“It’s safe to say that Charlie Brown would probably find Christmas in China the most vulgar and offensive exploitation of the holiday imaginable,” was my first thought after watching the timeless Christmas feature in which he stars on a brisk—but far from cold—Christmas morning just before calling my family on Skype. The expat bar called “Ryan’s Bar” owned by an irish-canadian transplant in Zhuhai’s Xiangzhou district was hosting an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner event this Christmas Eve for 140¥ (or a little under $20) I thought I was slated to attend with my roommate and some friends of ours. The plan was to leave UIC around 7:30 putting our arrival somewhere in the 8 or 8:30 range depending on whether we took the public bus, a cab, or one of those faux taxi mini-busses; a perfect time to eat my only real meal of the day, I thought. When my roommate, Tommy, and I arrived at the bus stop and met up with our friends the plan slowly and mysteriously changed.
My first clue that something was going awry was when Tommy told me the bus I was prepared to board would not go to where we needed to be for the Christmas party. For a little background, I had been to Ryan’s the previous night and took the same bus I was not being told would not take me there as my mode of transit. When my companions began negotiating prices I managed to pick up on enough of the conversation to know they were trying to get to Jiuzhoucheng and not Xiangzhou (where Ryan’s is located) and at that point I knew that where I thought we were going and where we were actually going were in fact two very different places. “Stop,” I shouted, “Where are we going?” When it finally came out, I learned we were not going to Ryan’s but were instead spending Christmas Eve in a KTV or karaoke club called “Seven Eight Nine” at which point I became irritated; I felt deceived and I was still hungry—and getting hungrier the longer we spent negotiating with the minibus drivers* to get a price that was not outrageous—and beginning to realize that my Christmas dinner would be neither satisfying nor delicious.
While in transit to the KTV I found myself day dreaming, trying to stay optimistic and take my mind off of how hungry, famished really, I was, and—as I foten do—watching the driver and bracing myself for any and all possible varieties of traffic accidents; I am really looking forward to getting back to road traffic that does not pose such imminent and realistic threats to my life on a regular basis, among other things. The best case scenario, I decided was ending up in Xiangzhou anyway and convincing everyone to go to Ryan’s instead of this mysterious Seven Eight Nine place—“did you know,” someone interrupted my train of thought, “if we had gone to the Seven Bar it would cost us 1,800¥?” I had no idea where this was coming from, Seven Bar was the site of the incredibly over-the-top party I went to back in November where the drinks cost 50¥ for the cheap stuff, we weren’t going there were we? “What are you talking about,” I asked with an air of confusion and irritation in my voice, “we aren’t going to Bar Street are we?” I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew that Bar Street food was expensive if existent and that cheaper food would mean leaving the party for a jaunt into another part of town, “no, we are going to the Seven Eight Nine.” Well that’s helpful, I thought.
We were greeted with a red carpet and an entourage of Chinese “Pretty Girls”—young women hired by the club for the sole fact and purpose of looking pretty—in Santa Hats and red coats who blew party horns and popped party poppers all while welcoming us and wishing us Shengdan Kuaile (圣诞快乐）or Merry Christmas. Inside the door is a life-size mechanical Santa singing Christmas songs surrounded by a more and similarly dizzying exhibition of cliché ornamentation putting me into a state of intense sensory overload.
