Top: Revelers pose for photos with Christmas lighting decorations at Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok on Nov. 24, 2020.
For almost every year during the 10 years she’s lived in Thailand, American expat Aimee Seaman embarked on a 40-hour flight from Bangkok to her hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska to celebrate Christmas with her family.
“We always open Christmas stockings, go to the Christmas Eve service, and get new pyjamas,” she recalled wistfully. “We open presents on Christmas morning and bake cinnamon rolls for breakfast, then watch Christmas movies as the kids play with their new stuff.”
But like many other foreign nationals residing in Thailand, Seaman will have to skip the family get together this year, thanks to strict travel restrictions that remain in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID is the reason I can’t go home, and that’s really sad,” she said. “I had plans to surprise my sister for her 40th birthday, and that’s been dumped into the ocean.”
Although the notion of being forced to spend Christmas in a relatively safe place like Thailand doesn’t seem to be a punishment – the kingdom has recorded 4,246 infections since the start of the year, a fraction of a daily count in many countries – the comfort comes wrapped with a sense of guilt, loneliness, and the persistent worries for the loved ones struggling to live with the pandemic back home.
“I had anxiety whenever my mom had to travel,” said Jessica Teal from Iowa. “I thought, ‘Is my family gonna get COVID?’ I feel almost guilty, since it seems safe here in Thailand and in the U.S. it seems crazy.”
She added, “Seeing family is a part of being human. If I could go home right now, I totally would.”
It’s not uncommon for expats here to know someone who’s been infected with the coronavirus in their home countries, like Seaman, whose sister – a single mom – reportedly contracted the virus from her boss.
“She had to be isolated in one part of the house away from her teenage sons while grandma dropped off groceries, and her sons cooked for themselves and did online learning,” Seaman said.
Her sister, fortunately, has recovered, but the ordeal took a toll for Seaman.
“I had a minor mental breakdown,” she said. “It’s a scary thing to be so far away from your family.”
Teal said the coronavirus also infected her best friend’s family; the woman and her baby were thankfully asymptomatic, but her husband had fallen ill because of the virus for a staggering 52 days.
“Every day that passes I think, ‘Am I gonna get a call that someone in my immediate family got it?’” Teal said.
Although it’s possible for expats to leave Thailand and visit their home countries for Christmas, the bureaucratic hurdles of paperwork and financial costs for a return trip are too forbidding for many.
To re-enter Thailand, the travelers must apply for a number of documents, including coronavirus test results acquired 72 hours prior to departure time or less, a proof of 14-day quarantine facility booking (paid by the travelers), a health insurance with a coverage of no less than 100,000 USD eligible for coronavirus treatment, a Fit-to-Fly Health Certificate, and a Certificate of Entry issued by the embassy.
The last requirement, the Certificate of Entry or CoE, can only be handed out to family members of Thai nationals, work permit holders, residence owners, students, those in need of medical treatment, and diplomats.
Eugenia Ivaschenko, 29, hailed from Russian’s Kamchatka Peninsula, just across the Bering Sea from Alaska. The mother of two currently lives in Bangkok with her husband and two young sons.
Ivaschenko is planning to spend Christmas here in Bangkok rather than going back to Russia, where infection rate has spiked since October and eclipsed the first wave of the outbreak.
“I actually know many people who got it,” Ivaschenko said. “Many of them recovered quite fast and are doing well now. Unfortunately a few people died, like one old relative with a chronic disease. The virus aggravated it.”
For Abigail Smith, a native of Buffalo, New York, Christmas each year means a trip to visit her parents, who live right by Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes, where ice and snow cover the surface.
“It’s a very normal, Rockwell-esque Christmas,” she said. “A very dreamy, American middle class Christmas. We decorate the house and exchange gifts.”
The seasonal delight turned into dread this year. She said her father, who has pre-existing medical conditions, has barely left the house since March.
“Every American knows someone who got COVID. I’m blessed it wasn’t my close family or friends,” Smith, 35, said. “I miss my brother and parents. It’s 100 percent for the people.”
Lily Festus, from The Gambia, is a fourth year student at a university in Thailand. She had planned to fly home to visit her family who live in Serrekunda, close to the capital city of Banjul, but of course her travel plans were torpedoed by COVID. Festus had last been home in 2018 for Christmas, during her second year of study.
While the majority of people are Muslims in The Gambia – a small West African country surrounded almost entirely by Senegal – Festus said Christmas is still celebrated publicly. During the holiday season, people usually donate clothes, foods, and amenities to hospitals and orphanages throughout the country.
“Christmas is all about sharing what you have with others in need,” Festus said.
Festus had looked forward to seeing her family of five: dad, mom, younger brother, and sister. Although she doesn’t know anyone who got COVID – the nation of 2 million people has seen 3,743 cases and 123 deaths as of press time – her father has lost his job as an IT specialist, while her mother, a teacher, had to hold classes via the internet, with mixed results.
“It’s a developing country, so it’s stressful and harder to learn online. Wi-fi keeps fluctuating,” she said.
No one knows when people can travel freely across the borders again. The Airport of Thailand predicted in April that air travels won’t be back to pre-virus levels by October 2021 – an optimistic forecast considering the current circumstances. Some other airlines, like AirAsia, now estimate that normalcy will only return by 2022.
And while mass vaccination programs are underway in the U.S. and U.K., the majority of the doses are going to frontline healthcare workers and hospitalized elderly. Experts believe it will take months before the general population is inoculated against the virus.
Until then, the joy of reunions will have to wait.
“I’ve already missed two babies being born. It’s hard being gone all year. I’m about to cry,” Smith, the Buffalo native, said. “It will be nice to sit down and break bread together again. When we do get back together it will be a huge sigh of relief, not just for us but for the world.”
Teal the Iowan said, “Being around family is the thing I miss most. As an expat, it can get a little lonely since you’re not around family.”
“I don’t know if I can see them next year,” Seaman from Fairbanks, Alaska, said. “I’ll cry if I don’t get to see my family, but I’m super thankful that I live in a time when I can Facetime them.”
Is your Christmas a little less merry and bright this year without family? Tell us your story at [email protected].