Christmas Eve 2009 — Tianjin, China

(From Rob, who didn’t have his own blog when this was written. Other accounts of this surreality, with pictures, can be found here: Merry… something, from Tianjin!)

“Merry Something!”

Dear All,

So what did you all do for Christmas? Nice, quite dinner with friends? A family gathering with presents and food products designed to reduce your teeth and body to a quivering, aching mess? Or did you, like I, spend it singing outside in gale force winds at midnight one day, and singing U2 onstage with a Canadian guy while hyper-excited undergrads waved glow-sticks and plastic clackers the next? See, the funny thing is, that last sentence only sounds amazing in the States. Over here saying something like that is about like saying you spent the evening at the grocery store looking for a good deal on applesauce. Still, this week’s goings-on deserve some attention, so in this wonderful holiday season you get TWO E-mails from me! So pour yourself some coffee and try to pay attention.

Natalie texted me last Sunday to ask if I wanted to grab my guitar and join her and some other people from her organization (Jianhua, for those not in the know) when they went to Binjiang Dao to sing some Christmas carols for charity on Christmas Eve. Jianhua conducts all kinds of projects in China, from placing English teachers to working at orphanages, and since Jianhua was selling things for charity on Binjiang Dao, the big cinema invited several Jianhua people to sing at their outdoor extravaganza. I told Natalie sure, though I can’t stand Binjiang Dao. It’s the main shopping street in Tianjin, and with the crowds, the outdoor speakers blasting music loud enough to dislodge orbiting satellites (an oddly ubiquitous attention-grabber for local businesses), and the generally uninteresting products on sale (bootleg purses, brand-name running shoes selling for U.S. prices, and the random kitsch so beloved by Chinese shoppers), I prefer to keep a safe distance. But what the heck, I thought, it would be a good way to celebrate Christmas.

We met up beforehand at Lonnie’s apartment to hang out and eventually practice our songs. My friends Joel and Paul were also sharing instrumental duties, the former on guitar and the latter on flute. I personally thought Paul was awfully brave for even considering sticking a piece of freezing metal to his lips in the middle of winter, but some people are willing to go to any lengths for musical integrity. Joel and I were luckier in some ways, especially since he already had a pair of gloves with the fingertips gone, and Natalie bought me a pair. (For the record, I love fingertip-less gloves. When I wear them I feel like I should either be warming my hands over an oil drum filled with burning newspaper under an overpass, or begging for my porridge in a Dickens novel.) Paul, Joel, and I worked up the music in a few minutes, and as we all sat waiting to sing, the Jianhua point person, Sonja, informed us of the cinema’s itinerary. They wanted us to sing a few songs right before midnight, after which there would be a countdown to Christmas. That’s right: a New Year’s Eve-style countdown. For Christmas. After which they wanted us to sing “Silent Night.” Because nothing gets a cheering crowd going more than a slow German hymn. But, this being China, we all just laughed, shrugged, and got ready. We practiced the songs a few times, and even practiced singing “Silent Night” in German (Sonja is German). Then we walked down to the road, found a couple of cabs, and drove on over to Binjiang Dao.

We left about an hour early, though. Why? Well here’s where your culture lesson starts. See, the Chinese several years ago started treating Christmas Eve with the same sort of commercial frenzy that we in the West treat New Year’s Eve. They even renamed it: Ping An Ye (literally “peace night,” but also “silent night,” neither of which applies in China). Because of that, and because Tianjin really only has one big modern shopping street (as opposed to Beijing, which is by now less a city than a shopping district with a city’s name), the traffic is beyond insane. Still, we got lucky and arrived with no trouble. Early, though. Very early. And as the temperature was hovering around 20 degrees, the idea of waiting around outside for over an hour was not attractive. But we were there, so we went ahead and joined the crowds.

Picture to yourself what you imagine Christmas Eve might look like in China. Got it? Well, it looks nothing like that. Once the Chinese decided to do whatever they wanted with Christmas Eve, they pretty much went crazy with it. In a way it’s a much more honest approach to the holiday. Americans tend to have a sort of dual approach to the season: one part unhinged commercialism and one part feel-good humanitarianism. But of course in reality most people in America only do things like, say, spend an afternoon at a homeless shelter or buy canned food for a food drive so that they can feel good about themselves when they eat seventeen chocolate marshmallow Santas and fall asleep in front of the TV. Here, though, people just dispensed with the formality and went right for the marshmallow Santas. You just have people who go crazy and unabashedly buy bags full of kitsch, and as everyone else is buying bags full of kitsch there are no ugly scenes. Nobody drops a fiver into a Salvation Army bucket with their hearts full of human sympathy, then strolls through the doors of Toys ‘R Us and punches a 75-year old woman in the solar plexus because she was about to grab the last of whatever incarnation of Elmo doll we’re on at this point.

Having said all that, walking Binjiang Dao on Ping An Ye is an experience everyone should have. Everyone. The crowds are immense, and everyone is wearing either blinking Santa Claus hats (yes, I eventually wore one, too), or devil horns, or Mardi Gras-style clown masks, and I’m willing to bet that there were 800 Chinese Santa Clauses running around. Vendors were shouting through microphones, lights were blinking everywhere, couples were alternately cooing to each other (the chief thing the Chinese added to Christmas Eve was a Valentine’s Day element) or shrieking at each other, and I saw at least one kid wearing a Santa hat with a balloon attached to the top, presumably so mom could make sure he/she didn’t get lost in the crowds. It’s seriously as though the Chinese just decided to observe as many different holidays as possible, and the resulting affair is like an unholy combination of Christmas, Mardi Gras, a Flaming Lips concert, Valentine’s Day, and that Hieronymus Bosch painting with all those naked people riding animals or sleeping in eggshells. (And believe me, if the Chinese could have figured out a way to get people paying for elephant and giraffe rides while wearing leopard-skin togas, they absolutely would have.)

