It’s Christmas! And boy, here in Hangzhou there’s not a chance that you’d miss it. The whole town (well, the stores — from Cartier to the bubble tea shop on the corner) is decked out like some bizarro version of Times Square, or as if a million Chinese Clark Griswolds are expecting company.
O little town of Hangzhou, how still we see thee lie -- and how clear thy winter sky!
And in addition to the usual particulate matter, holiday cheer is also in the air. Lest you all think this blog is nothing but a series of mundane and verbose complaints, I’ve had some really nice things happen recently that I want to share, and without further ado, here they are (cue the Christmas music, and group hugs):
Today Ayi was half an hour late to work. She texted me to let me know she “needed to buy some things” and would be late. I texted back that this was no problem. She showed up at 9:30 with a plastic train set for Owen and enough delicious street-snack rice bread to feed Nick and me for a week. She presented all this to me in a plastic bag in the most unceremonious way possible: she walked in and simultaneously plucked Owen from my arms and shoved the gifts into my hands. Everything was too much. The train set was brand new and a huge hit with Owen, and I don’t want to know what percentage of her salary it cost her. Also, no matter how many times I have asked and pleaded with her not to buy us food, she won’t stop. Each time she brings more, and today the amount of bread was comical and embarrassing. I thanked her as heartily as my Chinese abilities allow (not heartily enough).
The fruit lady serially undercharges me these days, slashing the price of a pomelo to 10 kuai ($1.50), when it costs 25 kuai at the place down the street from hers. When I tell her not to give me a discount, she shushes me and waves me off, often throwing an extra orange or banana in the bag as I turn to leave. One day last week I was barely inside the shop when she thrust a baked sweet potato in my hand, instructing me to eat it. Unable to out-stubborn her, Owen and I gave in and shared the warm treat, much to her delight (“He’s eating it! Oh my goodness, he’s eating it!!”) Today, she chased me down the street and forced upon me a handful of peanuts in the shell, reasoning, “They don’t have these in America!” I had to yell “Bu yao!” (“Don’t want!”) at least twelve times before she retreated, grinning. Then, when I went back to pick out some oranges, she secretly pointed to the far side of the pile, indicating that these were the fresh ones, and not to pick ones from the near side. She gave me a sly little smile and said, “Shhhh…”
Two days ago we continued our hometown’s unique Christmas Eve Eve tradition of throwing a big party, and hosted a multinational coalition of the willing-to-eat-Western-food — but this time there was plenty of “Old Europe” (Belgian) presence in addition to British, Kazakh, Russian (no abstentions here), Georgian, Korean, and of course Chinese and American participation. We read the Nativity story (a mash-up of Luke and Matthew) in Chinese, sang some carols (“Jingle Bells” is popular ’round the world), and drank plenty of home-cooked gluhvine (or mulled wine, depending on which side of the English channel you’re on). Actually, the hot beverage was unexpectedly irresistible to our Chinese and Former Soviet Union guests, so much so that Nick had to go running out halfway through the evening to buy six more bottles of Great Wall red wine to re-fill the empty pot.
Christmas Eve Eve in Hangzhou
Which brings us to our third story of holiday cheer. At the Kedi corner store (a chain, kind of like 7-Eleven) near our apartment, Nick found exactly six bottles of the ‘entry-level’ schwill on the shelves, advertised for 25RMB each. Great, he thought, I have that much cash on me, let’s buy ’em and get back home. But of course, it was not to be so simple. “That’s the price for Kedi card holders,” said the middle-aged woman at the cash register. “It’s 65RMB each for non-members.”
Okay, said Nick, I’d like to become a card member. This exchange had now attracted the attention of everyone in the store. What was this foreigner doing trying to buy out all the red wine from this crappy corner store?
“Right now? You have to apply.”
“Let’s do it. I’m buying these for a Christmas party.”
A Christmas party! That’s why the foreigner wants the wine, the crowd all repeated among themselves. Deciding that he wasn’t just some degenerate alcoholic in a rush to chug six bottles of wine out on the street, they became supportive. “For Christmas! The foreigner needs wine for Christmas! Give him the card!”
“I need your [Chinese] identification card for the application,” said the clerk.
“I’m a foreigner, of course I don’t have an ID card,” Nick said.
“Huzau,” said the clerk. Passport. The crowd: “Huzhao! Huzhao!” And one guy: “Passport! GIVE HER YOUR PASSPORT!”
“I didn’t bring it!”
The crowd turned towards the clerk. How would she handle this? This was Christmas that was on the line.
With aplomb: “Just write down the number, no need to show me.”
Smiles and satisfied nods all around. The foreigner’s Christmas was saved. “That foreigner is so smart!” Said one bystander. “It’s cheaper with the card, so he just gets the card!”
Five minutes later, the transaction was complete, and Nick had his wine. “Wish you a happy Christmas!” said the clerk. “You too!” said Nick. “Oh, but I’m too old to celebrate Christmas.” (In China, Christmas is a rather “new” holiday, and is mostly celebrated only by young people, who treat it more like Valentine’s Day.) “No you’re not! You can’t be, you look barely older than me,” Nick said, obviously being flattering.
Only in China: “What! This year I am 52 years old!”
“Well, you look 30. Merry Christmas!” And with that, Nick left the suddenly cozy-seeming fluorescent warmth of the corner store, heading back into the cold night, with Christmas cheer in his heart and Great Wall wine in his hand.