Since moving to China, there are certain things that I really miss about Christmas. I know I’m not alone. I’ve tried to recreate them. I’ve followed recipes, I’ve attempted to build atmosphere, I’ve sought out other expats feeling as wistful as I am, in hopes of achieving a collective Christmas energy. But even in their company, I have to admit defeat. It’s usually just not the same. It’s flat somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on it. The Christmas spirit is well hidden in a country that doesn’t celebrate it.
That explains the sudden heaviness that comes over me prior to Christmas in the past few years. It’s a type of dread brought on by fears of inadequacy. I am the only Westerner in my household. How do I make it feel special for the kids? As a lower than average cook with a crazy work schedule, how do I introduce the tastes of Christmas to them? And as a reluctant event attender, how can I immerse them in the feeling of Christmas when big (and expensive) expat events aren’t usually on our agenda?
Like most people, I watch the calendar edging towards the end of December and simply scramble. Taobao is my friend. I pre-choose gifts for people knowing that my Chinese relatives will open them uncomfortably, but I don’t care. I’ve stopped expecting anyone to give me a gift; it’s just not their way. I put up my little Christmas tree sometime after December 15. I talk to the kids about Santa. I eventually get all the presents wrapped in the final hour on December 24. I stuff stockings. I fall into bed exhausted and lonely.
I really do try.
The problem is that this is the time of year when I’m the most homesick. I want to be surrounded by people who likewise approach the end of December prepping for Christmas, not by a whole culture of people who work or attend classes, business as usual, on December 25. I miss the anticipated visits with long-lost relatives with lots of baked goods on offer. I even miss the clearing of snow off the car’s windshield.
But flights back to Canada at this time of year are impossibly overpriced. 2015 will be another Beijing Christmas.
So, in an attempt to lighten the dread, I’ve had to recalibrate my thinking for Christmas this year. My goal is to accomplish just one thing. Inherent in that goal is the need to accept that I cannot recreate a Canadian Christmas in Beijing. It’s impossible. Thus, I have to accept that Christmas in Beijing is its own experience that can be special in different ways. I’ll simply have to make it so. And, if I can accept this fully, then my “accomplish one thing” goal becomes reachable.
I am going to learn how to make it. I mean, really make it, from scratch, and make it delicious. Fresh ground nutmeg as a garnish. I will not wait until Christmas morning to attempt my recipe and then find it depressingly lacking. No, I will try in advance. I will experiment. I will pull out my blender and buy real cream. It’s going to happen. Then, when success is obtained, I will introduce a single taste of the holidays to my kids who won’t know what other tastes they are missing anyway.
So here’s to lifting that heavy homesickness. Lightness can be whipped into eggnog, surely. Then I will raise my glass and toast us all on Christmas; we the lonely expats. And when the kids go to bed, I’ll add the rum.
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She and her husband Guo Jian (国囝), who is also a musician, have a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a son called Topaz (国世龙).
Photos: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This article originally appeared on page 46 of the beijingkids December 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org