Ex-pat Christmas Rant

It’s coming up on Christmas and I have left the land of the non-celebrators behind, finally. You see, since moving to China, this is the first year I’ve come home for the holidays. I had to. I had to get away from their absence.

People don’t celebrate Christmas in China. There’s a small Christian minority that probably celebrates it privately, but December 25th is just another workday there. Despite a rise in the “hipness” of buying a present for friends or loved ones on Christmas day—yet another new reason to be a consumer in China—no other Christmas tradition is practiced there. And why should there be? It’s not their holiday.

The biggest holiday in China is Chinese New Year, the first day of the lunar calendar. It happens sometime between late January and mid-February, the date differing each year. Like Christmas, everyone goes home for the holidays, there is feasting, no one works on that day, etc., but it’s still not Christmas, of course. Not to this Canadian, at least. For starters, it happens at least a month after Christmas and, by then, my holiday spirit is long lagging.

This will be the 5th Christmas since Guo Jian and I have been together. It’s taken me five years to realize that I would never get what I wanted out of Christmas if I remained in China on December 25th. It would just depress me.

So, here I am, writing this blog in North America where Christmas is literally in the air. With every automated doorway into every place of business—gas station to shopping mall—I have been greeted with “sleigh bells ring” or “deck the halls.”

Ironically, I’m not writing it in my homeland of Canada where there’s snow and sleighs; I’m in Florida where my (now senior) parents spend their winters.

Not only did I used to hate the inundation of Christmas carols, I despised the consumer panic of shopping with a deadline and a rising credit card bill, the enormous emphasis on the acquisition of the latest “stuff” and then, at Christmas dinner, the sacrificing of a giant turkey, roasted and then carved up right before my sensitive vegetarian eyes. These are the ways the giant snow globe of Christmas lost its twinkle for me in the years preceding my relocation to Asia.

Then, I became partnered with someone who didn’t understand Christmas and didn’t value it. He saw it as a silly fat man with a white beard whose image was hanging from mall doorways (yes, even in China!). He didn’t know about stockings or Christmas trees or eggnog or mistletoe. I had so much to teach him! He had never eaten stuffing or pumpkin pie. Suddenly, the Christmas carols that I’d grown weary of needed to be blasting from my stereo speakers as I baked shortbread cookies in December.

“… underneath the mistletoe one night…”

But then the day came. Even with instructions, stocking exchanges of little gifts (to reduce buying pressure!) was slightly awkward and weird with him. He didn’t get it. He didn’t really have any motivation to get it. Decorating our little tree together was more a chore for him or something he was doing for me, but not something that had any significance for him. This year, I doubt he’s even considered taking it down from the shelf.

 “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree”

Oh, the lonely tree, and me.

That first Christmas together of 2008, I had a dear friend visiting me from Canada. I took her to the Great Wall on December 25th and we walked its curving back in the bitter cold. It’s a good memory. Having her there made things easier. In the evening, we cooked a great dinner with stuffing and mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy. Guo Jian enjoyed it too.

The second Christmas of 2009, he had a gig out of town. I was alone in our apartment and spent the day waiting for the time change to bring Christmas morning to my family in Canada so that they would call and give me half an hour on the phone with them feeling a bit of Christmas spirit. I ended the day quietly singing “Silent Night,” like a woman in mourning.

The third Christmas of 2010, Guo Jian had another gig out of town. He was there for the morning and our non-negotiable stocking exchange and then he was gone in a taxi for the airport and the apartment felt cold and wrong. I then accompanied a friend to a British woman’s Christmas lunch where I ate the delicious food but felt awkward and out of place among people I didn’t know. Later that evening, I went to my drummer’s house for Christmas dinner where I was much more comfortable—so comfortable, in fact, that I got a bit drunk (very rare for me) and then returned home alone in a taxi in which I rambled to the driver about how sad it was to be far from home on Christmas Day. He hadn’t even realized it was Christmas, of course, but he listened to me like a sympathetic bartender. My friends still tell the “t’was the night Ember got drunk” story like it’s a holiday fable they need to recall together in order to believe it even happened.

Last year, the Christmas of 2011, we hosted a Christmas potluck party. The guest list expanded like Santa’s waist line and, in the end, twenty-five people were in attendance. I was so pregnant and enormous that I felt self-consciously like Mrs. Claus in a red suit. The food was divine but I could barely walk before I ate it, let alone after I stuffed myself. When everyone left, I was relieved when the door closed behind them. I was even more relieved when my mother-in-law helped with the clean up, though not as relieved as she and Guo Jian were that I hadn’t gone into labour during the festivities.

So, now there’s a little one. My daughter’s first Christmas is coming up, and it will take place just 8 days before her first birthday, which is on the 2nd of January. This year, much to my disappointment, Guo Jian had another set of gigs over Christmas with his band. They were too good to pass up and so, bundling the baby up and loading us both onto an airplane became my gig—also too good to pass up.

“The first noel, the angels did say…”

I can’t blame Guo Jian for having little compassion or sympathy in the years when I’ve been sad and depressed on Christmas. He had no idea what I was mourning on those days. That’s just about different cultural upbringing, not insensitivity. Besides, feeling better is my own job. They’re my feelings, after all.

And, really, it’s about being proactive. It took coming here to Florida to realize that even un-Christmas-y places can become what you need them to be for the holidays. I shouldn’t dismiss Beijing. Christmas in China doesn’t have to be depressing. It’s a choice. What’s more, there are advantages to have a Christmas dinner there, especially when you run out of some ingredient at the last minute: the shops are all open for business!

I know that creating the excitement, sense of family, feeling of festivity and celebration on December 25th can and will be possible—especially now that I’m a mother and I insist that my culture be represented in my child’s upbringing, no matter where we are in the world. Even if I don’t always accomplish that list of requirements via a plane ticket, I know that my ex-pat community in China, with its ever-growing families, will be on a similar mission. And I can do it with or without my partner’s engagement.

“Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

On that note, however, if I’m expected to return to their home city for Chinese New Year every year despite its irrelevance in my cultural sphere, you can be damn sure that he’s going to have to celebrate Christmas with his daughter! She will become his new motivation for greater understanding.

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…”

What I bring to Christmas in North America this year is not just a little baby girl with mixed cultural heritage. I am different now too. I’ve spent the past five years living in a country in which people aren’t shy to sing in public and it’s rubbed off on me. Now, every time I hear the carols, I sing along. Out loud. And I don’t give a reindeer’s butt what people think of me. They can go lick their candy canes somewhere else if they don’t like it. I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for.

And a lot of harmonies parts to teach my little girl.

“Pa rum pa pum pum.”


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