It’s worth mentioning here what exactly is meant by KTV or karaoke club, which terms are used interchangeably throughout to describe a multiplex building usually with some kind of discotheque style dance club with hallways of independent karaoke rooms flaking the dance floor which rooms may be rented out for the night to host private karaoke parties separate from the club’s complete with a karaoke machine, tables and two microphones. One of the things that makes karaoke a fun thing to do at say, Patrick’s or any other bar anywhere else in the world I’ve ever been, is the mutually assured ebarrasment among yourself and everyone else in the room, as well as the anonymity of yourself to both the people you’re laughing at and the people laughing at you; in China there appears to be a completely different motivation at work wherein you are in the room to show off and compete your superior singing abilities, against everyone elses, in conquering the most difficult or famous pop songs. Most places have English tunes in their libraries, but not the ones you might expect. Absent from Seven Eight Nine’s lbrary were some of the karaoke standard classics like “Sweet Caroline,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,” and the all important “It’s Raining Men,” as well as the lesser classics from the likes of Steve Miller, Journey, Neil Diamond, and (in my case) The Beastie Boys. There was some Michael Jackson and Price and other favorites or popular karaoke artists. The only thing close to a classic song was John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads,” which I performed, substituting Minnesota for West Virginia—naturally—with extra gusto on the refrain.
The penultimate moment, the catastrophe up to which this entire drama has thus far been building, was at the stroke of midnight when this Christmas Eve party—which already felt more like a New Year’s Eve party—erupted in a torrent of celebration for the final arrival, the moment we had all been waiting for, of Christmas Day. The karaoke machine shut down and suddenly the projector was turned off and all I remember hearing was “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” seemingly endlessly repeating over the room’s sound system while the lights changed to red and green strobes and lasers darted around the room; meanwhile the “pretty girls” came back and sprayed glitter infused silly string across the room, popped more party poppers and passed around glasses with which we toasted to the new year—I mean Christmas; I felt like I should have someone to kiss and half expected Auld Lange Syne when, as if it wasn’t bad enough, the DJ began playing an awful, eardrum rupturingly bad techno version of Jingle Bells complete with that awful overdriven high frequency synth so common to Chinese electronic music; I felt my ears just to make sure they were not bleeding.
Plans have changed like this on me before, it’s pretty common actually and with two weeks left I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again, but never before have I felt as much like a bait and switch victim as I did on Christmas Eve. All in all it was a fun night—funny even, in an absurd sort of way—in retrospect, that probably would have been a lot easier to handle if I weren’t so hungry and expecting Christmas dinner. Looking back on it several hours later I have come to the realization that, like Charlie Brown, I believe there is more to Christmas than rampant commercial- and consumerism, something that cannot just be imported into a culture the way Christmas exists in China—dropped, like a child orphaned on a cold winter night in front of a complete stranger’s house—even if you do not celebrate Christmas, the holiday season which may generally be known as “Christmas Time” is an expression of the spirit of a people taking a moment out of their lives to do something, to show their own form of generosity or kindness to another person. Christmas is anonymous donors forking over $1 million to the hundreds of victims now homeless from the tragically untimely apartment fire in Burnsville, or simply taking time to slow down and intentionally appreciate the company of family and friends, or seeing the kindness of others manifest itself in volumes of stories, pictures and memories compiled for a tired friend struggling from cancer during the holidays; these things are quintessentially Christmas. They are the things that make the holiday more than just a celebration day for the devout and pious, rather a holiday that transcends these artificial boundaries of race, gender, politics, even religion and a host of other social constructions, to a higher plenary existence and reverence I wish I could say I experienced first hand this year.
* Part of the endless internal debate I have is over the real value or savings of these fake cabs or minibusses, there are some obvious benefits—they are cheaper than a standard taxi, and quicker and more comfortable than an ordinary city bus—but also have their disadvantages—the drivers do not always know where they are going and they are illegal, meaning if they take me to Guangzhou and leave me on some street corner it is my own fault and no one could be held accountable—and what I fail to understand about them is why it usually (or at least seems to) takes a half an hour to negotiate a proper rate among several different drivers, usually settling on the one we started with in the first place. Tommy later tells me the reason we could not take the bus was that the bus would take “maybe one hour” to get to where we needed to go, but when we spend half an hour negotiating the price and it still takes at least half an hour to get where we need to go (often longer as the minibus drivers are not always the best of drivers and [as mentioned supra] often do not even know where they are going in the first place) we are really paying several times a standard bus fare for comfort, which, to me, is like driving to your mailbox instead of walking because driving hurts your feet less.