Christmas in China
The crass commercialism accompanying Christmas has always irritated me, to the extent that I’d flee Manila just to find some peace.
As a college student, there were two years when I would go off to communities where I had been doing volunteer work. We didn’t have mobile phones then, so I couldn’t send word ahead and would surprise people by simply popping up. They’d be delighted, but I would get scolded for making the trip, especially if I arrived at night, because the areas were always heavily militarized.
Fast forward several Christmases, and there were two consecutive years when I agreed to do workshops in Hanoi, Vietnam. With a small but still significant Catholic population, and globalization creeping in, the country had signs of Christmas everywhere but in healthy doses. Generally, though, life went on as usual, with offices and schools staying open even on Christmas Day, so we would have our training workshops.I have to say, I did feel more of Christmas there with the cold winter. No snow, but enough of the cold and treeless landscapes to give a sense of what we had been taught, under Spain and later the United States, of a cold, white Christmas.
The last 10 years or so, I’ve spent Christmas in Manila. With growing kids, and aging (and ill) parents, I could pretty much shut out the commercialism and enjoy Christmas as it should be, a time of giving for loved ones.
Last week, though, I had a bit again of a white Christmas in Changsha, China, with golden ginkgo trees and temperatures dropping down to near zero at night to give a Christmas feel.
Talk about commercialism, Christmas was certainly in the air, from store clerks wearing Santa Claus caps to, horrors, incessant Christmas carols. In one supermarket, the only relief you could get from the Christmas carols were announcements that always began with “hao xiao xi, hao xiao xi (good news, good news)” prefacing the latest promotions and discounts.
The selection of carols, all sung in English, was small, and so the sticky tunes tended to be repeated. Soon, I found myself barking to one of them. Yes, barking. You see, the version they were playing of “Jingle Bells,” in a weird twist, would go “on a one-horse open sleigh,” and instead of hearing the horse neighing you would hear dogs barking: bow, wow.
So bark I did.
The brain is amazing in the way it connects memories. The singing and barking to “Jingle Bells” reminded me of trips to Shanghai that I used to make with my father, many years back, because the driver there used “Jingle Bells” as his call tone, and he used it all year round.
“Jingle Bells” reminded me, too, of a particularly cold winter in Shanghai when we stayed in a relative’s condominium. We were there complete with my sister and her family. The heater wasn’t working, but that only delighted my Canadian brother-in-law and nephew, who would wear shorts while we shivered in the cold.
My brain switched on a Shanghai-Changsha connection and to Manila. At a fast-food place, I ordered a take-out lunch of spicy noodles loaded with pine nuts and wansoy (coriander leaves), because it reminded me of my father’s favorite dish in Shanghai. Walking back to the hotel, I saw an old woman selling roasted chestnuts and I absentmindedly told myself, “Have to get some for Dad,” then remembered he was gone. I still bought a bag.
Back at the hotel, looking out at the city, I feasted on the noodles and memories of Shanghai, then opened the bag of chestnuts, only to be disappointed when I saw that the nuts had already been cracked at the side.
I appreciated the convenience but realized I was going to miss one more nostalgic moment. Christmases in Manila have always been associated with chestnuts, especially for Chinese-Filipinos. I can hear Nat King Cole now crooning “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” My father would gather the family around as we looked forward to a grand ritual around the chestnuts. He would bite on the “inaugural” chestnut to crack it open, and the moment he did that, Suechia (little one), our fox terrier, wherever she might be in the house, would come prancing into the room like a miniature reindeer and begin to dance and bark for her share.
Suechia was crazy, too, about chestnuts and very well knew the sound that signaled a Christmas treat. Chestnuts, Christmas, China… and a fox terrier, all good memories of a season of caring and loving.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.