The cinema that had asked us to perform had set up an outdoor stage on which a pair of Chinese MC’s were doing various raffle-drawings, quiz games, and other games while a bluegrass version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” played at ear-splitting volume on a continuous three-hour loop from massive speakers. The stage also featured, on either side, large wind machines blowing air through a soap-sud mixture which, when it hit the air, looked a bit like snow. Several of our group decided to enjoy the madness and stroll a while, but the rest of us went into the adjoining mall so as to not freeze to death before our big performance. We killed some time doing that, and then it came time for us to get up on stage.

Now by this point the wind had started to pick up a bit. It wasn’t yet at the level it would be at later, but it was certainly not a pleasant breeze, especially since it apparently was coming directly off the polar ice caps. But we filed up onstage with big smiles. It was an odd setup, with multicolored lights that were alternately blazing or just nicely lit, and in addition to the wind machines on either side of the stage, the organizers had thoughtfully also installed a bubble machine. The whole thing felt like Christmas at Syd Barrett’s house. Joel, Paul, and I set up on the right side of the stage, and without much of an intro we launched right into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Ironic, this, because the crowd had already been listening to a banjo rendition of the song for approximately two hours already. We went from that into “Joy to the World,” and then, because we hadn’t killed enough time, we looked blankly back and forth at each other, shrugged, and started “Jingle Bells.” The crowd went insane. Why? Because “Jingle Bells” has entered that canon of songs which are played ALL THE TIME in China, so everyone knows it. People were waving their hands, shouting, and jumping up and down. After that was over, we were still short, so the MC’s ushered us off the stage and brought up the next act.

Which was. . .a group of 5 Michael Jackson impersonators. Because nothing says Christmas like Chinese people impersonating a surgically-altered, breakdancing monkey fancier. With a fedora. We were unfortunately standing to the side of the stage, and that is NOT the best place to view a group of bad Michael Jackson impersonators. Every time they did a crotch grab (yes, I said crotch grab, and yes, it was on Christmas Eve), we were treated to a clear view of their thrusting pelvises, and within twenty seconds we were all either cracking up or turning away so that blood wouldn’t shoot out of our eyes. I was concerned for a while that Natalie was going to pass out from laughing too hard. The dancers eventually got finished with their, well, act I suppose you could call it, and then the MC’s jumped up on stage to do the big Christmas countdown. They yelled into their microphones, the crowd joined them in the big “5…4…3…2…1,” and at the stroke of midnight everybody went crazy, six or seven Chinese Santas leaped on stage and began flinging random gewgaws into the crowd, confetti shot everywhere. . .and they asked us to sing “Silent Night.”

Laughing, both because it felt like we were participating in the theater of the absurd and because the idea of singing Silent Night at the height of a party was, well, absurd, we all got back up on stage. By this point, the wind had picked up to gale force speeds. The stage backdrop was flapping loudly, dust was hissing down the pavement, a nearby tent was threatening to blow away, and the bubbles and soapsuds by the stage were a near-solid force. Joel and I were strumming our guitars as hard as we could, but anybody not standing right next to us would not have been able to hear anything. The girls’ hair was blowing into their mouths, song sheets had to be anchored down with two hands, and more than once I tried to sing something and got a mouthful of soap and bubbles. Too, by this time my fingers in their Oliver Twist gloves were freezing, so the guitar strings felt like razor blades. After a few minutes I was just sort of placing my fingers in what I thought was the right chord formation, though because they no longer had any feeling I wasn’t at all sure I was playing correctly. Not that it mattered. Nobody could hear me anyway. We finished, the crowd went crazy (whether because we were really good, or because it was just hilarious to watch a group of westerners try to perform in a hail of bubbles and dirt I don’t know), and we retreated from the stage. We had to wait a little while longer because the organizers had asked Natalie, as the most beautiful woman in the group, to do the last raffle drawing, but when that was over, and the Jianhua rep collected the proceeds from the evening’s charity sales, we made for the street, literally leaning into the wind. Even then, because everyone was leaving Binjiang Dao at the same time, cabs were impossible to find, so our various little groups wandered around for a good twenty or thirty minutes. Still, we all got home. My blinking Santa Claus hat lasted right up until the time I stepped through the door of my apartment, so I just dropped it on the water cooler. It’s still there.

The epilogue to this story is that, because I drank several cups of strong coffee at about 9:00 that evening, thinking I needed some extra stimulation for the coming events of the night, I literally did not sleep at all that night. Not a wink. That made Christmas Day that much weirder. It’s hard to feel festive when you haven’t slept in 36 hours. It was still a great day, though. I ate a big lunch with some friends, then met up with Natalie and my friend Michael to go to a concert put on by the Tianjin University choir (who were, by the way, VERY good).

I will be sending another E-mail soon to tell you about the next day’s variety show, which I had to perform in and which was also completely ridiculous. In the meantime, merry Christmas/Mardi Gras/Valentine’s/Flaming Lips/Bosch Day!

Rob

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