30 December 2013

christmas without christmas

Celebrating Christmas in China is a bit of a self-made operation. Santa and other decorative elements are seeping into popular culture here, propelled mainly by stores that want shoppers to do more shopping, but in general you’re on your own. 

Admittedly, some joy can be found in the local interpretations of Christmas decor. For example, I might prefer not to position my Santa so that he spends the holiday season oogling the lingerie models, but the lingerie store had other ideas. 

Despite this growing number of Christmas signs and songs, the real issue for those of us that actually celebrate the holiday is that there's no Christmas Day follow-through. For all the visual hype you’d expect at least a little December 25th hullabaloo. But there’s nothing.

We didn’t even get the gift we wanted … a day with air we could breathe. This gift was meant for the little guy celebrating his first Christmas and for his grandparents who were stuck in our house breathing filtered air and watching the Chinese world go by. 

Instead, Chengdu Santa gave us the coal that keeps on giving – a thick chunk of pollution sitting on top of the city.

Regardless, on Christmas morning Shi-wen and I donned our winter caps (aka PM 2.5 filtering face masks) and walked the dog just to pretend our lives are like they used to be. This Christmas walk was perfect for Chengdu. There was everything you’d expect: pollution, several unmarked open manholes with varying levels of fall-in ability, and a maintenance man who perched on an air conditioning unit two stories up because there wasn't enough room on the bamboo ladder for two.

[Extra special holiday tie-in: The man standing on the AC unit was also the man that walked into our house unannounced one morning. He opened our front door and leaned in to say that our stove hood had arrived. I told him, in Chinese, that he was not allowed to walk into our house without knocking. He repeated his news about the stove hood. I repeated my complaint. He then turned to our ayi and said, “Tell her that her stove hood is here.” Either he was super excited about the stove hood or he mistook my Chinese for English. Either way it took us a long while to convince him that we were more concerned about his entry than the stove hood’s arrival.]

Our Christmas walk included a bicycle pass by a neighbor who is still living around here somewhere although not in his apartment which is under construction and has no walls. Then later, as if to remind us that his apartment is really under construction, several stacks of twenty foot-long metal strips strapped to a bicycle cart arrived for use in the space.

There was also a parked motorbike whose rear basket was piled high with plastic sacks of upside-down plucked chickens, some of which were unceremoniously dropped on the ground as the delivery man wrestled with the load. 

There was a street cone with a sad panda and an ad in which a newly svelte woman marveled about the loss of her "belly butter." 

The watchman resting in the convenience store didn’t seem to know it was Christmas and I wouldn’t have known either if I hadn’t come home to a warm house with a lighted tree and pumpkin waffles for breakfast.

There was also a first Christmas baby, his grandparents, Christmas pajamas, a tiny rocking pony, and a fleet of wooden cars made by Grandpa. We had Christmas music and candy canes and cookies baked from my Grandmother’s 100 year-old recipe. We ate pan d’oro made from scratch and pecan pie with a wonky crust.

We even had a ham that was brined and glazed and ready to be baked as soon as the gas came back on. 

Because, of course, the gas was turned off. This was our special stocking stuffer from Chengdu and it hammered home the fact that December 25 was special to no one but us. In fact, it was so un-special that you didn’t need to cook anything at all, let alone a large glazed ham.

In the end, I suppose being in China for Christmas was like being anywhere. You made your own day with your love and your tree baubles and the large box of Trader Joe’s holiday sweets that your parents put in the mail for you several weeks before boarding an around-the-world flight so they could celebrate with you in a city where you can’t go outside.

Tis the season! 

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