Charles Thomas: Christmas Dinner at the Chinese Restaurant 

The Christmas season is hard for a lot of us. I wrote a piece last year about being sad during the holidays, and I was surprised at how strongly it resonated with readers. When I shared it on my personal Facebook page last year, it elicited 20 comments and nearly 50 reactions, about three times the reactions that a normal article gets.

This past week, a colleague and friend brought that piece up in a meeting where I work, and the agency asked to share it on their Facebook page as part of a series of posts on Seasonal Affective Disorder.

As that piece received renewed attention, it made me realize being sad during the holidays is a major issue that impacts many of us. It also got me thinking about the saddest Christmas that I’ve ever personally experienced. While I don’t remember many details of the dozens of joyful Christmas Days that I’ve experienced in my life, Christmas 1995 is one that I’ll never forget.

I was just finishing up graduate school at the time, and my family had moved our big holiday celebration close to New Year’s Eve so that more of my family could attend. With our celebration delayed until the extreme end of the month, my folks and I were left with no plans for Christmas Day.

I think it was my mom who suggested we eat dinner Christmas evening at the Chinese restaurant, which was the only place open on the biggest holiday of the year. It made complete sense to do that, too. Why cook a meal for just the three of us when we were going to have our big celebration in a week or so?

I can still remember how it felt sitting in a booth in that big restaurant with a handful of other lonely patrons that Christmas evening. Even though I was with my parents, I felt terribly alone and started to indulge a bleak pessimism. I was certain I would never find anyone to spend my life with, and I imagined the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would visit me each year with yet another plate of egg foo young.

But as is true with a majority of such morose thoughts, that vision was totally off base. I ended up meeting the woman who became my wife before Christmas came again on the calendar, and I haven’t spent another Christmas eating Chinese food and feeling lonely since.

But while I’ve never had another holiday like that, I know many people have experiences like I did in 1995 every year. Maybe it’s because a loved one died, or children have moved away. Or maybe it’s because of family estrangement, illness or a move that makes it impossible to travel home. Whatever the reason, feeling sad around Christmas is something we will all have to face at some point in our lives.

Last year’s column offered a few suggestions on how to make things a little bit better. If you’re feeling lonely or sad this holiday season, one of the things I suggested was to begin a gratitude practice, because gratitude is powerful medicine against both sadness and loneliness.

I had a moment of clarification about gratitude a few weeks ago when a remarkable taxi driver drove me to the airport. It was about 40 degrees that morning in Las Vegas, and when the driver complained about the cold temperature as he helped me with my bag, I mentioned I was from Michigan, and 40 degrees was almost shorts weather for me.

He laughed and said, “let me tell you a story.”

He said he had immigrated from Ethiopia and he had never even seen snow until he came to the US. In fact, his native language did not even have a word for snow as it did not exist in his home country.

Life had been hard for him in Ethiopia. Poverty seemed everywhere, and corruption a way of life for many government officials. Although he was highly educated and worked as a civil engineer, he still struggled to make ends meet. In desperation, he applied for asylum in the UK, Canada, and US.

When the US granted him a visa, he hopped onto the first flight out of Ethiopia in spite of his fear of flying. Leaving his wife and son behind, he took a leap of faith towards a better life. He was shocked when his plane landed and he found himself in Chicago in December.
“It is too cold here,” he remembered thinking to himself as he tried to find an apartment. “But I bought a thick coat and, God bless America, I was here.”

He applied for his family to join him and looked for a job. He was not allowed to work as an engineer in the US, so he started driving a taxi. A year or so later, when a friend told him about a job in Las Vegas, and added that it never snowed there, he packed up and left the snow and cold behind forever. He became a US citizen in 2004, and his family were granted green cards and joined him soon after. I asked him if it bothered him to go from being an engineer in his home country to being a taxi driver in America.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I drive a taxi here, but I like my work, and I have a nice four-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood here. My son attended a good school here. This was not possible back home. God bless America.”

That taxi driver helped me realize how I’ve taken the freedoms and opportunities that our country offers for granted. He also caused me to reflect on the many other blessings that I experience almost daily but never take the time to be truly grateful for. I mean, indoor plumbing really is pretty great as is our access to safe and clean drinking water.

So this Christmas, if you find yourself feeling sad in a Chinese restaurant, take a moment to reflect on all the things that you’ve been taking for granted. If you’re like me, you’ll make a long list; and you might be surprised at how much better that egg foo young tastes with a heaping side of gratitude.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.