Friends And Countrymen (An Expat Christmas No. 9)

An Expat ChristmasBJC’s An Expat Christmas series is winding down, but we wouldn’t leave without a story from Shanghai. William Childress writes about friends, food, and transience in the big city.

By William Childress

We’re lucky, in Shanghai, to be in a city with so many foreigners that we can essentially experience the holidays as we would in our native land. But don’t get me wrong — we’re not exactly in an expatriate haven.

For now my day job, at a shady Chinese office, is pretty soul-crushing. Naturally any time away from it is welcome, and I also offset this horror by performing standup comedy in and around Shanghai. Most of my social circle is connected to the standup and improv scene here and those were the people with whom I spent Christmas. Saturday marked my last standup gig of the year, held at a bar on the slightly dodgy Yongfu Lu. Aside from a newer comic who bombed pretty hard, the show went over great and we had a fantastic crowd of expats and a few locals (85/15 split, which is normal). I was especially pleased with the turnout given the proximity to Christmas and, yes, there were China-themed Christmas jokes (the Naughty list being a censored search term on Baidu, stockings full of century eggs, things of that nature but funnier, I promise you). Standup has never felt like a job, but it still requires a lot of preparation and mental focus to pull off a good show, and with the gig out of the way we were free to sit back and relax a bit.

The hub of our group is Masse, a bar and restaurant where we hold weekly open mics and paid shows a few times a month. We’ve grown close with the husband-and-wife team behind the bar, and on Sunday the 23rd we collaborated on a day-long, wine-soaked Christmas movie marathon. After running through A Christmas Story and Elf, we sat down for a massive dinner of turkey, ham, and all the associated trimmings. Considering few of us at the dinner even had an oven in our apartment, much less one that would hold the gargantuan fowl laid before us, it was somewhat of a Christmas miracle. After laying waste to the spread we settled firmly into a meat coma and nodded through Bad Santa and Die Hard before dispersing to our respective domiciles.

On Christmas day I swapped gifts with my roommates, an American teacher/comedian and an Italian professor, and then we made our way to a friend’s house for a potluck dinner. It was one of those affairs where everyone is initially worried about a lack of food, only to find an overabundance of grub and spirits once everyone rocks up to the dinner. Russia, Korea, Italy, China, Australia, England, and the US were all represented in force. Russian salat, Italian gnocchi, meatballs, soup, shrimp and grits from the southern US, curry chicken wings, cakes, pies, Scotch, vodka, and wine all graced our table. The dinner was in keeping with the overall theme of the weekend: if we couldn’t go home for the holidays, we’d just bring a taste of home to China. Oh, and on a related note, if you bring hash brownies to a party, LABEL THEM. One girl went home panicked with more than visions of sugar plums dancing in her head.

Looking around me during that potluck and earlier at the dinner at Masse I realized that almost everyone I celebrated the holidays with last year had moved on. It’s a cliché of expat life, sure, but at some point it all rings true to us – that ebb and flow and friends arriving and departing is simply inevitable. I touched on my job situation before, but to keep a long story short I had a very small window in which to decide whether to leave China or dig in for the long haul. There are better places to practice architecture, there are better places to perform standup, but no other place has the combination of friends and opportunities that I’ve found in Shanghai. That never rang truer than it did over the holidays. The people around me were my family and I had to enjoy them while they were there. These were the people who will support me and I, in turn, will support them. I feel like I’ve planted some roots here, but I am also well aware that things could change any day. I know that I could easily be the one missing from the party this time next year. So until then, here’s to now.

Merry Christmas.

William is an architect and standup comedian living in Shanghai. Follow him at @heyitschili and check out Kung Fu Comedy for standup dates.

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