I’ve been blogging (semi)regularly since February 2008. I can’t believe that I’ve already spent three years — has it really been that long? — brainstorming, writing, editing and publishing online. As a special Christmas present for my readers this year, my good friend Ricky has graciously agreed to let me post his thoughts on celebrating Christmas in Shanghai.
Ricky is Chinese American and has the distinct advantage of being able to speak both Chinese and English with (near) equal fluency. Ricky has spent the last year in Shanghai working as a freelance photographer. Read on to hear more about Christmas from Ricky’s uniquely bicultural vantage point:
Merry Christmas, and welcome to my first blog post! Now on to the meaty stuff.
Now as many people know, I have been in China for the past year—last Christmas I spent the day working in four-sided cubicle in a four-sided glass building housing, and although the day wasn’t filled with the usual holiday cheer I would find myself in, it was surprisingly okay that it wasn’t.
There’s a saying called 入乡随俗 (ru4 xiang1 sui2 su2), which effectively means, “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do.” In Shanghai (which is not to be confused with the rest of China as it was planned to be the highly visible pinnacle of economic achievement in China since 1979) and other large Tier 1 cities, Christmas is becoming more and more visible, but it is still a highly surface-level thing. Christmas trees adorn the front of large malls and hotels, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer can be heard as soon as you walk into any mall.
Though, as nice as it is for some expatriates to suddenly find themselves in a place that has been transformed into all that is familiar and comfortable, it has served to do the opposite for me. To me, Christmas is about spending time with family and remembering the (dubious) birthday of Jesus Christ. Trees, lights, and mistletoe are an addendum, along with gifts and turkey.
Although in the US, we all tend to know that a lot of Christmas cheer is manufactured by retail corporations looking to gain that extra buck, we tend to keep one eye closed towards the whole event. Why? Because its Christmas, and we don’t want to be thinking about those kinds of things. Additionally its kind of nice to go from place to place and see them all decorated, even if we do live in Southern California and the lights are strung around palm trees and yachts parading down Long Beach Harbour.
In China, it is readily apparent to any expat that Christmas is expertly manufactured, and mostly brought in not by westerners who seek to share a cup of egg-nog with their local neighbors living oblivious to the commotion upstairs this past a Friday night, but by retail corporations attempting to transplant the holiday for the simple sake of profit.
This is something somewhat more extensively covered by news outlets these past couple of years; Chinese people tend to be receptive towards Christmas–not as a holiday but more as a curiosity that they are willing to participate in. But unfortunately, because we cannot deny that much of western influence comes from the economic side of things—especially especially in Shanghai, the participatory Christmas action for most people under 40—that’s not to mention the vast majority that do not partake in any participatory action– seems to be doing shopping and more shopping at H&M before heading home and plopping in front of the TV while mom (or dad, we’re in Shanghai…) cooks dinner. And I’m ok with that.
Back to Rome—I didn’t feel a need to celebrate if both Jane and I didn’t have any relatives within a 1000 miles of us, so we joined our friend’s little get-together dinner—An American, an Austrian, and 3 Chinese counting us out—in the French Concession on Christmas Eve. We spent most of the time discussing random things such as the bizarre questions they asked our Shanghainese friend when he joined the CCP, or the origins of Kunqu, or me cleaning the toilet after it clogged (the joy of a Christmas lunch, wafting through my nose). Despite the toilet fiasco, I rather enjoyed that night, and I thought Christmas day was going to be a day of rest. I thought.
Come morning, I wake up at 10. I get my gym clothes and my speedo and stuff it in my bag. I put on my purple fake Puma down parka (its -1 Celcius outside), and I lock the door. But as soon as I walk into the hallway and press the button for the elevator….that’s when the proverbial shit hit the fan.
The elevator door opens, and standing in front of me are about 7 or 8 people. It looks cozy, but nothing out of the ordinary in China. I squeeze in, and as the elevator begins its descent, I notice that a French man and his Chinese wife (both in their 30s) begin whispering to each other in English, saying how rude I was and such. How I have “no class.” His two young boys then proceed to look at me. Then, the man turns to me and with a clearly irritated face, says in his off-tonal and condescending Mandarin, “你就不可以等一等吗？”(Why couldn’t you just have waited for the next elevator?).
I was shocked. It is not unusual to be in an elevator that is one person away from being overloaded; I hear the beep often when I’m in mall and office elevators and stuffed literally with my face to the glass. To have a person talk to me like the French person talked to me is clearly him attempting to impose western values onto a (perceived) local person. I was disgusted. I shot back in English, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a big deal, so why make a big deal out of it?” He replied, clearly shocked that this Chinois could speak English, “If its not a big deal, why couldn’t you have waited?”, his wife behind him, blindly repeating bits and pieces of what he said under her breath.
I replied, “Are you serious? Its Christmas! Can we not? Do you really want to go there?”
French dude stops for a moment.
I look at his kids, who are clearly getting a kick out of it. The elevator opens to the first floor.
We walk out, and as I walk out, he catches up to me and says, “Young man, you should know better than this. I’m telling you.”
I stop, and look him squarely in the eye.
“Hey, get it right. This is not France. This is China. Don’t forget that.”
His wife stands in the hallway, making a scene and yelling at me. I walk out, only to give them a select finger to point out the way to heaven. I don’t look back.
Thoughts were racing through my head: “Wow. That was satisfying. He totally got what was coming to him. Man, if I had more time, or if I meet him on an elevator again, I’m going to tell it like it is, ‘People are like that on the subways and elevators all the time, it’s a comfort that is often sacrificed because of the 22 million people in this city buddy! Oh, wait, you must not know because you can ride in your taxi all the time, oblivious to the masses of people who have to line up for an hour just to get on a bus home everyday. Let them have the elevator space, let them eat cake!’”
I have to admit, the thoughts going through my head weren’t productive, or forgiving, and for a good 10 minutes I lost myself in that maze of anger and frustration towards the way Chinese are treated in China by some expats and even more Chinese. What happened in the elevator was a microcosm of certain aspects of race-relations in Shanghai, and I am sorry to say that although flipping the bird was helpful and empowering at that moment, I have come to realize that it did nothing in having him understand China more. Rather, I’d like to think it gave him a worse impression. In that aspect, the next time something like this happens again, I would like to keep my anger from blooming out, and take the high road.
Christmas is a great many things to a great many people in China, each meaning differing in size and scope. It is an abstract concept that has been handed to a people dealing with a great many perplexing conceptions about the world and themselves. Perhaps someday I hope the young guys my age I often bump shoulders with walking down the street in Xujiahui, the same guys who have the same black hair, same brown eyes, and same grey matter I do can take a stand for themselves and not be confused by either internal doctrine or external pressure, and take the high road that their fathers and their father’s fathers couldn’t take; the same high road that I aspire to but failed to take on Christmas day. That would truly be a day worth celebrating.
All photos courtesy of Ricky Qi. Check out his Flickr for more.