “I was just so happy. That was all I needed and nothing more. That made Christmas for me right there.” As a bonus, Jones gushed about finally meeting two other T&T nationals. There will be no pastelles, no sorrel, and no ponche de crème for Jones. Just that one soca parang. His message for those of us who can easily engage in Christmas activities in T&T: “Enjoy the food a little bit more, for all the people who can’t.”


SAUDI ARABIA: Asgar and Zenobia Ali-Hosein and their pet cat Marmalade migrated to Saudi Arabia earlier this year because of a new job opportunity for Asgar. It was a big move, and it is the first time they were living in a country that did not observe Christmas. In fact, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha are celebrated with great fanfare, as each occasion is celebrated nationally, with four days off. The Ali-Hoseins fully understood their decision to move to the Middle East, and accepted the impending changes that would impact certain traditions—like putting up a Christmas tree or easily spending time with loved ones. As December approached, Zenobia said she was not surprised there were no decorations in the malls, and she has not tried to re-create the feeling of a Trini Christmas in her home. The only aspect that was a “must” was spending time with family. That’s why the couple planned to go to Dubai to be with their children for the holiday itself.  In the run-up to Christmas, they have not decorated their home either, and said they have not seen any Christmas trees for sale in the malls. “I don't think it's available,” Asgar said. He said Saudi Arabia was an Islamic state, and so there was no recognition of the Christmas season in the country, not even in the form of décor.


Asgar and Zenobia managed to stream T&T radio stations live on the internet to take in their dose of parang. Asgar, who previously worked at Petrotrin, said it was a bit strange not to see or hear any of the familiar signs that it was Christmas when venturing out of the house. “You feel strange not to be witnessing Christmas being celebrated in the malls, but we know what to expect when we go. So it does not surprise us,” Asgar said via a blurry Skype conversation, with a seven-hour time difference. "We accepted it, now and even before we came. We just had a good sense of what to expect before we moved." They participated in Christmas while living in T&T, with Asgar saying: “I always loved celebrating enjoy the singing of carols, decorating the trees in the yard and generally having a good time with friends and family.” But the change has not been difficult for them. The only aspect Asgar said would be missed was the day off. December 25 is treated as a normal working day in Saudi Arabia.


He said he loved his new home and going on adventures with his wife, but it was not in his psyche to work on Christmas Day. “I am normally on vacation.” He said another cultural change along the same lines was getting used to Sunday being the first working day of the week. “It took some effort, so instead of going to Marabella market (on a Sunday) and eating two doubles and drinking a cold coconut, I go to work! The weekends are Fridays and Saturdays,” Asgar joked in an initial e-mail. “We do miss our family and friends back in Trinidad, but we knew that was going to be the case too.” Asgar said while he enjoyed everything about being home for the holidays, he was thrilled to be on this exciting path. “It’s nice to experience other things. And after 50-something years of experiencing the Trini-Christmas, you know what to expect,” Asgar said, adding they planned to visit Sri Lanka after Dubai. “It’s good to sample other cultures, how they celebrate these times of the year.” So far, Asgar and Zenobia have not met any other T&T nationals living there too. “It gives us the opportunity to make new friends and meet new people,” Asgar said. 



KUWAIT: The expansive T&T Diaspora has coined a generally accepted notion that anywhere you go in the world; you’re bound to find a Trini. While Jones and Ali-Hosein were not that lucky, Leianna Amin and her husband Kevin Wakefield were when they lived in Kuwait from June 2011 to July 2013. They met 16 T&T nationals in the Arab country sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. “We met through each other as it is such a small, closely-knit community. We know of each other through work,” Amin said via e-mail. Wakefield took up a job in the oil and gas industry, and the couple, along with their baby Kaitlin Wakefield, and have since moved to Brisbane, Australia. They only spent one Christmas season in Kuwait in 2011, and one of the first surprises was how easy it was to find a Christmas tree. “My husband I and thought finding a Christmas tree might be a bit challenging living in a Middle Eastern country where Christmas is not widely celebrated…We were proven wrong. Christmas trees and decorations came in every size and colour imaginable...Great I thought to myself: ‘This isn’t going to be so bad after all,’” Amin said via email.


When asked to list what she missed the most about being away from home at Christmas, Amin did not hold back. “Making pastelles while drinking ponche de creme together with family members, hearing parang on the radio, liming with family and friends that you don't get the chance to see as often during the year, exchanging for Christmas gifts with family and friends, the Christmas spirit that everyone gets into and wishes you a Merry Christmas through out the country.” Still, the couple managed to indulge in some of the traditional goodies like sorrel and black cake. A fellow Trinidadian provided the sorrel, which was readily available and reasonably priced. “Sorrel in the Middle East is known as Hibiscus Flower and it comes dried in a small package. The process of making it is the same with boiling, adding of spices and leaving to soak overnight.”


In addition to finding other Trinidadians, Amin said they were able to connect with people from other Caribbean islands as well. They became a friendly group and enjoyed the occasional small lime. “We chatted about the similarities each island or country had, with this we all felt a little closer to home. We were all together to let our natural accents flow freely, crack jokes, sample dishes from each other’s country and dance to our own beat. The vibe, family get-togethers, the food, and the parang were all key elements of ‘a Trini christmas is the bess,’” Amin said.
Asked if she now had a greater love and appreciation for home and T&T traditions, Amin said, “Yes most definitely, the togetherness and closeness that we share in Trinidad is not like anywhere else.”



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