There’s something not quite right about these decorations that I couldn’t put my finger on.
As I sat at the unnervingly familiar wooden table of a Starbucks I had never been to before in Hangzhou, a city of 10 million in southern China, the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra singing ‘White Christmas’ started to intensely irritate me.
It was a confusing feeling.
I know that many people dislike the inescapable jolliness of Christmas music, but I never counted myself amongst their ranks. I normally rather liked its twinkling positivity, and would nod my head along to the warmly familiar playlist of December hits as it cajoled everyone towards the end of the year. Here, though, I hated it.
I loved the aesthetic of Christmas generally; the cold, the twinkling lights, the woolly hats and hot chocolates and upcoming celebrations. Why shouldn’t the rest of the world share in that too? What was it that made me not want to look at the foam snowmen and red-and-gold holiday greetings?
There was something not quite right about these decorations that I couldn’t put my finger on. They’re everywhere in China in December: from hairdressers to gyms, shopping malls to schools, there seems to be an endless parade of plastic trees and hollow Santas with often strangely pink skin, guarding cardboard presents.
Glass surfaces at any and every business are covered with colorful, cartoonish stickers of snowflakes, ribbons and reindeers, and adhesive red banners on the door of every mall insistently telling me to be merry in Times New Roman. Some of these stickers are forgotten about and left there all year. Was it that; the problem of timing? I didn’t think so. After all, I didn’t hold it against anyone in the UK when they left their lights up in the garden.
My moment of realisation came when the school I worked at decided to throw a Christmas party.
You’d think that that would be nice, right? Except, this announcement – of essentially mandatory overtime, veiled in the guise of Christmas cheer – came just a day after my boss had flatly refused my request for leave on Christmas Day itself. I was told I would be working a 12 hour shift on the 25th of December, making paper Christmas cards with a crowd of four and five year olds and their parents, teaching them to shout “may ray kiss mass” on the count of three as the marketing team filmed from the back of the room.
I wasn’t irritated at the cheap decorations, which in all likelihood were produced by the same factories that supplied UK and US high streets. It wasn’t even the fact that there was zero understanding of the story behind Christmas. I’ve never been religious, and honestly struggle to explain myself what exactly Santa Claus is supposed to represent.
What grated was the emptiness behind it all. The enormous, unapologetic capital gain Chinese enterprises took from the most important holiday in the Western calendar, while schools and other businesses that profited from the holiday did nothing to make the day itself enjoyable or meaningful for foreigners who celebrated it.
With surprise, I realised I was angry at the financial appropriation of my culture.
Christmas itself would come and go with no time off work, no family reunions and certainly no discernible hint of Christmas cheer or goodwill. It was this backdrop that made the constant, aggressive presence of the season’s material, marketable symbols take on an offensive irony.
It felt like someone accidentally throwing away a picture I had drawn as a child. It wasn’t personal, and it felt sort of silly to get upset over, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t realise how deeply attached I was to my culture before I felt like a key aspect of it was being mocked.
It’s true I don’t have to be in China. I choose to live abroad, so it’s only fair that I should bear the negative results of my choices as well as the positive ones. I do get two weeks off for Chinese New Year a month later. But that thought was cold comfort. Examining my emotions, I wasn’t actually that annoyed about having to go to work that day as I was about the real significance of the day – kindness, compassion, family, non-material happiness – being surgically removed, and my wishes being completely ignored while my culture was appropriated as a kids’ party theme.
Strangely, it was almost a relief to give my anger a name. It also felt slightly ridiculous. As an ethnic majority in my home country, I had never really thought of my own culture as containing anything that could be appropriated. It was enlightening, in a sad way, to know what it felt like. Chinese students studying abroad no doubt felt exactly the same way.
I sipped my coffee and thought about putting my headphones in to drown out Frank Sinatra, but decided in the end that would be futile. I had made the choice to live here, and with COVID, Christmas at home had been cancelled anyway. Next year, I promised myself, I would treasure my time at home for the holidays; and I would never complain about a UK department store Santa again.