A China Christmas Story: Plum blossoms in Sichuan

The two cylinders connect to a pipe with a nozzle, into which the patient breathes. My uncle says the spirometer is an exam. The thinner cylinder tests the stability of his breathing, and the fatter cylinder tests the capacity of his lungs. He sucks on the nozzle, and the cylinder displays 50 percent lung capacity. My aunt leaves for work, and she reminds me to heat soup for my uncle this afternoon.

Today is Christmas Day. I realize this as I wait for the soup to microwave, because my WeChat is filled with “Merry Christmas” messages from friends and family in the U.S. There’s no other signs of the holiday: no string lights outside the window, and no presents in the living room, no tree under which to put gift boxes. The only hints of the season are the plum blossom trees blooming in the Sichuan winter. My uncle says there is no such thing as Christmas in China, and today is an ordinary Monday.

There haven’t been many ordinary Mondays since the surgeon cut off the cancer, along with a lobe of my uncle’s right lung. Since then, everything around my uncle has changed to aid his recovery, from his diet to his home to his daily habits. My uncle is no longer permitted spicy foods, a staple of the Sichuan diet. My aunt turns up the air-conditioning to 10 degrees Celsius, and I accompany the man, who used to take pride in walking 20 kilometers a day, when he leaves the house. After 10 minutes, my uncle breaks into a sweat, struggling to recover his breath as he begins to cough.

Of all these changes, I think my uncle most misses his teaching. Instead of coming to his classroom, students and former students now call on him in his home, bearing baskets of fruit and well wishes. Since his post-surgery mobility remains limited, I open the door when his students knock, offer them seats, and stand by as they chat, serving drinks and fruit. After overhearing their conversations, I ask why he discusses topics from his students’ careers to their private lives. My uncle says he treats his students as if they were his children, and they tell him everything.

In the past, my uncle had been thoughtful, well spoken, and animated in speaking. This animation manifested not in gestures — he usually remains still — but in his voice, which becomes louder and higher pitched, while his Mandarin takes on a Sichuan accent. For some reason, listening to my uncle speak feels like listening to insistent cawing from a large bird. His voice has a distinct character that is hard to describe without a recording.

Post-surgery, my uncle’s voice lost that character. His reduced lung capacity softened it to a toneless whisper, and only when talking about teaching does he return to sounding like a bird. So that evening, my aunt and I had him teach us something.

In winter evenings of past years, my uncle used to sneak out of the house and break sprigs of plum blossoms off the trees next to his house as his neighbors went to bed. As he could not venture out into the evening chill, he told us about how to find the plum trees by following our noses. The groves stand where the perfume of plum blossoms is strongest, but we were to pass the first scented spot and clip branches from the second. The nearer grove’s star-shaped blossoms were nearly out of season, but the further grove with the round-petaled flowers had just started to bloom.

My aunt and I stumbled into the night, sniffing the air like hounds, and returned giggling, with armfuls of branches bearing unopened buds. My aunt found her vases, I planted the flowering branches around the house, and the scent of plum blossoms filled the air.

The day ended in an ordinary winter evening.

We’ve been running a series of Christmas in China stories this week. Click here for more.