I remember when I was introduced to the Chinese expat tradition of working on Christmas day. I had moved to Tai’an in Shandong Province with my husband the preceding January under the misguided apprehension that you needed to work your way through a third-tier city in order to eventually get into Beijing or Shanghai (every foreigner I have met since has convinced me of our naivety). For those of you unfamiliar with Tai’an, take a 5 yuan note out of your pocket and look at Taishan, China’s holiest mountain. Tai’an sits at the foot of it, as did we for a year, gazing at its majesty and pretending everything about our new life wasn’t awful.
If you’ve only ever lived in Beijing, you have never experienced true Chinese culture shock. I’m not being smug, let’s be real here: It is one thing experiencing squat toilets, scorpions on a stick, and averting your eyes from baby genitalia, it is another to do it all in complete isolation without a decent cup of coffee. The gates to our compound were locked at 10 pm and only once in that year did we need to ask them to open them later. The husband spent his time working on schemes to get rich quick selling Chinese handicrafts while I worked on filling the 10-liter bucket on our balcony with cigarette butts (I almost made it).
Come Christmas we had already secured jobs in Beijing and we were busy planning our escape from Tai’an — and the marriage. The school leaders informed us that a banquet would be held in our honour on Christmas night. We knew the invitation was non-negotiable so we haggled on the date instead and managed to move it to Christmas Eve. We approached the event with the dread we had acquired after so many other banquets with the requisite booze, sea cucumbers, and endless photo opportunities. Our arrival in Tai’an had been almost immediately celebrated with a luncheon that saw me crying on the toilet hours later while my husband yelled through the door, “Just vomit already!”
For Christmas they took us to a local hotpot chain that must have had one of those online group deals that the school’s administration staff seemed to spend hours each day trawling the internet for instead of working. We were ushered into a private room much like any other with purple ruffle-covered chairs, thermoses, and at least one stricken-looking servant whose job it was to ensure I never got more than one sip from my cup before it was dutifully refilled.
We were informed of the sad news that the date change had precluded the college principal from attending. We rejoiced internally and mimed pouring out a 40 to his memory where only we could see. I girded loins for a by-the-numbers banquet as a slimy sea cucumber was slid onto my side plate and I was once again told that, even though I was vegetarian, I should “have a try” of the meat dishes. Then something shifted. The women who had been our guides and keepers throughout our employment began to get shitfaced. Frequent polite mentions of how women should not drink excessively, have tattoos, smoke or run (I know, right) were bypassed as these ladies figuratively kicked off their shoes and drank a toast to absent (male) friends. The typically boring toasts became increasingly absurd as the women tried to think of the most novel ways to entice us to continue working at the school. Though we had placated them with the excuse that my husband’s academic career was the reason for our leaving, they believed deep down it was my wayward tattooed discontent. They gradually moved toward ways to bring down a wayward dame; then, bingo, they reached the obvious conclusion: a baby. “You must have a baby.”
“Imagine how cute its blond hair and blue eyes would be.” Remaking ourselves in each other’s image was beyond low on our agenda.
“It will be intelligent because Daniel has a Ph.D.!” I gritted my teeth at yet another dismissal of my own intellect.
“We will raise it for you!” I almost choked on my sea slug.
“You could call it Taishan!” I slugged back another baijiu.
“Let’s do this!” After months of tension that had rendered my shoulders so stiff I needed regular wet cupping (Google that, prepare to be disturbed), I thought, fuck it! Let’s play along for once.
We laughed and planned the baby. The husband was uncharacteristically in synch and he laughed along too. We drank the bottle dry and at that point my brain checked out. I have one fleeting memory of pressing my face to a cold crack of open window as we drove through the frigid streets and then I woke up.
The husband explained how he had cleaned up copious amounts of vomit before piling me into bed, but not before he had taken a few photos of passed-out me face down on the tiles. He was amused enough by the photo that he didn’t chastise me for my blackout or vomit.
There was no way I could stand in front of students. I wasn’t sure I was capable of standing at all. The husband called our minders who were so amused at the extent of my drunkenness the night before that they happily gave us the day off. This would be the one and only time in my life I was honest about a hangover to an employer.
We stayed in bed all day. The husband dragged the TV in and we watched a marathon of Police Academy movies for no apparent reason. Looking back I can’t tell you if it was a good memory or a bad one. It is just a memory.
A few weeks later I emptied the bucket full of cigarette butts and we migrated to Beijing. Taishan was never born and the marriage ended within months but I still regularly get blackout drunk. Merry Christmas, China!
We’re running a series of Christmas in China stories this week. Check back for more.