BJC’s “An Expat Christmas” series continues, in which foreigners in China write about the holiday experience from their respective cities. If you’re in Changsha, look up our next contributor, who’s been finding Christmas cheer — and creating some of her own.
By Amanda Roberts
This is the third Christmas my husband and I have spent in Hunan, and we have worked on each one of them. The first two years we were teaching at schools that didn’t make any special to-do about Christmas, and they didn’t want to give us time off since a four-week break for Spring Festival was so close behind. This year we are working at a computer game company that’s also not giving time off. Because of this, what we’ve learned about Christmas in China is the same thing we learned about Halloween and Thanksgiving: holidays are what you make of them.
In America, Christmas isn’t just about presents: it permeates every facet of life. In China, there is only the materialistic aspect, and because of that — in Changsha, at least — very few places have any kind of “holiday cheer.”
Another hindrance to Christmas festivities in Changsha is the fact that many foreigners simply leave town. Changsha isn’t a tourist destination. If you live here, you can find a few fun things, but it’s not really worth the trip in just for a holiday. The weather is abhorrent. Winters are cold and wet — rainy, not snowy — and a gray gloom settles over the city that can last for months. I think last winter we went four months without seeing the sun. So the foreigners who can leave town usually do. The few who remain are usually working, so there aren’t many people left to gather for holiday fun.
Because of these reasons many people might give up on having any kind of Christmas fun here in the ‘sha and simply bunker down under an electric blanket and wait for spring to arrive.
But not all is hopeless. On Sunday, my husband and I hit the streets to find some Christmas.
We went to the ID Mall and were greeted by polar bears giving out hugs (ok, just guys in polar bear suits that actually looked a little more like wolves… but whatever, just go with it). There was a very large center display in the basement level which you could see even from floor five because the mall is open air to the top floor. For most of the day, there was a young lady in the middle of the display playing the harp. It was quite lovely. We were amazed when the young lady left and a very authentic Santa Claus came out! The Chinese people were simply ecstatic and rushed to get their picture taken with him (and most of these were older teenagers and adults, not little kids). That night, we went over to La Nova Mall to see the giant outdoor Christmas tree on display. There was a lighting ceremony for it last week, but it wasn’t advertised very well.
But for people who don’t want to wander through malls for a Christmas experience, there are always people who generate their own brand of celebration instead of waiting for things to happen. Several people like spending Christmas with their students, maybe buying a tree on Taobao and reading The Night Before Christmas or Skyping with folks back home so their pupils can see what a real American home decorated for the holidays looks like (students really love this). Hooligan’s Pub, the local expat watering hole, is always open, and many expats will gather there for fun and relaxation.
Seth and I will be wearing our Krampus shirts and subjecting our friends to a viewing of The Star Wars Holiday Special – the best worst holiday film ever made. This is actually what we would be doing if we were back in the States anyway, so Christmas is pretty much the same no matter where we are. Hopefully others can find a similar joy.
Amanda is an American living in Changsha. She blogs at Two Americans in China.