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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'tis the season . . .

Unexpectedly, the recent Thanksgiving holiday and this month's Christmas are very much front and center here in China. Thanksgiving seemed to slip by the average Chinese almost unnoticed but not so the large and vibrant expat community. For at least a month before, English-language publications and websites were talking up the US holiday, dispensing tips on where to go to get provisions for a celebration at home and which hotels and restaurants were serving Thanksgiving dinners.  Markets started selling Butterball turkeys and pie bases (cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling are always available at the expat markets) and Sanlitun - an area that contains many embassies and high-end international brand stores - lit up the trees along its streets.

Nobody who has a facebook account could fail to notice the holiday, whether one's friends were taking the date as an opportunity to be thankful for all they have or simply posting turkey and pilgrim jokes that ranged from humorous through obscene (and often both). Social media may well be as instrumental in globalizing celebrations as the Web was in cementing English as the world's lingua franca and as television has been in disseminating the "American dream."

In what has become a China Daily foreign expert tradition of its own, a colleague organized a trip to an amazing restaurant/eco-resort that sits in the shadow of the Great Wall for Thanksgiving dinner. Because of work schedules, we attended the "reprise" on the Saturday evening rather than the Thursday event. I've attended the last two years, with an out-of-town US guest last year -  the organizer-in-chief has been for the past four or five years. Despite losing our way (the site moved from the restaurant to the eco-resort), rain, motion-sickness (not I) and horrific smog, the evening was fabulous. As were the fellow guests (including a table of Australians I made a point of harassing, because that's what we Antipodeans do), the food, the wines, liqueurs and live jazz.

As was our host, Jim Spear, who is fully deserving of his own post.

Reader, as Bronte might have writ, the post becomes a little darker here but I promise a spark of light throughout.

In one of life's bad jokes, Thanksgiving this year fell around the time of the anniversary of my mother's suicide (sorry family, but I'm incapable of calling it anything other than what it is). It's a sad anniversary I share with a treasured friend whose baby girl died that day before we even met. I was surprised I wasn't as upset this year as on previous years, but perhaps we are getting to the point where we have grown accustomed to the loss and the pain and the date itself is irrelevant. The space they occupied will always be empty, no matter what day it is.

Having breezed through some other country's holiday with no ill effects, I find myself coming up on Christmas, which has always been a sensitive time, Mother-memories wise. And the melancholy snuck up on me unexpectedly. Which is okay, because I felt a little guilty about not being overly sad on the designated day.

But it is tempered more than it has been in the past. I've been less tolerant than usual and gotten mad at an acquaintance over something I would normally laugh off, but I'm coping, with a little help from my friends.

Two of those friends took me to a Christmas bazaar last weekend, which not only restored my faith in human nature but gave me plenty of ideas of how I may be able to contribute to my new home, outside of work and friendships. Many of the stalls belonged to nongovernmental organizations and i was surprised and heartened by the range.

One organization teaches marketable skills to women lured to the country's capital with the promise of legitimate jobs that are anything but, another houses and educates visually impaired orphans. We shared our lunch table with a woman whose friend started a group that teaches skills such as baking to people with mental challenges.

Since leaving Korea, one of the things that has been missing from my life is the opportunity to volunteer - to help others who weren't born with the accident of place, race, health or potential that I was.

I now have an overabundance of choices and am researching the options.

I'm very tempted by crazy bake - helping the mentally ill cook will remind me of my family (typed with love). Or, for 300 kwai a month, about the cost of a good bottle of wine here, I could sponsor a visually impaired child. The latter offers the opportunity to visit the home and farm but I'm not quite sure how viable that would be for a non-Chinese speaker.

There are other options to peruse also, and a little time to go until Christmas.

But I'm thinking that my Christmas gift to myself (if we ignore the necklace I bought at the bazaar) will be to give something back.