There’s a replica of Santa hypnotizing all the naughty and nice WuMart customers in Xiasha. Its hips sway back and forth to slow jazz music, warped to the point of resembling a carnival wagon losing its wheels, and its eyes are round as buttons in what’s intended to be delight. In one hand, it holds a saxophone, and the other cocked in a half high-five, waving to the bump of its hips. The mechanized bones beneath the costume prod through the fabric at odd angles at the joints, as if someone had collected broken glass and threw a red robe over it. With its cheeks puffed out and skin suggesting some recent onslaught of jaundice, it warbles in the holiday season.
I’m standing in front of this creature with several other WuMart customers, who lean against their carts and intermittently look at the pile of Kringle and in my direction to scan me up and down. The display started going up just yesterday, beginning with a metal Christmas-tree frame and an archway with limp tinsel sagging from the top, shedding its sparkling skin all over the sidewalk, the tiles, everywhere. I saw it in the dark, then, when no workers were around and it fluttered in the breeze like an outstretched hand beckoning me toward it. Now, it’s evolving, becoming a shrine to yuletide merchandise, to Christmas with Chinese Characteristics. In the course of one afternoon, the workers have added wreaths to the tree skeleton and it’s as if the passerby’s are waiting for an explanation of my holiday, perhaps thinking that this waiguoren should be grateful that China is making an effort to celebrate it.
And I guess I am, in a way.
But I can’t hear my own mind over the jangling tune, clinking in time to loose change. I can’t find the words to explain what seems so deeply wrong and out-of-place to me, no matter how it’s intended to make me feel at home, or how earnestly my students and friends want me to feel loved by its mere existence.
I can’t pretend that Christmas with Chinese Characteristics is just as good as the real thing.
All I see is all that Christmas may ever be over here: that metal tree-skeleton with cheap tinsel wrapped around it. It’s the holiday from behind display windows, or at least that’s what a trip down “Sparkling City,” the shopping strip by WuMart, tells me. The time when cash registers serve as bell-ringers, each ding-dong another pair of feet walking into a store. And maybe the saying goes like this—that every time those bells ring, another company gets its winnings.
It’s only ever been a foreign holiday—a supplementary celebration—and understanding of what it means range from something like the Chinese Spring Festival of the Western World, to a strange obsession with a fat man. Christmas is not Chinese. And ultimately, I don’t think it needs to be.
There’s a word over here, 习惯 (xiguan) that’s used to express the things that you’re used to/accustomed to, or what is considered your habit. When I first came to China, I thought I needed to shed my Western xiguan and adapt to the Chinese ones as quickly as possible. I tried to scour myself of misunderstanding and gain new xiguan in the process—and it’s true, some things like showering right before bed are actually quite nice. But the xiguan we’re born with stay with us, no matter how hard we scrub. Where we come from, where we’re going are all entrenched in the same life-span, which means that the undertow pulling us along is consistent, strong. The Chinese are born with it, along with Americans like me. Neither current is in the wrong direction, but they are not in the same direction. And the places they intersect, the rapids, are both awe-inspiring and a little chilling at times.
There is no explanation of the rickety Santa creature, because it’s not the Christmas I xiguan. It’s the Christmas that China sees, and so it’s the Christmas that gets wrapped up in Chinese Characteristics. And it makes me sad. Not because I was hoping to have a Western Christmas here, but because this corner of China is trying to give me one. And in so doing, it unravels a piece of itself. It creates a strange middle-ground of not-quite Chinese tradition and not-quite authentic Western practices. It’s just like the Santa-doll: singing, dancing, but never quite making music.
When I think of Christmas, I think of a single candle. A flame, warmth cupped in my hand as it flickers with tentative exhales, wax beading down the stick. I see the faces peering through the dark to gather where there is light, and I hear the puff of breath to blow it out when it’s all through. It’s like the Christmas lights reflected in the window in my family’s living room—beautiful because of the empty spaces, for all that it doesn’t need to say. It doesn’t sound Chinese, because it’s not Chinese. It’s Lund. It’s our xiguan and it’s the undertow that keeps us coming together.
So here’s my request: Let Christmas be my xiguan, China. Let it be something beyond the line of broken tinsel, blowing like tumbleweed down the sidewalk. Let the holiday season be about the current that brings people together, even if it doesn’t translate. Let China celebrate China with Chinese Characteristics first and foremost, before bleeding into the red of Christmas and other traditions.
And most of all, let me turn off that Santa creature, because, above all, I don’t think anyone will xiguan that over here.