Merry Birthday (An Expat Christmas No. 3)

An Expat ChristmasBJC’s “An Expat Christmas” series shifts to Hong Kong, where Pete DeMola, a longtime mainland resident who relocated not long ago, prepares for a double celebration in the special administrative region.

By Pete DeMola

I’m one of the few people I know who can probably recount all thirty of my Christmases without skipping a beat: I was born the day before the Big Day, and I have a twin brother.

As such, the two-day period has historically been conflated and has taken on a special significance characterized by a sense of the Other – a Bizarro World consisting of shuttered storefronts sighing under the weight of the Northeastern winter gloom and midnight church services and loving parents and the Little Sis making sure that the Big Two were always consistent in their borderline mediocrity as the Other Guy and I found ways to amuse ourselves.

Twenty-three of those years were spent identically. Apart from my first Christmas – one that was passed, in part, tucked into a stocking alongside the Other Guy (good one, parents) – they’ve all been the deadened hum of vehicles traveling over packed snow to visit relatives and ruminating over another year while fielding volleys of folksy questions from good-hearted simpletons like, “Gee whiz – I guess you get gypped every year on presents” and “Wow, what a Christmas for your parents!”

This will be my eighth Christmas abroad. And since I spent the first twenty-three of them traipsing around snowy suburban lots with the Other Guy stirring up holiday mischief in attempts to generate an antidote for the often-numbing sameness, I suppose that on some unconscious level, I’d prefer to be alone if I can’t be with him.

Life in China, however, has finally provided the sought-after cure to that historic two-dimensionality, namely for two reasons:

The country’s insular culture pushes expats to generate their own holiday traditions – we are all immigrants, after all, seeking to create new shared schematic experiences – and because the ephemeral nature of expat existence leads to a revolving cast of friends and networks that often shift from year-to-year, resulting in a variety of different celebrations depending on who you happen to be hanging with at the time.

Those twenty-three years of the blurred Big Two, then, have been replaced by unbelievable variety, a wide range of Christmas Day experiences that have run the gamut from the particularly Chinese (starting a new job as a business reporter) to joyous (the year when a multinational rainbow coalition of expats assembled at a Mexican restaurant before getting tanked at a Japanese sake joint) to subdued, like last year’s session of scotch swirling with a German businessman at a dimly-lit café in a southwestern provincial backwater.

This will be my first Merry Birthday in Hong Kong, a city that, unlike the mainland, actually seriously observes the holiday – that is to say, it means a hell of a lot more to locals than a mere cynical vehicle for marketing that is also a reminder of the paradoxes of modern-day China, a desire to fit in yet shun foreign influence: all cheap advertising copy and gaudy decorations and butchered traditions and the idiotic donning of pointy Santa hats and antlers outfitted with blinking LED lights.

It’s made the leap from an insular tradition to one that’s been incorporated into the mainstream. Here in the former British colony, the traditionalism is here if you want it – and so are the submerged pockets of uniqueness.

With over 150 years of practice, the holiday’s staid British customs are cemented into the Hong Kong psyche: brandy-laced pudding, roasted turkey dinners, Dickensian plays and the singing of hymns all run deep alongside the threads taken from the SAR’s increasingly-dynamic grab bag of nationalities – like the hallowed Nochebuena from the fun-loving (and devoutly Catholic) Filipinos, for example, or the local tradition of taking in the holiday lights while reveling at the Causeway Bay, and Tsim Sha Tsui countdowns after blowing five figures on an ostentatious feast before hopping on a plane to a glamorous holiday destination.

The kids even had a riot one year, an act of Yuletide cheer in 1981 that unfortunately didn’t become a recurring tradition.

While my experiences during the Big Two will undoubtedly again be a product of ephemeral circumstance – like singing folk songs with my Filipino shopkeeper pals under the palms, for example – the city’s distinctive culture will come into play, too – namely that of making money to survive in this cutthroat hotpot of ultra-competitiveness: the SAR’s defining characteristic.

Nonetheless, I will wish that the Other Guy – that burly bearded figure who works up in the Arctic Circle doing what it is that he does in his Kerouac Life – was here to add that element of sameness.

Pete DeMola is a writer and creative consultant in Hong Kong. He tweets at @pmdemola.

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