I Won't Be Home for Christmas, Again

There's something vaguely poetic to be said about your first Christmas away from home. When you are young, Christmas and home are about as inseparable as a newborn from its mother, so it only follows that observing Christmas in the place of your youth—arguably the most memorable and sepia-toned years of your life—has a mythology built around it of family, tradition, and nostalgia. If the holiday specials on network TV aren't the first to capitalize on it, then certainly Hallmark has made a dent in our collective psyche that Christmas is a season to cherish and remember. There are those images you can't help being drawn to—your first Christmas tree fastened to the roof of the car, the warm glow of the fireplace, the halcyon angel placed quietly at the top of the tree, the sharp engine whistle of a miniature train set, the stiff, plush lap of the Santa Claus at Macy's.

To be fair, this year wasn't my first Christmas away from home—last year found me in an eerily similar predicament—in my one-story flat in rural China with six other foreigners who have been the closest thing to family I'd had for the last five months. Christmases in years past saw me, most notably, playing guest at my cousin's birthday party, as we helped to unpack and re-construct the plastic Christmas tree and decorate it with tiers of gaudy gold and silver tinsel, frosted glass bulbs, and Disney-themed ornaments. My uncle's house was decked out in holiday festivity—as the sound of Christmas compilation albums steadily pumped in from the TV speakers. My uncle spent the better part of the day cooking his famous “holiday ham,” while my mother quietly peeled vegetables as my aunt made off-handed comments about her dish-washing technique and how she needed to get a real job. The yearly gathering was perhaps the closest thing to a reunion my family got, where the cousins and aunts-once-removed I hadn't seen since the previous year's party all came out to celebrate Christmas and their prodigal niece. I was never sure what made me more uneasy, the fact that I was expected to make conversation with adults I hardly knew or that those adults were giving me presents I felt I hardly deserved.

Decorated wreath on Ray's door.  Ornaments courtesy of IKEA Beijing.

At these sorts of occasions there was always a musical interlude, where me, my sister, my cousin, and two of my second-cousins would each take turns playing our various instruments to the amusement of the crowd. It was a relatively unbiased way of assessing our auditive worth, which could then be extended to other areas of our lives. I played the cello, my sister the violin, and my three cousins (all about my age) played the piano. Because of the size of my instrument, I always performed last, but by then there was hardly anyone left in the audience who had any interest in whatever slapdash rendition of Handel or Mozart I could put together without sheet music. At the end of the night when nearly all the guests had left to go home, my sister and I would beg my mother to stay overnight, no matter how much we knew she disliked sleeping in a different house or how much we would all regret it by the next morning. Some years she would relent, much to our amazement and glee, while on others, she held fast to the notion of trudging through the snow to the nearest subway stop and riding the two hours back home. But regardless if it was in the morning or at night, each year when we came back to our tree-less, decoration-less apartment, there was the same feeling—of not being good enough.

It turns out my mom and my sister didn't make it to my cousin's house this year—only the second time that had ever happened. The first time was when my sister, my dad, and I went to Barcelona to celebrate the New Year during my junior year of college—the closest thing to a “family vacation” I've ever experienced. Apparently, the day after Christmas this year was marked by a blizzard, blanketing the city with snow, and in typical fashion, city officials had little idea how to handle it. Subway service was suspended until further notice, and besides, my cousin was turning 23—and who needs a fancy birthday party at that age anyway? Such is where Christmas found me this year—balancing a yearning for a bygone childhood and the curiosity and wonderment that comes with an entirely unsympathetic re-imagining of Christmas in a foreign land.

China, as a secular country, does not celebrate Christmas—at least, not in the way your average Christian family does in America—complete with midnight mass on Christmas Eve and the life-sized 'Jesus in the manger' nativity displays drawn up alongside blow-up reindeer as front lawn decorations. In the days leading up to Christmas, me and three of the other male teachers decided to make a trip to Beijing for a sort-of “boy's weekend out.” Simply given the nature of the gender split among the foreign teachers, I've probably been exposed to more male energy in Taigu than in any other place I've ever lived, but we wanted quality time, actively spent in pursuit of each other's company. So on the ramshackle 12-hour night train from Taigu, we were fortunate to get a private 4-bunk soft sleeper cabin, meaning that we could hold a conversation in relative comfort—perched on the second-story of adjacent bunk-beds, taking swigs of beer from giant glass bottles, and having “lights out” at our own discretion.

What China does do to celebrate Christmas is commercialization, though even that is different than in America. As night fell on my first day in Beijing, I found myself at a Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, having my second of two beef bowls of the day (and my second of two meals total), while waiting to meet my friend Emma who's birthday I came to Beijing partly to celebrate. I went on to write in my journal that in that moment, I was at the height of cultural confusion. Everything about the situation seemed off. For one thing, Christmas music was blaring on loop from the overhead speakers—literally, the first I had heard all year—and the interior of the combined Yoshinoya/Dairy Queen was decked out in wreaths, ornaments, bows, and other decorations, hanging from below the oversized menus and scattered around the check-out counters. Even the women behind the cash registers were wearing Santa hats to match their red-and-white aprons. Since I hadn't been home for the last two Christmases and it had been quite a while since I so much as heard “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the very thought of being bundled up on a cold Beijing night and approximating Christmas to any small degree was simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.

