As Christmas and the Chinese Spring Festival have already come and gone, I thought it might be a good time to address a topic that can easily frustrate foreigners living and working in China. Basically, what the heck are you supposed to do during the holidays?

This can be a complicated issue as different companies have different rules on vacation time and there are different cultural norms between Chinese and Western firms. It’s also often a long and expensive flight home, often requiring more than half a day in a stuffy, cramped, and bacteria-filled plane cabin.

However, no matter how stressful and uncomfortable making the trip home for the holidays can be, it’s still an important part of many of our lives. After all, what’s more important during the holidays than spending time with family? And with that in mind I’ve prepared a few pointers based on my own experience in the Middle Kingdom. Take a look and it may lead to easier and more relaxed holidays in the future!

When you CAN go home for the holidays:

The best situation possible, in my opinion, is when you have both the time and means to travel home for the holidays. However, for those living and working in China, there are several unique challenges to be aware of.

  1. Book plane tickets early: As in other countries, it is common for the price of plane tickets to begin increasing in the time leading up to major Chinese holidays, especially Chinese New Year and National Day. Sometimes during the last several weeks, prices can skyrocket to extraordinary levels. This is partly due to the extraordinarily large number of people on the move in China during this time of year. Therefore, in order to be able to pay a reasonable price, it’s important purchase a plane ticket early, at least 60-90 days in advance in my experience.
  2. Make sure you have a multi-entry visa: One very easy, yet extremely wasteful mistake to make is leaving the country only to return to discover you can’t get back in due to a single-entry visa. One reason this can occur is because many Chinese companies’ HR departments have yet to get their act together in terms of hiring foreign talent, and most staff members display an amazing lack of awareness of what needs to be done on the visa side of things. On the other hand, for those coming over on a tourist visa, it’s important to make sure you take charge to a certain extent and ensure you have the correct visa.
  3. Make sure you can get time off: This one is the kicker, and often overlooked by foreign talent in China. When working in China, it’s easy to forget that most Chinese companies don’t schedule time off for non-Chinese holidays. This can be compounded by the fact that many departments in Chinese companies are unlikely to employ more than one foreigner (if any). So not only is there no pre-scheduled time off for the holidays, but there may be no one available to cover your shift if you do want to go home. It’s therefore crucial to have an early and upfront conversation with your manager, otherwise it may be impossible to get time off in the future.

When you CAN’T go home for the holidays:

Unfortunately, not all of us can make it home for the holidays every year. Sometimes money is tight, and at other times it’s impossible to get away from work. However, this doesn’t mean you have to stay at home by yourself .

  1. Don’t spend the holidays alone: This is a very important point for visitors to China, as we all suffer from certain degrees of culture shock, which can get worse over the holidays. This is a time of year we are taught from birth is supposed to be spent among friends and family, and not doing so, especially while in an unfamiliar country and culture, can feel very draining. So do what you can to be around people if you find yourself in China over the holidays – go to a mixer, have dinner with coworkers, meet up with local friends for coffee – every little bit helps.
  2. Get a good meal: One nice thing about many larger Chinese cities that can make culture shock easier is not only growing expat populations, but also more and more foreign-owned restaurants. Many family-centered foreign holidays (e.g. Christmas and Thanksgiving) also have a big focus on food. And missing out on that can be a big disappointment if you’re staying in China over the holidays – I always think of my family’s signature stuffing over Thanksgiving! So do a little checking in advance, and see what restaurants are planning to serve holiday specials.
  3. Decorate a little: Sometimes it’s the simple things that can help you get by. No matter if you are putting up colorful turkeys for Thanksgiving, scary ghosts and goblins for Halloween, or a cheerful tree for Christmas, a little extra color can make a holiday alone feel that much easier to endure. And this is made very easy by the fact that many decorations are available on Chinese e-commerce sites – they’re just a few button taps away (Chinese translation assistance may be required).
  4. Don’t forget to call home: Another easy way to cope while feeling under the weather in China during the holidays is to just make a call home. In addition to cheaper than ever overseas calling plans offered by Chinese carriers, there are a number free online services, Skype chief among them. So when you’re feeling down, comfort is just a phone call away.
  5. Create your own China holiday tradition: After living in China for many years, I’ve found that not only have I adapted to the a new holiday schedule, but my family back home has as well. To date, I’ve never really had the time to make it home for Christmas. So instead of feeling bad during Decembers in China, I simply wait excitedly for a few more months to pass, until the Chinese Spring Festival rolls around. In practice, this Chinese holiday is my Christmas – it’s the key time during each year when I get to travel back to the USA to see my family. And that i what I’ve found is really important to me – not what specific date I’m back home, but being able to spend time with family at all.

Final Thoughts

In the end, there are multiple way to ensure you aren’t feeling down in the dumps over the holidays. This partly requires some pre-planning and early communication. It also needs a little extra effort to step out the front door and go do something. No matter where you are in China, there is always a way to cope and to get through the holidays largely happy and intact.

I also think this potentially difficult issue is something that must be faced squarely and openly – culture shock is a horrible feeling, and one that not only strikes unexpectedly, but also takes away from the wonderful experiences and memories China can provide. And while my own experience tells that culture shock does indeed fade over time, it never really truly leaves  completely. Or perhaps it’s better to say that a part of us will always remain in our beloved homelands, making our hearts ache whenever the holidays roll around.

Therefore, I hope the above tips can be of use to China travelers young and old, new and experienced, so we can all enjoy our time in China a little bit more. So happy holidays in advance – for next time!

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any comments or questions on staying in China over the holidays? What do you usually do when returning home for the holidays? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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