I knew it would happen sooner or later - the inevitable homesickness. I had an acute case of the sickness around Thanksgiving but in the weeks leading up to Christmas I suddenly had the desire to be home with family and friends for the holiday-of-holidays in the West.
The reason of my longing for home was three-fold.
Similar to Thanksgiving, I would be working for part of the holiday, in this case Christmas Eve. This wouldn't have been a problem, except I'd been invited to quite a few Christmas Eve festivities - a few bars, clubs and a church service among the options.
More distressing, I wasn't even sure if Christmas was celebrated in China. Despite seeing an unusual amount of decorations adorning the two malls in my area and various public spots, my anxieties pranced about like eight tiny reindeer that the holiday would come and go without me even noticing.
But what I found most unusual was the complete absence of a certain over-weight, red-suit wearing, jolly old white guy - Santa Claus. I'd actually made it a point to search out Saint Nick, visiting four malls expecting to see Santa listening adamantly to the Christmas wishes of tiny Chinese, or at least foreign, children. This just wasn't the case.
Granted, my days of sitting on Santa's lap have long since passed, but come on, Christmas isn't Christmas without Mr. Claus.
Christmas is more or less down played in China not completely ignored but celebrated in a somewhat confused state. The Chinese are ever-embracing of Western traditions and fads and Christmas, as one of the dominant traditions in Western culture, makes the cut, barely. A great deal of momentum builds up in the days prior to Christmas, but on the actual day, I felt this unnerving "Now what do we do?" vibe.
Earlier in the month, my parents had sent me a care package full of all the essentials to make me feel as if I were home. Included were: a Christmas stocking, small stocking-stuffers, a tiny fiber-optic Christmas tree with changing colored lights, Christmas candy and Christmas cards and photos. It was a much-needed surprise.
I made the best of it in the days leading up to Christmas. I went out and bought decorations, listened to Christmas music and found myself a nice Santa hat. I wore it once, looked in a mirror and decided it was too much. Plus, my facial hair was dark and scruffy, giving me more of a homeless look than the Jolly Ole Saint Nick appearance I was going for.
And instead of moping about the lack of true Christmas spirit in Beijing, I decided to force the holiday on my colleagues at Beijing Review. I'd tried this tactic on Halloween when I brought a jack-o-lantern pail filled with candy into work. For Christmas, I was able to find different flavored candy canes - blueberry and cinnamon, but no peppermint - and share them with the office.
I also brought the Santa hat, my Christmas stocking and the small tree into work. If I had to work on Christmas Eve, I was at least going to make my tiny cubicle look and feel like Christmas.
Christmas Day turned out to be better than expected. The night before, my former China Daily boss, Mike Peters, said a group of expats from the newspaper would be going to the Kempinski Hotel, one of Beijing's premiere hotels, for a Christmas brunch. Although a bit pricey, I decided to go.
The brunch was amazing - a true Christmas gift to myself. At my fingertips was duck, goose, various sea creatures, vegetables of all sorts, desserts-a-plenty, wine, champagne, venison (sorry Rudolph) and an unexpected treat prime rib.
On the numerous trips to and from the buffet style food area, I saw something walking toward me out of the corner of my eye. He was wearing red. He had a beard. He was Santa. A Chinese Santa, but Santa none-the-less.
My mind was at ease. I'd had a great Christmas meal, celebrated with a close Beijing friend and finally seen a Santa Claus. I sat back in my chair, champagne glass in hand. "Merry Christmas Brandon. Merry Christmas."
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS.