december 20th - christmas made in china
While two hours is a bit short for a honeymoon period, you’ll not be surprised to learn that by five years the marriage itself was in complete meltdown. And Christmas was coming again. What to do? I was getting desperate. We’d had five years of juggling the various families. The best compromise was that there was no Christmas in our house, but I couldn’t escape from it whenever I left the house – and indeed even in the house the TV and radio are full of it. The neighbours all have tinsel and lights and trees and frivolous nonsense. People still send you Christmas cards. Actually, I’ve worked out that you have about three years after you send your last Christmas card to someone before they knock you off their list and stop sending them.
That gives me the opportunity to digress into what I think is wrong with the whole Christmas card thing. Apart from the obvious waste of resources. Right. Here goes. The supposed point of Christmas cards is to show people you’re thinking of them at Christmas. But the reality is that people have long lists, which they tick off, just signing the inside of cards with barely a thought given to the recipient. Very few people actually write a message, much less a letter to go into the card. How can they? They’ve got hundreds to get through after all. I’m sorry, I don’t see the point. I don’t need a collection of autographs on my shelves for a fortnight thanks, hiding the books! And I don’t need to celebrity endorse a range of cards to send to other people I barely know, don’t give a shit about, never think about, feel guilty about not having kept in contact with –etc. When I send a card (which thankfully is virtually never now) I put in a proper letter, using the opportunity for some real communication with the recipient.
Of course with the rise of Facebook and ecards and the like, real cards have become even more redundant, even more wasteful of resources. I know, I know, the argument against me is always that suggesting we are wasting resources at Christmas is being a Scrooge. I fundamentally disagree. If you’ve got enough money to spend on cards and stamps you could donate it to charity instead, or actually do something with the money that makes a difference to the life of someone who doesn’t have the luxury of being wasteful. There’s a Native American saying ‘Only when the last fish has been caught and the last river has been poisoned will we realise we can’t eat money.’ And I endorse that - only when there are no hungry people and maltreated animals on this planet will I willingly engage with the Christmas process. Until then, I’ll stick with my principles and use my resources (both physical and emotional) for better purposes than tinsel, turkey and tanking up!
You’ll see where I’m going. I had finally had enough. By five years into my marriage I was completely convinced that Christmas had become nothing more than a commodity. I thought that it would be a good plan (I should have learned from my mistakes, shouldn’t I?) that I reasoned, why not go somewhere they don’t celebrate Christmas! The obvious answer? Communist China. I couldn’t think of a place less likely to be Christmassy than Beijing.
Once again I should have thought a bit more deeply.
Using the excuse of my husband’s ‘landmark’ birthday, combined with some money left us by the death of his mother (no more visits to his family for Christmas, then!) I booked us a 10 day trip to China. We’re talking China before the Olympics, before it was fully ‘open’ to the West, and so still to some degree an exotic destination.
The reality (never quite as sparkly) was a long haul flight from hell, gaining an understanding of how turkeys must feel on their last trip to the abattoir; with the enhancement of jet lag and culture shock. The biggest part of the culture shock was how Christmassy it was! We were booked into a swish hotel (the only kind you can stay in in China as a foreigner) where the lobbies all had giant Christmas trees, complete with tinsel and lights and to cap it all, there was no escape from the tinny Christmas tunes. They even piped them in the lift. It didn’t take me wrong to work out my mistake. Let me take you through it, in case, like I was, you are surprised to find Christmas in China.
Christmas is about commodities, right? And where do they make all these Christmas things? You got it. China. Christmas is no part of Chinese culture but it is a huge part of their economic system. And the cheaper and tackier and more plasticky the better. So, instead of escaping from the consumer binge that is the festive period, I’d placed myself into the worst excesses of it.
The staff had obviously been trained in Christmas and Christmas etiquette. Wherever you went in the hotels (and you weren’t encouraged to leave them) you were greeted with ‘Happy Christmas’ and beaming Chinese smiles. They knew more than I did about Santa (well, after all, they are the elves who work for him all year, aren’t they?). The only real Chinese part of it was that they were all shocked with those of us who had chosen to come to China during this important ‘family’ time. It was impossible to explain that you wanted to escape from family. Family is everything in China it seems, and no self-respecting Chinese person would think of missing their own Chinese New Year homecoming festival. So we were not just strange foreigners, but considered, I suspect, somewhat beneath contempt for being anti-family, anti-tradition.
It was stupid of me to think that Chinese people would a) be distanced from the whole Christmas thing and so b) understand the desire to get away from it. It was a different culture to them – goodness knows what they make of all the crap they manufacture – but they understand the fundamentals of tradition and a tradition with family at the centre is something they buy into wholesale. Our stocking fillers are the means by which they get the money to go back to their own families at Chinese New Year. I suspect the entire nation breathes a communal sigh of relief when our Christmas stock is delivered – and counts their Yuans. Doubtless when they come back to work from Christmas New Year they are geared up to start the mass production of more crap for the next Christmas season.
So. You learn something with each passing year. And I learned that even travelling to the other side of the world is no escape from Christmas. Since this is a Christmas story, I won’t give you detail of my holiday. Suffice it to say, once you got out of the hotels and away from the trips –and it wasn’t easy to shake off one’s ‘guides’ - there was a lot of interest to explore in Beijing and beyond. The Chinese in their native environment carried about their business oblivious of Christmas. But the price we pay for import/export of Christmas to China is that a Westerner cannot escape it even in the heart of communism. I don’t know what it will be like there now, but I can’t imagine it will be any less commercial or commodified. China has taken to capitalism like a duck to a pond and Christmas is such a vital part of capitalism, isn’t it. Jesus has more or less been cut out of the equation. There are plenty more celebrity endorsements of product Christmas!
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An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.