This is the kind of story that would make Disney proud. It would be a feel good movie that would star some Brat Pack 2.0 actor and bring more money into Disney in one holiday weekend than some countries bring pull in all year. It is a story about a disgruntled yet lovable unofficial spokesman for Generation X and him learning the true meaning of the holiday season (actually technically two holiday seasons one in December and one in Feburary). He learns that true holiday happiness can be found not only in the winter wonderland of December but also the firework and dumpling filled Chinese New Year.
I remember the first time I was asked to sing Christmas carols. I was in Korea. Naturally one would assume that it would be in America because that is where I grew up. But in Americans are not allowed to sing Christmas carols in America because there is some legitimate worry, particularly by the left wing intelligentsia, that singing Christmas carols is bad, particularly ones extolling the virtues of peace and being good. So I looked at my boss and told him that I did not know any and he looked at me as if this was the oddest thing he had ever heard. He knew Christmas carols and he was Buddhist and Korean. I was American, certainly I most know them , after all they came from America. So I promptly did what many teacher s in Korea had done before and jumped on the internet. I found Jingle Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman, the two most irreligious Christmas songs I could think of.
My misadventures with Christmas would follow me a few years later into Thailand where I would be asked to tell the story of Christmas. Now I am not sure what my boss had in mind was the actual story of Christmas. Mind you there were three other teachers my boss could have asked but she chose me. I think because I am American and, as everyone who has studied pop culture in Asia knows, Americans invented all the cool western holidays. If you don’t believe me ask Thais about the distinctly British “boxing day” (Boxing Day, I found out , is not nearly as exciting as the title leads us to believe). Ask people in Cambodia about famous French holidays. Okay I will make it easier, find a French person and ask them to name a French holiday that is A) famous outside of France or B) Doesn’t celebrate the inmates burning down a prison. It is impossible.
When I got to China things changed. I long ago, by my second Christmas in Korea, stopped trying to explain that I don’t celebrate Christmas. Even in America I take no particular offense when someone wishes me Merry Christmas because I know that they are saying it to convey kindness. And I find it very anti-social to decline kindness . The students asked if I was going to visit America for Christmas and I said no and they were concerned because Chinese families get together for any holiday they can. When I explained to my students that it was a 24 hour flight each way they were a little more understanding, except some of them take a 24 hour (and sometimes more than that) train ride to get home so some of them were still a bit worried. And when I explained to them the costs involved they agreed it was better I save my money.
Then they went to asking me a question I had avoided my whole teaching career. “Why is it Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and not Merry New Year or Happy Christmas” and I thought about this and said “You know I am not sure…I think it is because it is the way it always has been” Now normally I would tell them that is a good question to ask their grammar teacher, but as it so happened I also taught them grammar. They seemed satisfied with the answer or perhaps happy that I didn’t give them a long winded explanation.
As the days went on I started getting presents from some of my Chinese friends. The Chinese are particularly good at giving presents because they really think about what a person needs or something that is very special that the person would appreciate. It isn’t so much about the price, it is all about the thought that went into picking the present. One of the presents I got was an apple. A really big apple, the biggest apple I had ever seen. I was surprised by it and then I noticed that many of the vendors were selling these really big apples so I asked my students the next day why people gave apples. And they said because it symbolizes health and well being. And then I smiled because I had never been so touched in my life. In a world where people go broke trying to make someone happy buying gifts that will someday end up in a garbage pile somewhere , my friend had given me a present that I will be able to use long after the apple (and trust me the apple was as delicious as it was monstrously large) was gone.
From the day before Christmas to the day after Christmas nearly everyone I knew in china found a way to wish me happy holidays. Because of them, it actually happened.
To be continued after Chinese New Year…
“Everybody talks about peace, nobody talks about kindness” -Mooki