A Very Japanese Christmas
“Mary-sensei” my favorite 7-11 cashier in Niigata sweetly called my name. “How about a Christmas cake? We have so many flavors; chocolate, white and strawberry–and look at all the sizes! I think you would really enjoy having a cake to share with someone special on Christmas day.”
“I have no one special to share it with,” I reply, looking through the cake brochures. “And in America it’s a day spent with family, not a boyfriend.”
“Soudesuka…” the cashier looked hurt, and I felt bad for being so blunt and mean with my favorite cashier lady. She’s just doing her job trying to up the sales of Christmas cake and making small talk with me–I shouldn’t take my Christmas blues out on her. I cave in.
“Oh alright,” I smile at her and point to the chocolate cake on page 3. “Order me one of these.”
On Christmas Eve I picked up the cake, went to my apartment, fired up my kotatsu and with a beer in one hand and a fork in the other I ate my Christmas cake alone. The Japanese TV was blaring some slapstick comedy talk show, and I could hear the wind outside howling and the rain pelting my house horizontally.
I felt a pit of loneliness in my gut. Here I was, utterly alone in some village in the middle of nowhere Japan. My family was an ocean away, the Christmas movies I used to watch so lovingly on TV were replaced with a manzai (Japanese comedian) duo cross dressing and hitting each other with mallets; and instead of having pumpkin pie at the dinner table with family I was having beer and chocolate cake on a tatami mat. Instead of cry, I ate my sorrows. I devoured the cake in an hour.
My phone rang. “Mary,” the temple lady, one of my many Japanese mothers, called me. “What are you doing? It’s Christmas Eve, come to my house for dinner. If you like, you should just spend the night here.”
She didn’t need to ask twice. I braved the winter storm outside on my bike and made it to my temple lady’s house (although I was soaking wet). After a hot shower, I walked into the dining room to find KFC and cake set and ready on the table (the standard Japanese Christmas dinner). Although it wasn’t turkey and potatoes, it still put a smile on my face. The grandmother and the temple lady both gave me beautifully wrapped presents for Christmas, and I was deeply touched. With joy in my heart I ate yet another Christmas cake (but this time with company), and went to sleep full on KFC.
The next morning I awoke to gongs and chanting. My temple lady literally lives in a temple, and Christmas day was busy with services (but not of the Christian kind). It definitely didn’t feel like home–and it definitely didn’t feel like Christmas. It was a cold Niigata morning, and the storm was still pummeling my village full force. Sleepily I walked downstairs to the main temple hall and followed the hum of the morning chants.
I stepped into the tatami living room and saw the grandmother at the kotatsu, watching TV and nibbling on tangerines (mikan). She ushered me over and poured me a cup of green tea, pushing a few tangerines and manjyu (Japanese tea snacks) in my face. I crawled underneath the kotatsu with her and, while eating my mikan and sipping on sencha, continued to watch TV together in the pleasant company of one another.
Instead of a Christmas tree, I had a kotatsu; there was no turkey, but there was KFC, and although I didn’t hear carols or Christmas songs, there was the rhythmic chant of Buddhist worshipers echoing throughout the temple and home. It wasn’t a traditional Christmas in the slightest, but it was still Christmas, and Christmas with family—my Japanese family.
The Holidays in Beijing
At Tsinghua University in Beijing, my floormates were a good crew. Most of us were Americans, but we did have some Koreans, Czechs, Brits, and other nationalities mixed in to make us an international floor. We organized a secret santa and held a small Christmas party in the study room on Christmas morning. Pizzas were delivered, beers were a plenty, and everyone was in their pajamas. Although we were away from home on the holidays, having one another made Christmas morning bearable.
After playing a few card games I went to my room and called my parents. It was bittersweet. Following the phone call I started watching Christmas clips from American movies. Then, I felt it. It hit me hard. It choked me and I was helpless to escape its grasp.
I hardly ever get homesick abroad, but usually on Christmas I feel it pretty strongly. I mean, if you think about it we don’t even do anything particularly special on Christmas day: Lounge around in pajamas until mid afternoon, eat and eat and eat, maybe go see a movie and, if relatives are in town, have some awkward conversation. Sometimes it’s hard to express in words just what you miss about Christmas and the holidays so much when living abroad–but you definitely feel it. The atmosphere for Christmas just isn’t there, and that feeling of alienation brings on loneliness.
Having a lit up tree in the home. Presents underneath it. Fresh pumpkin pie and cider. Turkey. Laughter with family. Being in a warm home—your home. Scrambling down the stairs to open gifts. Going to church. Christmas songs.
These are the little things I miss about Christmas, and these little things mean a lot when away from home.
That night my Beijing friend Jenny invited me to her small house for dinner, because she knew I would most likely be lonely on Christmas. Although Chinese people are similar to the Japanese in the fact that they have no grasp or understanding of Christmas, Jenny really made an effort in trying to sympathize with my culture and to make me feel at home. Her rental apartment in Beijing was small, and for the time being her mother was there from Tsingdao.
When I walked into her apartment, I was hit with the aroma of vinegar, soy sauce, and freshly baked bread. I peeked in the kitchen to see her mother rolling up dumplings (jiaozi), hand made from scratch. Although her mother had never met me before, without hesitation she embraced me in a hug with a joyous laugh and pulled me into the kitchen to help her make jiaozi.
“I know you probably don’t eat jiaozi on Christmas in America,” Jenny said as we were rolling up the last of them. “But on family occasions in China we always eat jiao zi together. I thought having a meal of jiao zi might make you feel more at home in China on Christmas.”
And it did.
I stuffed myself silly with jiaozi until the buttons on my jeans popped off, then the three of us climbed into bed together watching god awful Chinese dramas while munching on sunflower seeds. The mom was giving me dating advice, while also giving me tips on how to become an independent woman. The atmosphere was warm, inviting, and cozy—like being in a home away from home. My homesickness washed away, and instead I found myself in a new kind of home. A Chinese home.
My mom and aunt are both refugees from Vietnam. They had to leave everything behind and come to the USA. It wasn’t until I moved abroad that I realized just how hard it must have been for my mom and aunt to be separated (possibly forever) from their families, while adapting to a new and foreign culture. For them, it must have been lonely those first few years spending Tet (Vietnamese New Year) in the USA, where no one has the slightest concept of what an endearing holiday it is to them.
When I asked them about this, they both replied: “Mary, when you live abroad you have to adapt. If you don’t have family with you there, then you have to make your own family.”
These words ring true for my Christmas experiences not only in Japan and China, but also here in Shanghai. I hosted a Christmas party at my house with some of the loveliest people I have ever encountered. There was Christmas music, good food, laughing, talking, hot wine, and presents under the (water cooler) tree.
You make your own family abroad. And they’re irreplaceable.
I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas, wherever you are!