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!

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 3

Part 3: 成都 / Chengdu

My hostel in Chengdu, which is not to be named, pulled the ‘ole switcharoo on me. And by that I mean I showed up at around 9:30 at night and they were like, “LOL what reservation?” Followed by the ever-adorable, “Yeah, we’re all booked up for the night, and so is everywhere else! Don’t you know it’s National Holiday?”

I had never set foot in Chengdu in my life, and I was suddenly left homeless.

Someday in the far distant future when I’m trying to get into politics, and all the other candidates are pretending to be homeless for a week to try and be relatable, I’m glad I’ll be able to cite Chengdu 2015 as putting me a step ahead of the competition.

What kept me calm in the situation was actually an extremely fortunate coincidence which involved me downloading a free travel guide off of Reddit during my first week or so in Shenzhen. I’d perused only the first few chapters, learning that this guy had backpacked Southeast Asia for years and was now sharing what he’d learned. And one piece of his advice that was suddenly clear in my mind—possibly the only piece I actually remember reading—was that you will always find a place to sleep, no matter where you are or what the circumstances.

It makes a lot of sense in hindsight, because barring an extraordinary circumstance like the Olympics, what would it actually take for every single room in every single hotel in a city to be filled? If not even National Holiday can do it, then it’s tough to say. So I would have to say that after this experience, I absolutely endorse this advice 100%. If your hostel cancels your booking, you will find a room. It might be a crappy room, or on the other hand a room that’s a bit out of your intended budget, but it’ll be there. Don’t stress.

At the time this advice was only acting as a skinny little lifeline attaching me to my sanity. I wasn’t exactly breathing easy. Still, I totally credit that guide with keeping me level-headed that night, and will totally go read the rest now!

So there I was, this one lone white girl wandering the streets of Chengdu armed with nothing but a backpack half my size and some kick-ass leg muscles thanks to 20-odd years of dance practice. And so I began my quest, to find that one open bed waiting for me somewhere, faith resting in God and one random Redditor who I’ll probably never meet.

Two things happened to me that night. For one, something clicked in my brain regarding my Chinese level, and continued to click with me for the rest of the trip. For the first time, I had to really face the facts—messing up my pronunciation of a word is just far less terrifying than sleeping alone on the streets of an unfamiliar city. At each hotel I had to figure out how to ask for rooms and what the prices were (if I even got that far…) which involved operating solely in Chinese. You just don’t get to that kind of a crossroads sitting in Chinese class, and that is why I believe in travel.

Second, I stumbled upon one aspect of Chinese culture that it turns out I absolutely love. In China, your personal problems are looked upon as everyone’s problems.

At first glance this seems awful and sure, to our American minds it is, and I can think of at least 1,000 problems that I wouldn’t want to be anyone else’s problem. Example being a village I visited once in Anhui province where whether or not each woman in the village was using birth control was posted up on a public display board.

However, when you are in need of help in China, this habit is really quite excellent. Several times, people went far out of their ways to help me out, offering directions, hastily scribbled instructions, and gestures in the right direction when words wouldn’t do. And this has been a common theme since I got here. On my first night in China I missed my connecting flight to Shenzhen and got stuck at the Beijing airport and a Chinese man helped me and another woman translate with the staff at the airport to figure out where the free hotel the airline put me up in was located and how I could get there. Expecting nothing in return, people here will go to significant lengths to help you out with whatever you need.

I still struggle to find the words to directly describe it, but it’s like a heightened awareness of the people around you and the fact that they are all people too. I suppose one could just call it having a greater sense of empathy. Either way, it’s something America has likely never had, as we prioritize remaining true to our individual beliefs and responsibilities rather than the needs of others. Both ideas are equally valuable and each has its positives and negatives, it’s just nice to experience a change every once in a while.

I didn't ask for all this luxury, but I might as well enjoy it.

I didn’t ask for all this luxury, but I might as well enjoy it.

And yes, I did eventually find a room, granted for far more money than I had wanted to pay. Though this was to become a common theme throughout the rest of the week, and all thanks to the madness of National Holiday.

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 1

The following story covers my adventures in Chengdu, China over National Holiday at the beginning of October. If you enjoy both pandas and pandemonium, this one’s for you.

Day 1, Part 1: 深圳 / Shenzhen

The morning started bright and early, as I rolled out of bed as quickly as I could to start the morning (which in all honesty wasn’t very quickly). I’d been up late again the night before, trying to pack, trying to figure out what exactly I was doing with my life for the next few days, and then of course trying to go to sleep at night. But finally the morning had come, and I was heading off to Hong Kong for the first time.

It was the second day of National Holiday week in China, a blissful time where all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens enjoy a shared vacation. That is, everyone except employees of the tourist industry, because obviously 1.3 billion travelers means that gets pretty busy. Think of it this way: even if everyone in America took a vacation at the same time, it’d only be about 300 million people, so imagine four times the population of America trying to run around the country and sightsee. Yeah. “Chaotic” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The city of Shenzhen, where I’ve been living for the past two months or so, borders Hong Kong in several places. This allows residents of either an easy transit to the other side, or so in theory. In reality, I arrived at the border in Hong Kong at about 9:30 A.M. to see massive crowds of people already waiting to cross the border at 福田口岸 / Futian Kou’an / Futian Port, one of the many border connections between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. At this one, there was an on-land immigration port, a glass walkway over the body of water separating the two locations, and right on the other side was the Hong Kong subway, waiting to take passengers into the center of the city.

Here are the steps I went through to get from Shenzhen to Hong Kong:

  1. Border security on the mainland China side. Time: 1 hour
  2. Border security on the Hong Kong side. Yes, in fact, this security is the exact same as the security on the China side. But for some reason they felt they should do it twice. Time: 1 hour
  3. Purchase subway tickets for Hong Kong. Not as easy as it sounds. Time: 1 hour. See sub steps:
    1. Wait in 15-person line for ticket machine. Discover that they do not accept RMB, nor debit cards, despite being just over the Chinese border and catering directly to people who have obviously just come from China. Set off to find Hong Kong dollars.
    2. Decide not to wait in 60-person customer service line to exchange cash. Find ATM instead. Obtain HKD!
    3. Wait in 15-person line again at new ticket machine to use HKD. Discover that I cannot use $100 HKD on machine unless ticket is greater than $50 HKD. Ticket is $49.50. Scream in rage.
    4. Return to ATM only to find that it solely distributes $100 HKD.
    5. Wait in 15-person line for third time trying not to rip out my hair. Purchase two subway tickets and call it a day.
  4. Ride subway into Central. Time: 1 more hour
  5. Grand total to reach the city: 4 hours. 啊呀!

And then I was in Hong Kong for the first time ever…