The Gift (An Expat Christmas No. 5)

An Expat ChristmasBJC’s “An Expat Christmas” series continues, as Jocelyn Eikenburg shares her experience of gift-giving — and receiving — from one Christmas in Shanghai.

By Jocelyn Eikenburg

When you spend Christmas in China as an expat, it’s easy to feel a little forgotten by the holiday season. But in 2004, when I lived in Shanghai, I had just visited the Shanghai Marriage Bureau to register with my Chinese sweetheart, John — a man who I had spent the previous two Christmases with — so I considered myself somehow immune to that feeling of isolation. Or so I thought.

My employer gave me Christmas off. John also had no classes that day, and promised to take a break from his dissertation work — work that, for the weeks leading up to the holiday, meant lengthy trips to Hangzhou and exhausting late evenings typing away at his computer.

Since I always loved playing “Santa Claus” to John, who of course never grew up with stories of this jolly old man, I presented him with his gifts first — two wool turtleneck sweaters, one in royal blue and another in deep maroon. John beamed at them, and I couldn’t help but smile with pride, knowing I’d nailed the perfect gifts.

“So, what did ‘Santa Claus’ bring me for Christmas?” I asked John. By then, he already understood that “Santa Claus” was our little euphemism for the gifts we gave to one another.

His smile evaporated. “I’m sorry.”

My heart sank as I noticed that no other gifts, cards or bags sat under our tiny artificial tree in the corner. “You forgot?”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. He never even celebrated Christmas until he met me, and even then, he usually left his gifts in plastic bags under the tree, sometimes even with the receipt. Plus, in late 2004, the pressure to finish the draft of his dissertation before Chinese New Year had probably distracted him so much he didn’t realize that this was, to his foreign wife, as important a time of year as guonian.

Yet I couldn’t think about any of that, not on a morning I had anticipated for weeks. Even a few pairs of socks — something he had been known to buy for me in past Christmases — would have cheered me. But the absence of any gift from my favorite “Santa Claus” only magnified the loneliness and isolation that can come from spending the holidays in a country where Christmas carols are often nothing more than great karaoke tunes. I hung my head and started to cry.

To John, though, my tears were a catalyst. “You wait here, I’m going to find something for you.” He jumped up, threw on his jeans and a sweater, and headed for the door.

A few hours later, a grinning John burst through the door with two plastic bags in hand. “Shengdan kuaile,” he said as he placed them in my hands.

Inside the first bag, I found several pairs of cotton socks in my favorite colors, including red and pink. But from the second, I pulled out a knit scarf and matching hat splashed in waves of brilliant apricot, creamy yellow, and a light toffee brown. Even the style, right down to the button on the brim of the hat, felt as unconventional as the clothes I wore outside the office. Only John could have known I would love this scarf and hat. That thought warmed me from head to toe, even in our drafty apartment, and turned a “forgotten Christmas” into something unforgettable.

Jocelyn writes Speaking of China, an award-winning blog about love, family and relationships in China.

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