Home For Christmas

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I’m sitting alone at a table in a nearly deserted restaurant in a mall on Christmas Eve Day watching my kids play in a play area designed for toddlers. They’re innovating the toys and being too loud, but there’s almost no one here and I’m just watching them with an absence much like misty nostalgia, which is really just a result of my own physical absence…

I’m so far from home.

We came to this mall because it’s walking distance from our apartment. The kids, who attend the French International School, are off on Christmas holidays but most children in this country are still at school as Christmas is not celebrated here. Last year, though, there was a Santa’s Village set up in the main square of this indoor colossal mall structure and the kids remembered and hoped they’d see “Santa.” They know that these are just people dressed up as Santa who work for Santa, because the real Santa is magic and no one can see him.

Instead of finding the Santa’s village, however, there is a strange display featuring the Molly dolls, a weird cartoon doll collection whose eyes are all a uniform creepy swath of turquoise without pupils. I find them startlingly odd and it’s the third time I’ve seen these things this week and I don’t even know where this character comes from: A cartoon? A video game? A movie? And why is the Molly doll collection taking up space in a mall just before Christmas when even Chinese people like to pose with Santa or at least participate in the commercialism of Christmas?

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The kids enjoyed the drawing center at the Molly Doll display and did some of the interactive activities, but they’re enjoying their imaginative game in this restaurant play area more and I’m acutely aware of my aloneness here at this square table with just my thoughts.

So far from home.

This is coming into the twelfth year of my time in China… but really, it’s the 13th if you count that first year that I came three times and waffled about moving here. Eventually I did, but fate pulled me like metal to a magnet and I couldn’t talk myself out of it, in the end. And now, the tug of change is pulling me again like I’m sitting at the stern of a massive boat that is hooked to an equally massive rope being dragged across a cresting astrological wave of an entire Eastern culture… at an angle.

Change is in the air. It will be the first year of the astrological 12-year cycle starting January 26th. A full cycle has now passed and the boat is careening. I’m gripping the edges. The degree to which this angle will threaten to tip me out is unknown at the moment, but I must ride this out in order know.

And today, Christmas Eve, as I just spend the day quietly with my two little people (aged 6 and nearly 8), I am, once again, sad to be so far from my home country. I’m always nostalgic at this time of year. Sentimental, perhaps. Depressed, definitely. (Isn’t everyone?)

Where is my home, exactly?

When the kids come over to eat, Echo says that she hopes she’ll be in Canada for Christmas next year where she’ll see lots of “fake Santas” walking around and there will be snow and other people will have Christmas trees just like us. Paz agrees wholeheartedly with an open mouth full of French fries and then they both begin to describe the scenes of Christmas movies with lights on houses and stockings hung from fireplaces, etc. This conversation makes me cry but the kids don’t notice.  I have to wipe my eyes and clear my throat when I tell them that maybe one day we will experience a Christmas in the West and they cheer loudly—too loudly for a restaurant, but I don’t hush them. The cheering makes me feel worse.

Where’s their home?

I’m not sure Canada would make it better. What needs to change is this self-imposed isolation that China has become for me. I get along well here, but part of this is only superficial. Plenty of work, affordable housing, extended family helping with child care… but do I still love it here? Do I love what this country offers me? Or, is this where I’ve coasted because I’ve had no better offers?

Being alone is hauntingly evident on Christmas for a foreigner in a non-Christian country. Add to that being divorced and single, I am just a speck of humanity here. And as we walk back home and I buy some food for Christmas Day, I know that only I will make it Christmas-y for the kids and only I will insist on Santa coming and only I will wrap presents at night and then stuff stockings and watch them unfold with wonder the next day… (even though their Dad will attend the morning festivities.) It is my job to make Christmas important to them. It’s my culture and my role. It’s my responsibility. It’s a heavy burden and no one carries that alongside of me. Maybe no one ever will.

I put the kids to bed and then by 11pm, I’ve wrapped the presents but not until after I’ve done two hours of recording work that I could only do once the house was quiet.  I am exhausted from a day of parenting and now an evening of work. I’ve had to beg off of a lot of other freelance work because Chinese people aren’t resting right now; they want their work accomplished during this “work week” because Christmas is not even on the radar for my clients… which is frustrating when it must be on the radar for my kids. But it’s ok. I’ve got extra time to be with my babies. I’m happy about this.

The image of the Molly dolls comes back to me just as I’m closing my eyes for the night and I realize just why I don’t like them. It’s their absence. The lifelessness. The void. And just as the darkness floods me as well and sleep nearly takes over, I hear a voice in my head that is crisp and clear. It says:

You’re their home, and their yours.

I’m going to sit in this tipping boat until I know exactly which direction I need to go. No jumping overboard. No giving in to the darkness and disappearing under a wave. So, don’t worry about me. I may be absent from my original home, but I’m not absent from the world. On the contrary.

I am present for them.

Home is a common noun, but “to home” is an active verb.

This is me, just homing. ‘Tis the season.

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