Coffee with a side of Christmas, Grandma's Kitchen, Wudaokou, Beijing.

I couldn't help feeling like an outlier—a traitor to my family who I hadn't spoken to in weeks, or more generally, to the country that I had—if not for good, then at least for the time being—left behind. It felt odd then for this to pass as my reminder of Christmas—in a country where the depth of knowledge on the holiday goes about as far as an “old man” and a string of long socks. When I was studying abroad in Osaka, I missed Thanksgiving, probably my favorite American holiday, but I had made it back home in time for Christmas. If past Christmases have taught me anything, it isn't to say that I'm missing out on much—if anything, really—and that I feel at all regretful to be abroad, but it just strikes me somehow as odd. In the same way that I want to be a good cultural ambassador of America to China, I also want to be the same for my family and children in the future. How will I reconcile the part of me that waits in a lonely apartment in rural China on Christmas Eve knowing full well that there won't be anything to greet me in the morning, with the iconic yarn of Christmas specials, the gathering of the presents around the tree, baking chestnuts in the oven, and setting out milk and cookies for Santa?

One of my students asked me recently where my home is, and though I've answered that question countless times before, it made me pause to think—what home do I really have to come home to for Christmas? I moved away from Oberlin in May of 2009, away from Ithaca in late July, and finally, from New York and my mom's apartment in August. The only real home I have to go back to at this point is in Taigu. At Yoshinoya, separated from the other foreigners I had come with, I chewed on the delicious flash-fried strips of beef, thinking about globalization and how American fast food in Asia must reveal the “Americaphile” in everyone on this continent. Outside of actually seeking out foreign friends with whom to converse and build a relationship with, there is seemingly no easier or more satisfying way to feel like you are experiencing the intricacies and customs of the West, then by munching on a Big Mac in a Chinese McDonald's. KFC has been capitalizing on this well, especially during the holiday season, with targeted advertisements that pair a family's consumption of a bucket of fried chicken with sledding and making snowmen on a blustery winter's day, all traditions that are not native to China.

But Chinese aren't the only ones itching for a taste of American culture. It would seem that Western food abroad has had a similar effect on me. With nothing that comes close to approximating Western fare in Taigu, Beijing has come to embody the stuff of fantasy. Going to Beijing is like reaching the promised land in many ways—familiar food, people who speak English, and tons of exciting things to do. That part of the experience alone has had a way of blindsiding me to all of my actual responsibilities in Taigu and furthered my impression that I was living in a dream world. And while expectation is folly, so too can reality be stultifying. The truth is that Beijing has nearly everything we could possibly want, and while living in Taigu has its benefits, comfort and security are not among them. But, really, who goes to live abroad without expecting some degree of adversity?

Secret Santa gifts by the radiator, in all of their beautifully-wrapped glory.

Even compared with Beijing, in Taigu, Christmas isn't nearly as elaborate an affair. There are few reminders that it is even a holiday at all, save for the tiny windowsill effigies of Santa Claus and the handful of decorated fake trees at restaurant entrances that work to drum up business. It is said that most of the recycled PVC plastic that goes into making fake trees comes from China, so it should be no surprise that they are in high supply. There are certainly no mechanized window displays like in the warm fronts of luxury department stores in America or the fresh smell of evergreen wafting as you walk down a crowded street. Many Chinese take Christmas to be the equivalent of Chinese New Year on the mainland—a traditional and reverent holiday spent doing things together with family. With the emphasis on togetherness, everyone I talk to is shocked when I reveal that I won't be going home at all for the holidays. When I say it's about money, most wave it off, unable to see the connection with cost when there's an innate obligation to one's family. “Won't your parents miss you,” students ask me, in between mouthfuls of braised pork and garlic shoots at our end-of-year banquets. “Probably,” I say, noncommittally, just before we toast to the end of the first semester and the new year to come.

As far as restaurants go, hot pot is apparently the place for young Chinese to go and celebrate Christmas. Peeking into a few on Christmas Day, restaurants that usually have room to spare were booked solid, and it took using our guanxi with the boss of one place to even get a table. But Christmas Eve saw us in a very different predicament. Holding true to our tradition from last year, we decided to cook a big meal together and eat it in the spacious, friendly comfort of Gerald's living room. Christmas Eve in Taigu also saw an immense shipment of apples to the town. In accord with Chinese tradition, Christmas Eve finds people exchanging apples (and, to a lesser extent, other fruits) as Christmas presents. What most people here don't know is that it is purely a Chinese convention and has no grounding in America. Decorated apples overflowed from fruit stalls all along North Yard, with some wrapped in colorful foil, others in individual boxes, some dipped in various candied lacquers, and still more, engraved and carved with designs. My living room soon became so littered with all the periphery plastic and cardboard by-products from these student gifts that we had more apples than we knew what to do with.

