Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oddly Missing Christmas in China

“Christmas this year didn’t feel quite like Christmas,” Juliana said last night before bedtime.
“What do you mean?” I asked
“We didn’t get to see any friends.”
“Well, Christmas is usually a holiday you spend with family, not so much with friends.”
Juliana responded, “We do. In China. I miss Christmas in China.”

I was struck by her response. I had an idea in my head of what “normal” Christmas is like. Christmas is family time. Except in China, we aren’t with family. We do spend our Christmas with friends. And if  5 of your 8 Christmases have been spent in China, naturally your version of normal is a little different.

This exchange also struck me because I was feeling the same way. I have only spent 9 out of 35 Christmases in China, so my view of “normal” is still pretty American. But those 9 China Christmases have taken place over the last 13 years, and we have developed our own new normal.

Still, who wouldn’t love extra Christmas celebrations with many more presents than normal? Christmas programs and Christmas lights and Christmas music on the radio. The month of December becomes Everything Christmas.

In China, we miss Christmas in America. We miss the resources to make all kinds of Christmas cookies. We miss stores decorated for Christmas and selling at least some classy Christmas decorations. We miss candlelight Christmas Eve services. We miss Christmas morning with family and stockings over the fireplace.

This year in America, I found myself oddly missing Christmas in China. For starters, the whole month of November becomes Everything Christmas and that is just morally wrong. By the time you should even be starting to think about Christmas, you feel kind of over it.

There are so many Christmas activities – performances, parades, services, visiting Santa (which we didn’t actually get around to), Christmas craft days, Christmas parties – it’s fun to experience and also a bit overkill. It bombards you at every turn. It is not something you make happen – it happens to you. It sweeps by you in a flurry of busyness.

Christmas in China is whatever you make it to be. There is no pressure to do all the Christmas things because they don’t exist. We do lights and make cookies because that feels like Christmas. We light our advent wreath. Every year I try unsuccessfully to make our tree not look tacky. We Skype with family. We gather with teammates for a potluck and gift exchange.

We don’t drive past houses strung with lights (we also don’t pass any houses, so there’s that). We string our own lights inside our apartment windows and enjoy knowing that our neighbors will see them, the only lights around. We don’t listen to Christmas music on the radio, partly because our little three-wheeled electric cart is conspicuously missing a sound system. But at home we do listen to our favorite Christmas albums on the computer.

We make wrapping paper out of decorative book-covering paper. Last year when I bought an interesting variety of paper from the stationary shop, the owner excitedly pointed out to another customer - “She is buying paper for Christmas presents!” I have even wrapped presents in pillowcases and scarves or out of pretty, recycled shopping bags, which is very eco-friendly and also convenient when that’s what you have.

We celebrate St. Lucia Day, in honor of our own Lucia and of our Norwegian friends. We dance around the Christmas tree, remembering this special tradition shared by our Norwegian and Scottish friends years ago when our children were very small.

Some years, we have our own candlelight service. It much simpler and smaller than the polished mega-church variety we attended this year. We sit around a living room with a small group of other people who become our overseas family, children crawling around, maybe some fireworks going off in the background, singing to music from YouTube. It is anything but polished, but in spite of or because of that, somehow it is wonderfully meaningful. So yes, I guess normally we do celebrate Christmas with friends.

I don't want to idealize Christmas in China, because it is often very hard. December is a dark, cold month. It always seems to be a difficult time of year, often filled with sickness and discouragement.  We wish we could be near family and attend Christmas activities.  We feel jealous of everyone celebrating what appears to be picture-perfect Christmases.

We had lots of Christmas this year, more than usual in every way. We got to be with family and do Everything Christmas. We enjoyed it, it was just...different.  This is just the way it is - nothing will be quite normal again, as we split our life and affections between two different worlds.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

You Might Have Been in America Too Long When...

We have now been back in the America for over 10 months. 10 months! That is by far the longest we have been here since we got married 11 years ago. When you spend that much time in your own country, you start adjusting your behaviors and expectations, until America starts to seem pretty normal.

You know you have been in America too long when…
  1. You say, “I don’t really feel like Mexican food today.”
  2. You find yourself drinking ice water – IN THE WINTER.
  3. You start to take closets for granted.
  4. Burger King is not the best burger you’ve had all year.
  5. You send your child to school in one layer when there is frost on the ground, and nobody even scolds you.
  6. You don’t even stop in the cereal aisle.
  7. You complain that the door locks aren’t your temperature controlled, shock-absorbing, faster than 30mph, fully enclosed and locking CAR.
  8. You don’t go into fast food and gas station bathrooms thinking, “This is so much nicer than my bathroom.”
  9. You think that drive thru and grocery pickup and prepaid mailing labels are quite normal.
  10. You stop wondering what the neighbors will think, because you don’t have a couple hundred of them seeing and hearing all the screaming through windows, walls, and floors.
  11. There is only one Chinese person at the park who is eyeing you...because there is only one Chinese person at the park.
  12. Nobody comes up and awkwardly asks you in English, “Hello! Are you American?” but you go up to the Chinese person at the park and awkwardly ask in Chinese, “Hello! Are you Chinese?”
  13. It seems normal to have so much stuff you need an attic, a basement, and/or a storage shed in the backyard.
  14. You start to take for granted that you can send your kids off to school where someone keeps them all day and is responsible for making sure they learn everything – for FREE!
  15. Your kids get super excited about rice and even more excited about jiaozi (potstickers).
  16. You start thinking of all these ways you will HGTV and Container Store your apartment when you get back.
  17. Your kids have twice as many toys and yet somehow still have less than most of their friends.
  18. You feel annoyed when it takes a minute for the water to heat up in the sink, even though you have hot water in the sink.
  19. You take for granted the DISHWASHER.
  20. You stop noticing when other parents take their babies out shockingly under-dressed.
  21. You start getting all paranoid about safety, even though your kids have probably never been safer in their lives (school shootings not-withstanding).
  22. You don’t eat avocado every day.
  23. Your family hasn’t flown, even domestically, in NINE months.
  24. You think it’s a pain to drive 45 minutes to get immunizations, even though in the past you have taken 24-48 hour round-trips to get immunizations.
  25. You start thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be too weird to live in America.
But then you go back to China and everything rights (or possibly wrongs) itself. It all depends on your perspective.