Lest the photo above lead you to think that this is an admonition to celebrate a less commercial Christmas, let me tell you straight away that it is not.
First of all, I will gladly admit to enjoying some of the trappings of Christmas. Secondly, it would not be a very timely topic. Let’s save it for 350 days from now.
Instead, let me warn you straightaway, this is a rant. This is not a pleasant voice expressing wonder and amazement at the many ways living in this new culture is enriching me. No, it is quite negative. It is an opinion that has been percolating for the last two and a half years and now needs venting.
With all apologies to all my Chinese chums, colleagues and contacts, I have to ask: Why does everything around here have to be done en masse, or at least en famille?
When I take myself to the emergency room of the hospital, for instance, I go on my own. The moment I step up to talk to someone, the assumption is that I am the companion and not the patient. For why else would I be there, in a sea of people, all by my lonesome? No, it just would not make sense that I should arrive in a party of one, carrying my own bags, talking to and listening to the doctor’s instructions, checking out without any relative hanging by. Oh wait, even if I did want to take a family member along for moral support, they would be a 4-1/2 hour flight away. But see, having moved away and having learned to brave the emergency room by myself has taught me a lot of things. It has taught me independence, it has sharpened my skills at multitasking, it has greatly increased my vocabulary in the local language. Most importantly, it is without doubt much easier to find an empty seat for one than for seven people. Assuming that the parents, yeye, nainai, laoye and laolao of the patient even notice me when I come in, distracted as they are at keeping the restless patient from screaming his little lungs out.
When I prepared to go to a Chinese wedding, I was greeted by my ayi and driver with a surprised: “Are you going all by yourself? But everyone who will be there will be with their families.” Well, every Chinese person who would be at the wedding would certainly be with their families, but this waiguoren’s husband and children already had standing commitments. So I showed up single. For a while, it crossed my mind to ask ayi and shifu along as my family. After all, my Mandarin teacher whose wedding it was had also taught them both English lessons. They knew her, and she, them. In the end I just gave up the extra allotment made for three more people in my party, all the while snapping photos every three seconds like an idiot, so I could show my boys back at home what they had missed.
When my son and I lined up to have his picture taken with Santa at his school party (“Please Mama, can we pay for the photo just so I can go up there and tell Santa that I know he’s really the assistant head of school in costume.?”) I had to laugh out loud at how many family portraits were being done with Santa-slash-Mr-Assistant-Head-Of-School. I have always ever just seen Santa and the child. Or Santa and two children. Maybe Santa and a baby carried by a mother. But Santa with a child and extended family? Almost like Santa was a mascot, really. That’s new to me.
I have to concede, a lot of things in Chinese culture are new to me. And normally I revel in the differences. So why does this one thing bother me with a niggling feeling? Truth be told, I’m probably envious. Of the fact that my kids are not growing up to mark their milestones, big and small, with their own grandparents. Of the fact that big family celebrations like weddings are reminders that here in Beijing, we have just our small nuclear family of four. And now that the kids are growing up and becoming more and more involved in things outside our small family, we spend less and less time together. And especially of the fact that when I am unwell, or in need of a family member — no matter if it is a cousin seven times removed — to lean on both physically and emotionally, I have to turn instead to friends and staff.
So there, I’ve said it to myself (and to you, dear reader): The less I judge my host culture, the more I understand the beauty of it and what it has taught me. That the less I try to hide the fact that I am missing my family and my old network of friends, the easier it will be for me to appreciate both my old world and my new. And that is a gift that I would gladly receive more and more of.
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Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado