Do They Know It’s Christmas? (in China)

Disclaimer: They definitely know it’s Christmas in Africa, and you should all see this article for more info on why that song is so terrible. But anyways…

Some of you may be wondering whether there’s Christmas in China. The short answer of course is no, but Chinese culture almost always merits a long answer too.

From a basic religious standpoint, while Christians do exist in China they are far from the majority. Most people are secular, and the most-celebrated holidays are Chinese only, things like National Holiday in October, and of course Chinese New Year, a three-week long celebration at the end of the Chinese lunar calendar (this year it’ll be early February). There are Buddhists here, and some Taoists, sure, but all in all the Chinese religion is essentially nationalism. People believe in the merits of China above all else.

But China also doesn’t tend to take no for an answer. So yes, there is a form of Christmas here—a wildly secular, fully commercialized version of the holiday exists, in sporadic bursts that have little rhyme or reason.

Christmas Spirit (2)Holiday decorations are up at all the malls. Sometimes these are just Christmas lights, other times trees, and yet other times strange, conical Santas. I frequently hear Christmas music at coffee shops and department stores, mixed in with the usual rotation of classical music and K-pop. The stores sell ugly Christmas sweaters and sometimes miniature trees, and on the popular online shopping website Taobao you can buy cheap Christmas decorations to your heart’s content.

And yet if you ask a Chinese person when Christmas is, exactly, or what its meaning is, almost none of them know. The religious meaning for sure is lost, and even beyond that, the sort of secular Americanized version of “good feelings and good deeds” seems to have escaped the vision of Chinese corporations as well. Only the most shallow, most plastic little bits of Christmas have washed up on shore here, and because of it, the whole thing probably makes little sense to the average Chinese consumer.

But I can’t exactly say China doesn’t have a right to celebrate Christmas in its own way. After all, Americans have turned the materialism of Christmas up to even further extremes than the Chinese could ever dream of. People being trampled to death on Black Friday shopping for bargains, mothers stressing out for weeks over making sure their kids have enough presents, commercials each minute of the day emphasizing the sheer amount of junk we have the money to buy. None of that really represents Christmas to me, either. Whether it’s the cheap plastic trees littering the aisles of the grocery stores in Shenzhen, or the crowds fighting over the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, I think it is fair to say that Christmas is turned into a hollow word everywhere.

And anyways, since Chinese factories are the ones supplying most of our decorations and ornaments and toys, I think they have a right to enjoy them too.

So does it bother me? Not really. In fact I smile when I hear Christmas music in the stores here. As possibly the only one around here who knows the words, it’s like the music is for me alone.

lamb

This year I got “Christmas” dinner at a Xinjiang (Western region of China) restaurant, including an entire roast lamb. It was great!

Shiny Shiny Shenzhen

For those of you who don’t know anything about the city of Shenzhen, here’s a brief and super simplified introduction:

In the year 1979, the leader of China at the time, 邓小平 / Deng Xiaoping, decided that China should be opened to the world (and by that I mean open to capitalist investment). But he didn’t want to open all of China at once, so he decided to select a sort of “testing ground” where these principles could be experimented with before allowing businesses to enter the rest of the country. He called these testing grounds “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) and chose Shenzhen to be the first. Since then China has opened several other SEZs where the government allows more flexible free market principles and less governmental restrictions in order to make doing business in China attractive to foreign investors.

Has it worked? Yes, and insanely well. In 1980 Shenzhen was basically just this rural area which happened to be right next to Hong Kong—but now it is a city representing China’s present dreams and ambitious hopes for the future.

I wasn’t sure that I would like Shenzhen at first. The city is massively daunting. I am used to living in Boston, where I can walk halfway about the city in about thirty minutes, and if I don’t feel like walking I can hop on the subway for just a few stops and be fine. But in Shenzhen, a few subway stops might take twenty minutes, so forget walking. In some ways each area of the city is quite isolated from the next. But as I’ve been learning recently this is also what makes it cool. I’m not just living in one city—I’m living in twenty or thirty cities, all lined up side by side.

I like that each subway stop in Shenzhen is a new adventure. You never know what kind of restaurants you’ll find, or what crazy architecture you’ll see, or what beautiful parks will appear in the middle of the madness. I like the air of excitement that everyone carries, like everyone here is dreaming about the future and working hard to get there. And I enjoy the city’s newness, the way basically nothing is any older than 1980. This newness is so temporary, too—buildings are being demolished and built up again all the time. There’s something cool in that transience. Daunting, again, but cool.

