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Christmas in China

Not being a Christian country, China has traditionally been quite reluctant to get the Christmas bug. This seems to have changed dramatically in recent years, with kids eager to get presents and shops and businesses all keen to make as much money as possible. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship, and consumerism reigns here in the Far East as much as anywhere else. Communism, at least the Western perception of it, is a myth.

I’ve been teaching a couple of years now, and I often get Christmas cards, emails and messages from students, past and present. They mean well, but unfortunately too many of the season’s greetings get addressed to ‘Christ,’ instead of Chris or Christian.

To Christ, marry Christmas!

I never found out who the ‘Christmas’ chick I was supposed to marry was, but I can tell you that it’s a lot of pressure being the son of God.

Almost every educational facility in the country, from kindergartens to universities and training schools have special events to mark Christmas. These usually take the form of a student performance. Last year at Xiangtan University, Hunan province, the drama club did a Shakespeare production. Juliet came out wearing a beautiful long, white, flowing dress, promptly tripped over it, face-planted, and gave herself a nasty nosebleed. The poor girl. Romeo & Juliet never had so many laughs.

Spending Christmas away from home is always difficult. Of course, I miss people. But I have to work, and this is the life I chose, so all I can do is push those thoughts to the back of my head and get on with it. Luckily, we have a tight foreign community here in Changsha. Brits, Americans, French, Canadians, Germans, Poles, Danes, Swedes, Australians. We are all foreign to each other, but united in the fact that we are not Chinese. The Chinese rarely discriminate between nationalities (except the Japanese). To them its simple. You are either Chinese or foreign. A common Mandarin word for ‘foreigner’ is laowai. The etymology is complex, but tellingly, literally translated it means ‘outsider.’

I usually have to work Christmas day, as do most teachers. It’s not a national holiday in China. Sometimes I have to be Santa Claus. I hate it. I make a very bad Santa. A few years ago when I worked at a primary school in Tianjin, which is far too close to Russia, by the way, the school asked me to host the Christmas party. Being the only foreigner there, I had no choice but to agree. They gave me this tattered red Santa suit and a script to learn. Yes, a script. Then they sent me into a theater packed not just with hyperactive spoiled Little Emperors, but also their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and what seemed like all their friends and extended family as well. All told, there must have been several hundred people there, all waiting to see Santa Claus.

I was a bit nervous, so I drank an entire bottle of Baijiu on the bus on the way to school, and by the time I got there I was quite pissed. Irresponsible, yeah. But I would love to see you go through this ordeal stone cold sober. So there I was, in a Santa suit, drunk, on a stage in front of hundreds of people, at 8 am Christmas morning, in freezing northern China.

It couldn’t get any more surreal.

But it could certainly get worse.

I had been a good boy that year, and learned the script beforehand. So in my best Santa voice I bellowed my first line, “Ho, ho, ho, does anyone know who I am?”

To which a kid in the front row jumped up and shouted, “Yeah, I know who you are. You’re Chris. Our English teacher.”

What? That wasn’t in the script. How could I possibly follow that?

There was a deathly hush, then a ripple of laughter gradually spread through the audience members as I shriveled up in embarrassment before a sea of strangers.

Merry Christmas, you little shit.

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