Maggie Nel

Lars von Trier's 2011 film, Melancholia, and its angst, is an apt metaphor for the expat experience. The film provides a good metaphor for depression and loneliness. In the movie, the earth is in danger of being hit by a rogue planet. On an isolated farm, two sisters await the impending cosmic doom. The planet is called ‘Melancholia'. Melancholy can hit at any time. Or perhaps, you're like Kiefer Sutherland's character, the ignorant husband to one of the sisters: “Melancholia won't hit us, it's going to miss.” ... perhaps until the Christmas music starts playing.

I usually start feeling homesick when they put up the Christmas trees because this has been a tradition in our family. There's also the annual braai (barbecue) or potjiekos (stew, cooked in a pot over an open fire), things I truly miss about South Africa once Christmas comes around in China.

Going home

One option is to make sure you take leave early and get your plane ticket home as soon as possible. This is usually good because, as China doesn't celebrate Christmas as an official kind of holiday, C-Trip and Qunar can't make extra money off you. As I'm typing this article, a return ticket to Johannesburg from Shanghai (with Air China) costs RMB 3971 (plus tax) on, which is really not bad (stop-over in Beijing notwithstanding). Going home is definitely a good option if you feel staying alone in your city here in China might not be good for your mental health.

Check with your manager or center what the policy is regarding annual leave during Christmas. Early on during my time here in China, we were advised that everyone would probably take leave at the same time, so it's a good idea to think ahead and make plans early on. It's also best to check your annual leave balance and use it, as it most likely expires at the end of the year.

Going on holiday

A second option is to go on holiday (preferably with the good trustworthy and fun friends you already made during on-boarding). I am currently so busy getting my plans in order for my first-time beginner skiing trip to Japan (think Nagano, white, snow-capped mountains, onsens and ramen), that I've actually forgotten to feel homesick.

Staying in the ‘Hai

Another option is to hang out in Shanghai (‘Hai being a nickname for Shanghai, of course), with said good friends. Try and get Christmas day off and do something nice. Restaurants will no doubt be running a lot of Christmas specials (and bars a lot of free-flow beer), so check out sites like Smart Shanghai or That's Shanghai to catch special deals or even shows to see.

I'd also recommend visiting a new place around Shanghai, such as Tianzifang (cosy, with many great restaurants, bars and little shops), or taking a bus to go and visit one of Shanghai's many beautiful water towns. As mentioned before, it's not an official holiday here in China, so these kinds of places likely won't have a holiday crowd anywhere in China.

For those who will be working this Christmas, most EF centers usually have their own Christmas parties too.

Taking care of yourself

Many of us don't openly like to admit that we will feel alone, because of the feeling of shame attached to it. However, in her TED Talk “Listening to Shame”, Brené Brown says: “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” I take this to mean empathy towards yourself, knowing what your needs are and what to do to meet them. It also means empathy towards others and being supportive.

When melancholy hits, you'll want to prioritize your mental health. I flew home last Christmas and could feel the difference being with my parents in my hometown, even if only for a week, despite paying extra on Cathay Air. Otherwise, round up your colleagues - or that one colleague who you suspect might be feeling a little too lonely this Christmas - and make some plans; get out and enjoy your holiday here in China.


Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame”, available here.


Apply to Teach NOW

It takes less than five minutes
to change your life.

Related Articles