Here are some pictures of the cool stuff I’ve seen here so far.

Chegongmiao (2)

Super nice apartment complex in the Chegongmiao area

Cherry Blossoms 2

Cherry blossoms at 少年宫 / “Children’s Palace,” a popular park

Evil Building (2)

I call this one “evil villain building.” Chegongmiao area.

Graffiti 2 (2)

Even a city this new has graffiti. Near Coco Park.

Skyline (2)

Shenzhen skyline on a sunny day

Symmetry (2)

The way to 少年宫

Modern Toilet: Restaurant Review

Yes, you read that correctly. Modern Toilet is a restaurant, not a toilet shop. But you may not be able to tell upon walking in, because the floor is covered in toilets anyways.

Modern Toilet is the strangest restaurant I have ever visited. The theme of the restaurant is actually poop. You enter a room with a tile floor, filled with seats shaped like toilets arranged around tables. The tables all have glass tops and underneath them is a bathtub—some of the bathtubs have half-naked dolls inside. On the back wall of the restaurant is a trophy hall of urinals, which are lit up and slowly rotate through each color of the rainbow in a fixed cycle.

All of the food you order at Modern Toilet comes in squat-toilet or bathtub-shaped dishes. The dishes are all named after poop, though as most of the menu was in Chinese and we didn’t exactly learn much poop vocabulary I was unable to translate much of it. You could even order bubble tea that came in a urinal-shaped cup.

The food was alright, and probably too much money for what it was, but for some reason the waffle fries were fantastic. I had an Oreo milkshake as well, which came in a normal glass and was actually quite satisfying. All in all, slightly better than I expected, considering I was literally sitting on a toilet.

For the grand finale, we ordered chocolate soft-serve ice cream, which for obvious reasons is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

If you are easily amused by potty humor, I would highly recommend a visit. If not, you may as well just go to the McDonald’s down the street for half the price and none of the shitty décor.

Life in the Village

One of the cool things about my time in Shenzhen so far is that I was able to get housing in a residential village. Called a 村 / cun (pronounced “tswun”), these villages are scattered all across the city, and make apartment living much more bearable.

View from my window

View from my window

View from the porch

View from the porch

Because Shenzhen is a planned city, it was built with certain things in mind that other cities were not. For example, Boston was not built with the intention of ever allowing cars to drive along its roads, a fact which becomes pretty apparent to most visitors pretty quickly. The city also was built up randomly and sporadically over time, which results in roads that are almost parallel but not quite, intersections that don’t make any sense, and all in all, a pretty tightly packed living space.

But since Shenzhen was built all at once and in a place where there was previously nothing, it was built with a purpose. Not only is my village packed densely enough with tall apartment buildings to house thousands of people, but the village is also packed with meandering paths, green spaces, and areas for people to gather and relax.

For the first few weeks in the city, I mainly stuck to the village, just trying to master its wandering pathways, dead ends and surprise gardens. You could probably spend at least an hour or two exploring the space, if you went down each and every path, and the great part is that it is all very public. Everyone shares the space evenly and respectfully.

The village is always full of life, from young kids riding their bikes to old women walking or practicing tai chi. Walks in the morning reveal people exercising in the large public square or at any of the public exercise equipment available throughout the village, and walks in the evening are filled with high school students returning home for the night or, if your timing is right, large flocks walking to the subway stop from their jobs nearby.

A typical building looks something like this

A typical building looks something like this

A typical row of houses

A typical row of houses

In the center of the village is a strip of shops to make life easier—a bookstore, a bakery, a few small restaurants. Just outside the parameters is the subway stop, bus stops, a small grocery store, and a huge vegetable market where everyone heads at night to prepare for dinner. In the morning vendors sell steamed buns or bing, Chinese pancakes.

Because the village is almost entirely Chinese people, I do stick out a bit as I walk around. Many people have given me an odd, concentrated glance, like I don’t belong there. But it never makes me feel unsafe—in fact the neighborhood feels quite peaceful and protected, as it is mostly inhabited by families. And the neighborhood is full of security guards and protected by gates in various places, not to mention that I live on the seventh floor with no elevator, so it’d take quite a bit for something to go wrong at my house.

I have really enjoyed living in the village so far, as it has enabled me to feel a part of a genuinely Chinese neighborhood. It is peaceful compared to the city which closes it in, and yet is still vibrant and full of life.

Sunrise over the village

Sunrise over the village

More morning views

More morning views

There are lots of stray cats around!

There are lots of stray cats around!