A Very Kaifeng Christmas
Trip Start Aug 24, 2007
42Trip End Jul 04, 2008
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At first I didn't pay much attention to the Christmas decorations placed around the city. They were equally as bright, obnoxious and shiny as most of modern China's sense of aesthetic. Also, I've grown accustomed to the weird manifestations of Western culture into Chinese culture so I didn't think it was weird to see Santa's face placed in store fronts as I walked down Minglun Jie. It was just another tally mark in my growing list of Chinese absurdities such as the prevalent use of sleeve protectors or how Chinese men always climb mountains in dress shoes and suits. So we were all a little bit shocked when it was December 20 and Max (the only non-Christian laowai in the 'Feng) was being asked to perform in a Christmas show for a fancy Kaifeng hotel.
Through a connection between Erin and one of her students, Max was asked to give a speech about the meaning of Christmas and why it's celebrated.
The hotel celebration was indicative of a lot about Chinese culture and where China is headed. According to a lot of my students, Christmas wasn't even on the Chinese cultural calendar ten years ago. In the last five years it's been considered chic to decorate and have mock celebrations for the holiday in this supposedly non-religious country. The country has even started to cultivate its own Christmas customs such as giving apples to friends and family on Christmas Eve. We even went to a Christmas assembly hosted by HeDa that Ben had a starring role in. But the rest of the concert was essentially a talent show that featured spoofs on "Kung Fu Hustle," an intense Saxophone solo of "My Heart Will Go On" and a Song Dynasty re-enactment that included fireworks while hosts in cupcake dresses introduced the acts in front of a Christmas backdrop and covered in Christmas trees. But overall there was a rootlessness to the whole holiday and a sense of confusion. They've morphed the holiday a little bit into Chinese culture, but it's still awkward and doesn't fit with the Chinese culture that I've been exposed to. And there isn't that sense of acceptance that "this is what we do and when we do it" like there is with Mid-Autumn Festival or Dongzhi, a Chinese winter solstice holiday where you make and eat dumplings with your family so your ears don't fall off when it gets really cold. They can't really tell you the stories behind these holidays, but they know they are Chinese so they are happy to celebrate them.
When it comes to Christmas, they know it's a Western holiday and most everything from the West is cool and exotic. So they are anxious to celebrate it because it's revered by a part of the world they desperately want to be accepted by. They have this idea of a jolly old white guy who comes during the night to give people presents. But hey, that's kind of how they view capitalism and globalization too. They don't openly question this fusion of Christmas and Chinese culture and accept it as a form of progress. Without this open curiosity about this invasion into their culture, I'm a little afraid and curious to see how the Chinese Christmas evolves in the next ten years.
Despite the oddity of the Chinese Christmas, the laowai of Kaifeng still had ourselves a Very Kaifeng Christmas. The whole weekend was full of visits from the Lipinski twins, teaching, the Christ Chicken (see photos), and last-minute Christmas shopping (nothing like buying your gifts for people an hour before they open them). It was even a white Christmas! When Erin and I woke up to teach on Tuesday, all of Kaifeng was blanketed in the thickest smog I've seen in the city yet and a thin layer of frost on the ground. The only clear option here was to lie down in the grass and make smog-frost angels. After teaching we spent the day drinking hot cocoa and peppermint schnapps, figuring out KTV without a Chinese person and eating street food. And then to top it all off, we decided to set off our own fireworks, complete with firework military tanks that ran into each other when they went off. And now that it's all over, the Lipinskis have come and gone back to Chicago and the only thing I'm facing now is a two-week onslaught of work before the semester is over, I can't really make myself take down my make shift Christmas decorations. So hey, that's sort of like Christmas back home too.