A Very Taigu Christmas

It occurred to me recently that receiving coal for Christmas in Taigu might not be the worst thing in the world. Coal powers everything here, and a stocking-full could at least heat a moderately-sized home for the majority of a day. Come to think of it, I think we all got coal in our stockings this year. Coal dust in the air, coal energy in our pipes, coal stacked high in mounds where we live, and even coal on the trains from workers who shovel the black stuff into furnaces at stop points.

The holidays came and went this year with little more than a blip on the radar. It was almost the complete antithesis of my childhood yearnings of Christmas. Full of Miracle on 42nd Street-mirth, I used to window-shop down Fifth Avenue with my mom, taking careful note of the elaborate displays in storefront windows. Growing up with my family in Brooklyn, we didn’t have many traditions—no tree past age ten (it became too much of a hassle in our small apartment), no church services, and no holiday ham. Hell, we didn’t even put milk and cookies out for Santa. In fact, the only real Christmas tradition I’ve had in recent years is walking with my friends Scott, Xavier, and Julie to the gigantic tree on 48th Street from Scott’s house in Greenwich Village, all while swigging warm brandy eggnog and dirty White Russians to keep from freezing on the four-mile roundtrip trek. We were an unlikely bunch of foreigners to be holiday ambassadors to Taigu. With at least two atheists/agnostics, a couple Jews, and only one dedicated Christian, we may not have all had the most traditional Christmas upbringing, but all of us save for Anne had celebrated it in one way or another.

Religious discord aside, it certainly didn’t mean that we were any less capable of bringing authentic Christmas cheer to China. In Taigu, the holidays took a few different forms. First came the start of Hanukkah, where Anne made doughnuts (sufganiyot) and potato pancakes (latkes) as traditional foods for the Jewish holiday. The oil that both foods are fried in is symbolic of the miracle of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. Cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products are also very prevalent on Hanukkah—the reason for which is quite interesting, though more than a bit gruesome. Anne brought those latkes as her contribution to the Christmas party we had on the Sunday night before Christmas. The party itself had two aims. The first was to have another home-cooked dinner reminiscent of the weekly tradition of Open Mic Night. And the second was to use a dinner together as a festive occasion to exchange our Secret Santa gifts.

Weeks before, we decided to do Secret Santa between the six Americans and our German friend Matthias, due largely to the exuberant urging of 2nd year Fellows Nick and Anne who had much success with the outing last year. But with an overwhelming lack of suitable gift-buying establishments in Taigu city, we all decided to make a trip out to Taiyuan to test our luck. Inevitably, we ended up at Walmart, the conglomerate-to-end-all-conglomerates, which is quickly becoming a mainstay of China’s major metropolitan cities (and in this case, Taiyuan too). But you really know you’re in another country when Walmart is less a human rights blemish than it is a model of progressivism. With legalized work unions and above average salaries, Walmart in China is doing its part to reverse some of the traditional work condition stereotypes that foreigners have of China. They’re even helping to save the planet—abiding by Beijing’s law to charge extra money for plastic bags in order to discourage their use. It’s too bad, though, that few, if any, of those same policies are carrying over stateside.

Just one of the many apple gift boxes that we received from our students on Christmas Eve.

Like a bad made-for-TV family Christmas movie, no Christmas party would be complete without its fair share of high jinx. And I certainly had mine. On the day of the party, I spent the well-below-zero afternoon at both the supermarket in town and the local open air vegetable market with a couple of the other foreigners, trying to prepare ingredients for the night’s dinner. I came out of it with armloads of stuff—a huge carafe of oil, flour, fresh tofu, eggs, garlic, and more vegetables than I could use in one meal. We made it back to the house and got to work. Since me and James’ kitchens are equipped with hot plates instead of gas stoves, we have since moved all cooking operations to Anne’s room and Dave and Gerald’s house. Responsibilities divided, we split up camps and got to work. I started working on my dish of choice—honey garlic tofu, inspired by the one infamously served up at the Mandarin in Oberlin. Things started out well—I got the tofu, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, laid out to dry on a bouquet of napkins. But as I was getting them ready to be honeyed and garlic-ed, something went wrong, and I was left with a swirling vat of burnt garlic, liquid honey, and oil-heavy tofu. After a little patchwork, the tofu came to be edible again, but it was definitely not my best effort.

