The Tree (An Expat Christmas No. 2)

An Expat ChristmasBeijing Cream’s “An Expat Christmas” series continues, in which foreigners in China write about the holiday experience from their respective cities. Our second of two stories from Beijing comes via Allison Reibel, about a tree rooted in the Christmas spirit no matter how much things around it might change.

By Allison Reibel

I usually avoid IKEA. The abundance of foldable furniture and storage containers makes me see the transience of my own life in China. But Christmas moves us to do crazy things, and I had my heart set on a laptop stand for my roommate, who is Chinese and won’t likely be leaving the country anytime soon. I imagined her reclining on the couch, streaming a movie with maximum comfort, saying to herself, “The foreigners are right! Christmas is fucking great!”

In line for my pre-shopping Swedish meatballs, however, I realized my ICBC bank card wasn’t in my wallet. I ran home to look for it, then to the supermarket to ask if I’d left it. It seemed to have disappeared into Beijing’s icy air. I brought my passport to the bank and was told I could pick up a new card in seven days: December 25. “But that’s Christmas!” I told the teller, and she giggled a little. She and her English-speaking coworker called in for backup. “No card, no money,” he said.

I had about 600 RMB at home, which would have been more than enough any other time of year. But two days later, I was picking up my mom at the airport, who hadn’t brought cash in anticipation that I’d be able to loan her some. I felt bad ruining the plan and forcing us both to pull out our foreign credit cards. But she was too excited to care, and didn’t seem to mind that there would be nothing under the tree for her – or, for that matter, anyone.

The crooked little tree is the one sign of Christmas in our apartment. It was passed down from another English teacher who left the country when his contract ended in September. He was happy to be rid of it and I was happy to have it. Christmas is a time when life in Beijing feels especially transitory. No one wants to buy decorations because no one believes they’ll be staying much longer anyway, and an extra gift may just mean an extra suitcase. But the tree knows it has a job to do. It reminds us every day that Christmas is coming. And its beauty is radiant enough for my roommate to snap Weibo-bound iPhone pictures.

We’ll have Peking Duck instead of turkey and sweet doujiang in place of eggnog. We’re spending Christmas eve in Xi’an, rushing away from the Jingle Bells of the hostel lobby and toward the city’s Great Mosque. And on Wednesday, we’ll be at the Summer Palace. But strangely, the China holiday experience doesn’t feel too strange. As for December 25, I’ve only written one note of reminder: “Christmas!”

(And, of course, “Pick up bank card.” There’s a story here about how my colleagues gave me bundles of pink hundred-kuai bills at our office Christmas party, but I’ll save it for another time in fear that their generosity is too obvious a symbol of the holiday spirit.)

And sometime after New Year’s, when its exotic charm has worn off for my roommate, I will dismantle the little tree. I will shove it back into its box and begin the search for its new home. A traveler must know how to find Christmas wherever you find yourself. And an English teacher’s Christmas tree must always be ready to move on. Christmas isn’t about the presents; it isn’t even about the cookies. It’s about sharing what you have, hugging those you love (or at least those you like, if the ones you love are out of reach), and bracing yourself for whatever comes next.

Allison is a writer and editor in Beijing who blogs at Early Allison Dynasty. You can reach her at @AlllisonR.

    3 Responses to “The Tree (An Expat Christmas No. 2)”

    1. RhZ

      I am surprised the tree still has its box. The gifter must have been a Brit or something. Who saves the box? There are weird people out there.

    2. ashley hankins

      very well put Allison. I love that you can capture the essence of a Beijing Christmas better than I could put in words. Our family resorted to Skype calls followed by tours around my mothers house with the laptop in hand… I of course had to give them a tour of my tiny apartment and my mis-shaped Christmas tree. Starting to worry about how to get everything home in 9 months time…. Does that mean I should stop shopping? See for Christmas dinner hopefully!!

      • RhZ

        Ha yeah I did that not too long ago, pointed the camera to show the entire apartment and my nieces and nephews were shocked. No one back in the midwest can quite imagine living in 30 (or 20) square meters. I think I have about 35 meters now, and it feels like pretty much enough space. 20, though, was rough.


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