A Kunming Carole: Reflections on the Holidays in Five Scenes

Street Performer, Jinma Fang, Kunming, 25 Dec 2012

Scene One: Christmas Light Bulb

I knew I wanted to write a blog post about spending the holidays in China, but couldn’t  find a thread to tie my thoughts and experiences together. China, being an atheist state (opiate of the masses and all), does not officially celebrate Christmas. This has not, however, stopped the incursion of a certain jolly resident of the North Pole, or market capitalism from incentivizing a growing red-and-green presence starting in early December. Some of it is right on, like the decked-out Christmas trees that occupy the front of major department stores. Some of it is slightly off, like the Chinese translation of Christmas as Shengdan Jie (圣诞节), which literally translates to “Holy Birth Holiday,” but might also be confused for “Santa Holiday.” And then there is the downright funny appropriations, like the balloon-and-stilts payaso Santa I came across in one of Kunming’s main public squares. Cobbling these images together in a coherent manner seems at once forced and yet inefficient in capturing this unique collage.

I’ve gotten into the habit of going to a nearby Cantonese restaurant on not-just-Saturdays to indulge in dim sum, and catch up on some reading on my Kindle. The food is delicious, the location is convenient, and the clientele is exclusively Chinese. I found myself heading there, thinking about how best to describe the holiday experience. Busy as always, I walked into the restaurant, and couldn’t help but smile: my familiar servers were buzzing around, carefully balancing little delicatessens on bamboo steamers, all the while wearing Santa hats and moving to Jingle Bells. In Chinese, of course.

Scene Two: Rummage Bin

One of the first signs of the up-coming holidays was the small but noticeable Christmas decoration section that popped up in my local Wal-Mart. Sandwiched between the discounted toiletries and the start of the houseware department, available decorations included: Frosty the Snowman gift bags, large glittery Styrofoam snowflakes, small plastic Christmas trees, Santa hats and reindeer ears, as well as an assortment of other festive sundries.  Children seemed particularly interested in the shiny objects, but in general, shoppers passed it by without major notice. The day after Christmas, I found everything had been replaced by a much larger section of red objects for the Spring Festival, which at that point was over a month away.

Scene Three: Research Doesn’t Stop for Santa

As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed a tuberculosis (TB) patient on Christmas morning. Or rather, he was a suspected patient. He had suddenly come down with night sweats, coupled with a prolonged cough that while persistent was more of a nuisance than anything else. He finally decided to seek treatment when he started coughing up copious amounts of blood. Bouncing around from three different health organizations, he eventually ended up as an in-patient at the provincial TB clinical centre, where he awaited the results of his diagnostic tests. We sat at a table in a private office, both wearing facemasks. A strong breeze from the open window, a further method to prevent transmission, brought a cold air into the small room, and he folded further into his puffy jacket. My interview protocol fluttered aggressively under the wind, and he moved the card I had given him with my contact information over the top edge of the page, pinning my papers to the table. At the end of the interview, I asked if there were any questions that I could help answer. The uncertainty of his situation seemed to weigh on him, and in a moment we both locked eyes. I tried to assure him with statistics on the high rates of successful treatment in China, and advised him to follow his doctors’ orders by taking his medication daily. It wasn’t much. And I truly wished that there were more I could do.

Scene Four: End of the World as We Know It (Again)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed many people in China discussing the end of the world, as purportedly predicted by the ancient Mayas. Most of the time these discussions were framed by Hollywood apocalyptic movies. So it wasn’t so surprising when “2012 3-D” crowded out other films for a long theatrical reprisal. I was surprised however to hear about the Eastern Lightening, a Chinese quasi-Christian sect that had adopted some “2012” theories, landing them in big trouble with the authorities. As a friend’s Chinese nanny told her, while many people she knew were hoarding instant noodles in preparation for the 21st, she herself was planning on playing mahjong into the night, a much better way to go rather than cowering by candlelight waiting for a prophecy to go unfulfilled.

Scene Five: The Other New Year

The band at The Mask gave an impromptu 2013 countdown, which was rushed, five minutes too early, and not immediately followed by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. No one seemed to notice, let alone mind. My Canadian friend and I stepped outside of the crowded space into the lights of the other bars and clubs that lined the square around Kundu, one of Kunming’s party hot-spots. Usually, the enclosed square serves to corral the noise, lights, and mayhem from disturbing the surrounding residential neighborhood. On New Year’s Eve, however, The Mask was the sole party around, drawing an eclectic, predominantly foreign crowd. In China, the Gregorian calendar New Year is a day off for most, but otherwise, a small blip in the lead up to the Spring Festival, a.k.a. Chinese New Year. For me, New Year’s Eve marked the end of a very busy and productive couple of weeks, as well as the end of a sense of dislocation due to being away during “the holidays.” The band played on until the wee hours of the morning, lots of laughs were had, and best of all, I awoke to take part in friends’ Ottawa NYE celebrations, albeit via Skype.

2 responses to “A Kunming Carole: Reflections on the Holidays in Five Scenes”

  1. Kristina says:

    Great post!! I love how you describe your impressions and tie all your experiences together! Super interesting to read how Christmas and New Year’s are celebrated in China!

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