What was worse was after I left Anne’s house to retrieve my Secret Santa gift…from my refrigerator. For you see, my Secret Santa recipient was none other than our German friend Matthias, whose love of alcohol is unparalleled among anyone I’ve ever known. I got him a gift I knew he would love—German beer—and enough of it to max out our 100 yuan limit for gifts. I put the beers in my freezer to stay cold after we got back from Walmart, and it was only until that moment, minutes before the start of the Christmas party, that I discovered that alcohol can indeed freeze. The carbonation from the beer had forced some of the liquid to break the seals from the tops of the bottles and spill out (and subsequently freeze) against the walls of my fridge. Quickly, and almost instinctively, I threw the bottles under hot water in my bathroom sink and started praying. I know it’s the thought that counts, but this was pushing it. 100 yuan worth of beer deemed almost undrinkable, for a person who loves the stuff more than most things in this world. It seemed more cruel than it was charitable. Thankfully, most of the ice liquefied fast, and after drying them off and boxing them up, we were off to David and Gerald’s house, where I left my topsy-turvy present parked right next to the space heater all throughout dinner.

If the lead-up to Christmas dinner was full of Jingle All the Way-schadenfreude, then the meal itself was like the heartwarming A Christmas Carol-ending. We ate and drank merrily, all to a playlist filled with equal parts “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Wham!, The Ventures, and Mariah Carey (you can guess which one was my contribution). In addition to the beers I got for Matthias, Nick bought an entire keg from Walmart back to Taigu for all of us to share. Finally, it was time to open the gifts. All of them were remarkably well-chosen—I think demonstrating how much we’ve really learned about each other since coming here. It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come from complete strangers to family in a matter of a few short months. For the last gift, we even had to leave the house—part of a scavenger hunt that Anne concocted for Nick, all with a fair share of edible delights and limericks along the way.

The incredibly thoughtful presents that Nick got me for Secret Santa: (1) A yoga mat, as I had been lamenting the lack of suitable exercise equipment in Taigu; (2) A jump rope, for having stolen his to use on one occasion; (3) A bottle of hand lotion, since the incredible dryness of Taigu has made my skin itchy; and (4) A USB vacuum cleaner, because I am so OCD-meticulous about the cleanliness of my workspace.

Christmas Eve itself was similarly nontraditional. On James’ suggestion, and in spite of a fair degree of skepticism on my part, we decided to sing Christmas carols. At first we had debated caroling door-to-door, but seeing as how cold it was, we opted to stay in one place. The locale of choice turned out to be the graduate students’ dormitory, where the majority of our students live. After downloading and printing out copies of the lyrics, we set-up shop in the first floor lobby. We had everything from “Winter Wonderland” to “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” to “Jingle Bell Rock.” It started out slow, but a crowd quickly gathered through word of mouth, and by the time we were finished singing, about 60 people, many of whom were our students, had congregated in the lobby to see us. Several of them bombarded us afterwards with apples, a tradition on Christmas Eve in China presumably because its name, pingan jie, shares the first character with the Chinese word for apple (pingguo). The caroling itself was more fun than I could have imagined. For someone who can barely hold a tune normally, I was remarkably unselfconscious—probably owing to the positive and tolerant attitude that everyone had about the occasion. As sad as it is to say, it was probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a rock star in China. Post-caroling, a couple of my students invited me up to their room and we continued to sing and chat well into the evening until the dorms closed at midnight.

After caroling and cajoling with my students, I headed back with Anne, Lynn, and Gerald to Anne’s house. We made smoothies using the enormous array of fruits we had received as gifts from our students, and some yogurt we had in our fridges that we wanted to use up before leaving Taigu. They turned out miraculously well and proved to be just what my Vitamin C-starved body was in the market for. After our smoothies, I opened up the sky lantern package that one of my students had given me as a Christmas gift. She told me that it would be most fortuitous to fly it on Christmas Eve. It was a remarkably simple contraption—basically a huge sheet of paper fashioned around a metal frame that sits atop a square-sized piece of wax. The idea is that you write your wishes on the paper, light the wax, and once the balloon is full of air, send it up into the sky. Though, logistically, the lantern is an environmental nightmare (you don’t know where the lantern will land, and if it will potentially set fire to anything), it is also an extremely romantic notion—a group of friends jotting down their hopes for the New Year and sending them off into the cool night air. At about 1am we walked to the middle of the street just outside of our houses, and in a clearing bereft of trees, sent our sky lantern—now just the newest in a line of holiday traditions—up into the sky, taken by the wind past the tops of houses, and eventually out of sight.

Mind you, this was not the four of us in Taigu, but it may as well have been, holding the sky lantern just moments before sending it off (photo courtesy of skylanterns.cn).