T here are a great many things one gets to explain when traveling abroad: the expressions and idioms of your native language, the politics of your presidents, the misbehaviors of your celebrities, why this or that food group may seem so unpalatable — the list goes on. And with my experience as a foreigner, I've had occasion to justify them all.
A less obvious topic I often find myself clearing up overseas has been the nature of my strange religion, Judaism. In the Western world, my so-called spirituality has proven familiar enough to locals that I can usually evade invitations to Easter Mass with just a quick point to my nose.
Elsewhere, however, my customs have proven a bit more alien.
Last year, I added Southeast Asia to my catalogue of overseas destinations. My girlfriend had scored a yearlong fellowship to work as a journalist in Cambodia, and I'd been suckered into the 20-plus-hour flight to Phnom Penh over Christmas break. ("Better than phone sex" became my mantra during the excruciating journey, a claustrophobe's nightmare punctuated by in-flight meals and explosive, foreshadowing trips to the bathroom.)
Roughly 8,750 miles from my initial point of departure, Cambodia is home to numerous Cham Muslims and Roman Catholics, though its population's vast majority belongs to either a Theravada or Hinayana sect of Buddhism. The landscape is speckled with whatever ancient temples weren't destroyed by Pol Pot's culturally devastating Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s; the most commonly encountered hitchhiker is a Buddhist monk swathed in bright orange or red. There, it is pretty much assumed that if one is American, one must therefore also be Christian, and when it came to Dec. 25, citizens were eager to prove their international savvy.
"Look, look," my girlfriend's Cambodian landlady would cry, showing off a stocking to the back of her apartment. "Christmas!" She had nailed the woolen creation to the pale blue wall years ago, hoping to attract American tenants. In Asia, I generally kept my Semitism to myself — too complicated, why rock the boat?
But every now and then, someone asked me to elaborate on my family's Yuletide habits. Just as my mouth would open with a ready-made fabrication about sleigh bells jingling, my girlfriend would seize the opportunity to unveil my minority status. "Oh, it's Hanukkah for him," she'd say proudly. She thought she was doing me a favor.
Cambodia may have been the most extreme case of cultural naiveté I'd encountered, but it wasn't the first place I had to clear up some Judaic misconceptions. When I was living in Catholic Paris, working as a translator for a music-oriented weekly, I often found myself translating terms like Purim and Yom Kippur as well. "Passover is not 'a Jesus-less Easter,'" I'd explain casually. "It's more like a pork-less Easter."
No, it's never been my heritage that I've minded outlining for others; it's been delving into my tormented version of the winter holiday season. It's been explaining Hanukkah.
You see, I have a good many neuroses surrounding this "Festival of Lights." I grew up in a fairly conservative Jewish household, where my parents would actively shield me from the light shows on our neighbors' front lawns as strictly as they shielded me from swine. ("Oy," my father would exclaim, clutching his stomach, as we drove by a particularly gaudy nativity scene display. "You'd think the baby could be born indoors for once.") Growing up, my Hanukkah was always by the book: a decidedly minor holiday, devoid of the fanfare my gentile schoolmates received in December.
My mother was worried I'd feel different, excluded if a big deal was made of the dreaded H — Ch? — word. Special care was taken to make the season seem as insignificant on our radar as possible. I have memories of being rushed through mall Santa displays.
"Who's that?" I'd ask, curious and pointing to the Saint Nick impersonator. "No one," she'd say with a shrug. "A crazy."
She couldn't lie to her son.
Each year, my father would be invited to his work's corporate holiday party. Invariably a decadent affair, his colleagues would often use the soirée as an excuse to parade their charities like new motorcycles bought during a midlife crisis. After a particularly dismal first go-round, he stopped attending, preferring to stay at home and glaze his ceramic bowls.
When I got older, though, he'd been promoted enough that not going would have been seen as capital crime. So my senior year of high school, Mr. Rozen sucked it up and went.
He'd been gone not two hours before we heard a knock at the door. My mother went to answer it, and there was greeted by her husband, cold and shivering, clutching what looked like a jumbo wrapped ham. Something was wrong.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I won the lottery," he declared sorrowfully.
Given its "minor" status, Hanukkah is still one holiday about which I'm utterly, hopelessly lacking in good memories. When foreigners ask me to describe it — my December traditions or my own personal take on the latke — I'm almost always at a loss for words.
"I don't know what Hanukkah is!" I'll say, sulking, when my girlfriend prods me to inform Cambodian friends. "I don't have any Hanukkah stories," I'll tell my editor, wiping away tears of neglect.
My shrinks don't know what to tell me, except that I've somehow managed not to become the Grinch, exactly, or a Scrooge (I frankly have no animosity toward Christmas and have always loved Home Alone and the song "O Holy Night"). They tell me I'm sort of an anti-celebrant — I'm not embarrassed by my holiday, I just never really cared about it.
And how do you explain that this time of year? You can't, really.
This will be my first holiday season in Florida, and while the state doesn't exactly outrank Cambodia in the "exotic" category, it's up there. I'm not used to sand and sun in December (can someone grab me a few chestnuts on ice?), but I am used to the question, which already haunts me: What are you doing for Hanukkah? Here, where many are transplants from Jew-heavy cities and suburbs, everyone knows what the menorah festival is, or at least has a vague idea.
Maybe someone can explain it to me?
The Handmade Holiday Guide