In the latest from BJC’s An Expat Christmas series, Felix learns to see the holiday spirit from the eyes of someone completely unfamiliar with Christmas — an Iranian in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.
Christmas in China. If there’s one topic that comes up often in conversations with relatives and friends about my life in the Middle Kingdom, that’s gotta be the one. How do I cope? How does it feel to be so far away from the family, in very un-Christmasy China?
I usually just shrug. Truth is, I never really was into the whole Christmas thing that much, as far as I can remember. And don’t expect some kind of angsty emo-kid rant or endless diatribe about the lost traditions and over-commercialism here. Sure, I enjoy the days off, and the big family party, but couldn’t care less for everything else: Jesus, the bland Christmas food, giving or receiving presents (something I actually love doing, but hate being socially pressured into), the horrible Christmas songs that you hear over and over and over in every shopping area from Halloween onwards… moving to Asia wasn’t that bad in that regard. I was losing the days off and the possibility to attend the family reunion, but not being eye- and ear-raped by unwanted, saturated and tacky advertisement every time I hit a supermarket was well worth it.
And after five straight Christmases here, I feel the same way as I did in 2008: nothing much. Life goes on. But the expat story I want to share with you isn’t mine, but a friend’s.
Her name is Fariba, and she hails from Iran.
Now, the latter is not just an anecdotal detail, as it shapes pretty much the story of one of the most interesting encounters I have ever had in the past year. As a small-city laowai, I’m used to sparse interactions with the odd foreigner, nearly always North American, or at the very least, Western European; in short, people who share a similar cultural background with me. As such, conversations tend to be the same, but with Fariba, I knew right away it wouldn’t be the case.
She was happy to talk to an English-speaker, her Chinese being nearly nonexistent after only three weeks in the country, and I was glad to hear her perspective and stories about China seen through the eyes of a non-Western expatriate. Even though she was in her late-20s, well educated (Master’s degree in engineering, fluency in English and a good smattering of French) and had many international friends, it was the first time she had ever left Iran. Apprehensive she was upon learning she’d be sent by herself to a small industrial town, but also hungry for the experience. The things she was looking forward to the most? Not having to wear the hijab was number one; number two, finally getting to taste pork. The latter was a bit of an underwhelming experience, and I couldn’t help but crack up laughing hearing her story, picturing herself with a Chinese coworker munching on a plate of pig rectums rather than a juicy ham or some perfectly fried bacon as her very first non-halal experience. Her stories were refreshing, partly because of her sweet naiveté, and also because her cultural shock was much different than the ones I have heard about a million times before — not the kind of stuff you usually encounter in old-grumpy-white-men-dominated expat haunts!
But where is Christmas in that story? I’m coming to it: as we were walking down the aisles of a supermarket to get some goodies, her large and beautiful Persian eyes lit up, she blurted, “Wow, I can’t believe it, there is so much Christmas spirit here! It’s wonderful!” I smiled at what I think was unsubtle sarcasm, but then realized she was dead serious. She was actually marveling at the somewhat minimalistic decorations, the undersized plastic tree, and the pointy red hats worn by the bored cashiers, even pulling me by the arm from time to time to point out something that really grabbed her attention. “Look at that! So cool!” or “They make special chocolate for Christmas?”
So while the vast majority of foreigners I know or have known try their hardest to get the most out of their Christmases with their limited resources — organizing potlucks with other expatriates, planning Christmas lessons, clumsily decorating their unheated apartments with cardboard from the corner store, having extended Skype sessions with family at ungodly hours — yet still feel a burst of homesickness as the 25th rolls around, Fariba was actually embracing what was her first Christmas experience ever. How little, fake and “Chinese” everything was, it didn’t matter at all. She could finally experience and see with her own eyes what she could only get from movies and stories told by her Western friends in Isfahan or Tehran.
For her, Christmas will always be China. The two concepts are inextricably linked from now on.
Felix is an avid cyclist and death metal fan currently living and working in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. He is also the artist of Laowai Comics. (Ed’s note: “Fariba” is an alias.)