China with Christmas Characteristics

[Posted on the blog of the journal Terracotta Typewriter (December 21, 2009). | See original post here.]

By Brian Kuhl

Christmas in China can be a surreal experience. At an English club Christmas Party once, Santa Claus told me he liked my straight nose. Skinny college kids dressed in familiar red suits, but without even a hint of Santa’s portliness, slouch through the streets passing out sale flyers. In the Hainan jungle village where I lived one year, a Chinese beer was hawked from a yuletide-decorated cottage. On wheels. And Christmas carols—in English—are everywhere. But who’s listening? Who even knows the meanings of the songs, be it the words alone or the warm feelings they conjure up?

“At an English club Christmas Party once, Santa Claus told me he liked my straight nose.”

Several years ago I was in a big supermarket with three friends who were helping me buy a space heater for my drafty apartment. The store has since been bought out by the British retail chain Tesco, but at the time it retained its Chinese name, which unwittingly fit the season: “Le Gou,” or “Happy Buying.” We were walking through an aisle of cleaning products en route to the heaters when one Christmas song ended and a new one began: “White Christmas.”

I realized we were listening to an entire recording of Christmas carols, sung in English by American performers. While we shopped that afternoon, we heard such popular classics as “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Hey Santa Baby,” “Silver Bells,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The Jackson Five even belted out “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But when Bing Crosby began to croon, I slowed my pace and laughed. It was amazing to me that such touchstones of my American Christmases past would appear in the small Chinese city of Huzhou. I turned to my friend Xiao Zhang, who wondered why I was laughing, and said, “You know, this is a very famous Christmas song in America, maybe the most famous.”

“Really?” he said with a blank smile.

“Yeah. It says, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’—white meaning snowy—because snow is considered very Christmasy.”

“Really?” he said again, his look unchanged.

I asked if he could understand the words, and he paused for a moment to listen. Now Xiao Zhang has about the best English skills of anyone I’ve met in China, and if he couldn’t understand the lyrics nobody could. No, he could not make them out, he said, but noted that the song was slow and not upbeat as he thought Christmas music should be. It was supposed to be happy, and it didn’t sound that way. That’s when I realized I was probably the only one in the store to whom these songs meant anything and that playing them was likely just a mandate by some corporate manager somewhere. Here is some Christmas music—play it.

This was a little disconcerting to me. In America, while the business side of Christmas dominates, at least the spirit and ideals of Christmas that have been usurped by business are still there, under the surface, and people know them if they really stop to think about them. But here in China were just the remnants, casually slapped to this alien holiday imported for the sole purpose of selling goods. That’s what struck me: it looked the part—Christmas trees, fake snow on merchandise displays, sales clerks in Santa hats—but it was all surface effects, nothing more.

As Christmas Day approached that year, people asked me how I planned to spend the holiday. I didn’t really want to pretend to celebrate Christmas in China if I wasn’t going to be with my family, which I wasn’t. Christmas fell on a Monday, and the college told me I could have both the 25th and 26th off. But I planned to teach all my classes those days—I already had enough perks and just wanted to be treated like any other member of the faculty. Chinese teachers didn’t get those days off, so I wouldn’t either. It fell then to decide how to spend Christmas Eve. Hangzhou, an elegant center of Chinese culture, is one my favorite cities and I hadn’t been there in some time, so that’s what I would do: go to West Lake and walk around a bit, have a leisurely lunch, and then head to a cafe to sip coffee and read.

When I got to the bus station, in the northern outskirts of the city, I took a taxi to the central area by West Lake. I went first to a DVD store to look for movies I could use with my classes. From there, I had to walk some distance to get to the rest of the stores. What I saw could have been in New York or Boston: people dressed up as Santas walking along in pairs giving out free balloons as promotions, hordes of people on the sidewalks and in the stores, and a long line snaking out of Pizza Hut at three o’clock in the afternoon. Unreal. Too unreal for me. I knew that the cafe would be crowded and that I’d have trouble getting a taxi later to return to the bus station. I decided then and there to leave, after only a couple of hours, and go home.

I had sought an Eastern peace and found instead a Western pace. A couple of days later I complained in an e-mail to a Chinese friend about how the hectic commercial nature of American Christmas had followed me to Hangzhou. His reply came on New Year’s Eve. Yes, he wrote, Christmas had become very popular in China of late, especially among young people and “merchants.” He explained that, in response, a group of Chinese intellectuals at several top universities had written an open letter against Christmas in China—urging Chinese, in part, to place more emphasis on their own holidays and traditional religions. My friend, however, dismissed their argument, saying the scholars “should have more important things to do, instead of acting a show.” He then ended his e-mail with these words:

“I didn’t celebrate Christmas Day, and I even have no feeling about the New Year Day. I like Spring Festival, the traditional new year for Chinese. In my hometown, it is the most important and maybe most happy festival in all year. But I will not object that other people like Christmas or the New Year Day. No right to choose is the most terrible thing in the world.”