For dinner on Christmas Eve, we decided to cook Mexican food, since Gerald and James had bought taco seasoning on a trip to Shanghai. Cooking dinner came to mean nearly as much fun and revelry as the eating itself. All seven of us were responsible for our own parts of the meal—James made the salsa, Gerald seasoned the meat, David and Robert made tortillas, Alexandra and Ray baked cookies from scratch, and I prepared the vegetables and rice. Everyone insisted on wearing Santa hats while they cooked too. In fact, Gerald has worn his ever since in lieu of an actual winter hat. It doesn't keep you particularly warm, but it's something. He says he'll keep wearing it until it's culturally inappropriate. Judging from the plastic Christmas tree still propped up in an old Taigu lynchpin since May of this year, I think it's safe to say that day may never come.

Taigu Family Christmas Photo 2010 (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

There was a spirit and camaraderie to the meal absent from many of our previous group activities in Taigu thus far this semester. There truly is something to be said about the holidays having a unifying effect that forced us to come together in a way similar to how the swine flu crisis of last year infiltrated our group consciousness and made us stronger as a unit. Prior to the dinner, we had all drawn Secret Santa recipients and though some people had enough foresight to buy their gifts during our trip to Beijing, I led a second group in making a trek out to Walmart in Taiyuan after our classes had ended for that very purpose. Though our own families have different traditions on when exactly to open gifts, we decided that Christmas Eve was as good a time as any, so after dinner and clean-up, we divvied out our presents and languished in the slow afterglow of the holiday spirit. We even paired dinner with a brief Hanukkah ceremony, where Ray melted candles onto a ledge and we each chanted while lighting one in reverse age order. After that came the tradition to end all traditions—watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” around Gerald's oversized computer monitor. It got me thinking about how our own ragtag group here in Taigu would compare had we been anthropomorphized as Peanuts characters.

Ray would undoubtedly be Schroeder—the introverted, musical character who doesn't play a huge part in the show but is integral, if only for guest appearances and giving the series a sense of whole. James would be Linus—reverent, thoughtful, and moral—who delivered the prayer in the Christmas musical in the cartoon just as the real James said grace at our Christmas dinner. Gerald would be Snoopy—the feisty, sarcastic wisecrack, with a penchant for making trouble. He lives in his own separate orbit from the group, but without him, we wouldn't have enough entertainment quota for a show. David would be Pig-Pen, if for no other reason than because his hair tends to stick up in weird places, and his relatively constant state of illness can mistake him for being forlorn and unclean. Alexandra would be Lucy—which is not to say that she is obnoxious or a know-it-all, but because her temper can sometimes get the best of her and she isn't afraid to speak her mind. That leaves me as Charlie Brown, the slightly pathetic, but good-intentioned protagonist who seems to get blamed more for society's failures than for it's triumphs, but takes it upon himself to care for and support the group just the same.

We woke up on Christmas morning not to a flurry of snow and residual holiday cheer, but to the harsh, dry coldness of Taigu. Gone were the early wake-up days of childhood spent haranguing parents from sleep in a giddy fervor to open gifts. In fact, the only presents left resided under Ray's foot-high foam cut-out tree that we bought from Walmart along with most of our Secret Santa gifts. They had originally been mailed unwrapped to her by her parents, but she had wrapped them herself and piled them neatly above the radiator for the sake of upholding even the barest shred of tradition. The streets were all but deserted as we got a late jump on lunch and most of the students opted to eat in their dorm rooms or the school cafeteria for fear of braving the elements. It was as biting cold as any day we had seen in Taigu this year—the kind of cold that makes your hands hurt to leave them uncovered.

Like Christmas last year, we decorated and floated up a sky lantern with the help of our Chinese friends, hoping to make good on our wishes for the new year.

I was coughing and my nose was running when I left my house to get lunch. I had spent the better part of the week getting over a cold, and the pervasive arid climate only compounded the misery I felt traversing the shaky cobble steps out past my front door to the lop-sided dirt road of North Yard. Especially on this windy day, SUVs and taxis alike came rumbling across the narrow path, honking incessantly as frigid pedestrians clustered on either side, narrowly dodging their advances. It could have been any ordinary day in Taigu. I went to eat baozi for lunch, tender round buns stuffed with meat and scallions at our usual place, across from the hair salon and three meters to the left of the intersection. Just as I was walking in, something caught my eye. On the floor, slightly obscured by lingering traces of dirt, I found an ornament, a modest red ribbon adorned with the stylized text “Merry Christmas,” still in its original packaging. I dusted it off and cradled it in the crook of my elbow back home. In spite of a tree to hang it on, I fixed it on a hook adorning my front door—its holiday message apparent to all who visit—offering small redemption for the estranged Christmases of my youth.