Christmas is always a hard one for me. In the past half decade, it has easily become one of my most detested holidays. No, hear me out, I’ll make this a worthwhile read, not just an emo “feel-sorry-for-me”-fest. All you need to know is that I really don’t like Christmas. Or maybe the truth is I love to hate Christmas. Writing this post retrospectively from February, I can honestly tell you that the 2013-14 holiday season has introduced me to a new level of feeling sorry for myself that I really didn’t think was possible to reach. But I digress. Let me tell you about Christmas in Chengdu.
It snuck up on me. Chengdu didn’t give many hints that it got mildly festive for the December holiday of Western origin until suddenly there were Santa faces in every window and Enya wheezing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from every 7-11 convenience store speaker. As the 25th edged nearer, it was hard not to feel a bit merry.
This was huge contrast to how I had been feeling: I worked incredibly hard during December, since our second teaching intern had up and quit, and left Chengdu on the 14th. This meant a lot of teaching responsibility for me, and no chance to recover my flagging health. The walking pneumonia that I had contracted in November and never seen a doctor for had evolved into bronchitis which I honestly can’t even remember if I took days off to treat. I did treat it though, thanks for your concern. I don’t remember when I finally stopped coughing myself to sleep (no sympathy please, just painting the picture). I actually jokingly refer to the walking pneumonia as “dancing pneumonia” because of how resolutely I refused to allow it to affect my work efficacy.
My Christmas season truly began with the arrival of a package on the 24th from my Dad and his now-fiancée (congrats guys!) full of edible treats. I unfortunately had to teach until 8:30pm that Tuesday evening, but it did allow me to play Santa and deposit Hershey’s Kisses on the desk of every single person in the company. I’m still savouring the Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese they sent me, but the Swiss Miss hot chocolate is all gone. (Funny how I feel the need to specify the brand names of each treat. How commercialised.)
The next day would have been a day off, but I had elected to teach a final week of classes to the kids at the business college to get their exams out of the way before their holiday on the 1st of January. I had to administer three exams, covering two of the classes belonging to the defector (the other teaching intern now happy and pneumonia-free back in London). I didn’t mind. Really. It was only Christmas Day, and I hate Christmas. So it was totally fine.
The General Manager of my company was having a Christmas dinner at her home that evening, so a car was sent to pick me up from the college. I graded my exams on the way, making myself mildly carsick in the process. Who makes A3-sized exam papers? Flipping back and forth and trying to figure out which page was which was nauseating. The driver also got lost en route to rendezvous with Jack-of-all-trades, who had the GM’s six-year-old daughter Annie (yes, another Annie, and it’s her birth-name too) in tow. She was hilarious, telling me all about dinosaurs and how the ones painted on her dino egg toy were the wrong colour, since everyone knows that the ones on this children’s show she was obviously obsessed with are the only true dinosaurs. She got through about six episodes of plot before running out of breath. She also told me how her mom (my General Manager) doesn’t brush her teeth. This kid! Need I mention that she was jabbering away in Chinese, despite also possessing the ability to speak English like a native-speaker? She really is a native speaker of both languages, brought up speaking both like a pro. I love and hate this kid; love her precociousness, her fearlessness, her positive energy—and hate her for her seemingly boundless supply of it! I don’t have the stamina for endless pony-rides (her on my back while I galloped about), which was an activity we indulged in later on in the evening in the enormous play-room the boss’s RIDICULOUS house was equipped with.
This house. THIS HOUSE. Where do I begin? The gated-community? The heated floors? The toilet with more buttons than my mobile phone? The baby grand piano? The SIZE of that television? The cinema downstairs? The strange Greco-Roman décor? I DON’T KNOW. I could never live in a place like that for these simple reasons: 1. The kitchen was the size of a closet; 2. The furniture was too heavy to move around and didn’t feel like it could ever get “lived-in”; 3. I hate ostentatious décor; 4. It’s in the “suburbs” but the air was still smoggy and there was nothing to do out there. Bar those I’d move in tomorrow.
The boss had just moved in herself, so she wasn’t familiar with the kitchen or where any of her kitchen supplies were. I never did get that cup of coffee because she couldn’t find her mugs! But that didn’t matter overly much, because our Christmas turkey came from the Hilton Hotel.
My British supervisor had taken the afternoon to help the boss start cooking side dishes (deliciously roasted vegetables). The table was also graced with chicken wings à la the Boss. (I’m just going to capitalise it like that from now on, you know who I mean). It was a great spread, and the turkey tasted like it’d fallen straight from some heavenly Christmas dinner. There was cranberry sauce and gravy. However it was far from “perfect” as it was lacking all of the traditional after-dinner sweets I’d become accustomed to: Christmas cookies, mince pies, Yule Log… Sorry, still not had a good enough Christmas pudding or fruitcake, so that tradition will have to wait. It was also mildly irritating to be able to understand the Chinese around the table going on and on about how “this was the tradition in the West” and how “all Westerners” did this and ate that. I often feel like a zoo animal or test subject in the company of certain Chinese.
After dinner my supervisor tickled the ivories and the Boss’s brother (who also works for the company) sang his rhythm-less rendition of “You are my Sunshine”. We were whisked home quickly enough, where I arranged the other Christmas gifts obtained that day around the small tree I had purchased for the cost of a moderately priced meal out in Chengdu (under ¥30). These included a box of the most delicious handmade chocolates I’d ever had the pleasure of devouring, and a box of kitschy things from Ziling, Jack’s daughter and my friend.
I had the next day off, so I took myself shopping. I stocked up on all the warm clothes that I had been starved for: new sweaters for work, warm long-johns for sleeping. I had accumulated some time off, so I treated myself to Friday afternoon off as well. That evening, my supervisor brought the leftover turkey over to my desolate flat (one person in a five-bedroom place is a bit…echo-y) and we feasted like kings. It was a fine repast. For the occasion I had gone to Metro (German wholesale chain store and full of those imported things that expats struggle to live without) and bought butter and baguettes, which nicely complemented my supervisor’s Christmas gift to me: three blocks of cheese. This was the beginning of my winter blubber-building! I seriously subsisted on bread, cheese and chocolate for about a month. This probably did not help my immune system at all. We ended on a couple inexpensive bottles of wine I’d picked up and some stimulating conversation about China and politics and history, aspects of my university days very much missed.
So it all sounds pretty good, right? It was. It exceeded all expectations I had for the holiday, and made me feel pretty loved. A package from my mom, aunt, and grandma arrived a few days later in early January. It was the icing on the cake. Now I’m not saying that I love Christmas now or any such codswallop… but it was good. It was really good.
Did I miss any details you’re dying to know about? Don’t be shy, leave a comment!