Friday, December 28, 2012

Our Chinese Christmas

We spent our first Christmas away from the U.S. this year.  Even with all our past travels, we have always been somewhere in the states in all the years past.  We certainly wondered with Christmas as expats in China would be like...

After returning to Shanghai in early December, the Christmas decorations began to appear.  We really didn't know what to expect, and perhaps we should not have been so surprised by the level of "festiveness".  While Christmas is not traditionally celebrated by most people here from a religious point-of-view (Wikipedia says about 4-5% of the population is Christian), the commercial side of things has certainly been embraced.

Everywhere we went, the store employees donned Santa hats atop their usual uniforms.  Christmas decorations filled the aisles of stores, trees popped up throughout town and a lot of businesses sported decorated windows.

Our apartment building had not one, but two, Christmas trees in the lobby--including this one which we were invited to "make up".
When I returned from my trip home, my unexpected Christmas gift was a festively decorated apartment.  After an attempt at "Holiday House" which turned out to be more "Christmas junk store", Ikea saved the day with some classy decorations to make our apartment sparkle.

The Shanghainese people seemed to get in to the spirit in their own ways.  Our friendly apartment doorman (who mainly sits in the lobby smoking, but is also responsible for fetching the water jugs for residents' water machines--and he does keep a "discard battery" box at his desk, so I guess the duties are really quite diverse), flashed a big smile and wished us a "Merry Christmas!" (I'm being generous with the pronunciation, but let's be truthful it far exceeded my Chinese pronunciation) when he came to bring our new water on Christmas eve.  It was a nice change of pace from our usual exchange of "Ni hao" and gesturing.  We got greeted quite frequently with "Merry Christmas" all over town.  At the office, apparently there was a day of giving small gifts amongst all the Chinese colleagues and we saw several company parties out celebrating throughout the season.

I also got a lot of smiles when I wore my Santa hat out and about and we got in to a nice chat with a newly transplanted expat from Australia who was heading to meet friends for a holiday lunch.  Of course, I get an even better reaction when I wear my panda hat.  I never saw so much enthusiasm as the spa receptionist's welcome when I was wearing my panda hat and gloves on our trip to get massages.  No one thinks it is unusual since cutsie animal wear is all the rage, but they do seem to puzzle over a foreigner in it.  I think it also made quite an impression at home in the states, but people had to struggle between curiosity and those pesky western mores telling them not to stare.  (By the way, even though we spent Christmas in China--as you can see, we got in to the holiday spirit back home first and celebrated early with the family.  Now you see where I get it from!  They encouraged me to buy the matching Panda gloves at Claire's.  Here we are in all our finery at the Williamsburg Grand Illumination.)
Back to Christmas in China...we began scoping out all the holiday options.  Our choices seemed endless, especially if we wanted to eat and drink until we popped.  Every restaurant seemed to be offering holiday dinners and festivities.  The major hotels all have large pre-set dinners and drinks, often including entertainment and the ubiquitous "lucky draw" and prizes.

Side bar:  To give you an idea about the cross-cultural popularity of chances to win (and I won't say the cultural phenomena because it seems to be pretty universal if Powerball, El Gordo, etc. are any indication that people universally love a random game of chance) the official receipts/invoices here contain a scratch off chance to win.  Why?  Apparently, it was an effort to encourage people to actually report income and sales, instead of the more common practice a number of years ago of skirting taxes at all times--what better way to encourage people to demand official receipts?  Give them a chance to win something!  P.S., you ask for the "fapaio" to get this official receipt (with the ever-present red stamp).

We started off the holiday season by joining in Santa Con 2012.  What a great way to get in the spirit!

For holiday eating, we scoured the magazines and online postings and finally decided to try El Willy, one of Shanghai's most well-known Spanish restaurants, for Christmas eve dinner.  We love El Willy's "younger brother", Elefante, and have enjoyed many good meals there.  Our six-course Spanish meal with to-die-for views of the Bund made for a great Christmas eve.  We had also discovered one of the best holiday deals in town--a 98 RMB (about $13) all-you-can-drink "happy hour" running throughout the holidays at The House of Roosevelt's rooftop deck.  The setting cannot be beat and they have glassed in the deck to make it nice and toasty for winter.  With the price, you can enjoy a cocktail or two with a view that is worth the price of admission.  On Christmas eve, they had a supposed "Christmas film" night, which consisted of a screen in the corner showing some random cop flick.  Not exactly the Christmas movie we expected, but it was more fun to watch the neon lights of Pudong and the varied crowd celebrating.

We started out Christmas Day Skyping with family back home--Christmas eve their time.  Unfortunately, bad weather changed their plans so we only got to Skype with half of one group and caught the other group rushing off to beat the icy road conditions.  When our ayi arrived to clean (the benefits of this not being a holiday here--cleaning on Christmas day!), we went out to enjoy some (cold) sunshine and visited the European Christmas market at Xintiandi.  It was enjoyable to walk around the park and check out some of the items for sale, but I don't know that this market really lives up to the standard.  There was plenty of random stuff to buy, but the Merry-go-Round was only for show and the entertainment consisted of taking your picture with a Garfield or Gangnam Style cut-out (which I had to do, of course, because nothing says Christmas like Gangnam Style).

For Christmas dinner, we had decided to order from our favorite online organic grocery store, Fields.  They were offering various holiday meals and we got a dinner suitable for 4-6 and invited our new neighbors to spend the evening together.  Fields usually delivers within about a 4 hour time block, but were nice enough to get more specific for us so we could have the meal warm and not have to deal with reheating in our limited kitchen.  As we sat chatting with our neighbors, the doorbell rang and our feast arrived.  We had a whole chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, purple cabbage, squash and pumpkin pie.  Every bit of it was delicious, and we ate heartily with plenty left over.  We enjoyed the company of our new neighbors and getting to know each other better, as we all adjust to living in our "home away from home" adopted Shanghai.

We received a nice Christmas bonus when our realtor came over Christmas morning to help us figure out the TV that we have never been able to work.  We can now watch our movies on the big screen, instead of the tiny little laptop!  And, with newly purchased speakers, we can hear the movies better and could play our thousands of Christmas carols while we enjoyed dinner.  We finished off our Christmas with a favorite holiday movie, Love Actually.  Don't worry--we also watched that great American classic, Christmas Vacation, the next day.

Now...on to the bigger holidays here!  Chinese New Year will be something to behold, and from what we hear 12/31 is not too shabby either.  We have a "front row" view from Hyatt on the Bund to watch the fireworks and stay out of the cold.

Wishing everyone everywhere a peaceful and joyful 2013!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shanghai Santa Con 2012

What could be more fun than making merry with a bunch of makeshift "Santas" throughout the city--spreading wonder, joy and amazement while having a general great time?  We thought it sounded like a pretty good time when we heard about it online and decided it was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  After spending a heavy morning reading the tragic news of the Newtown school shootings, Santa Con delivered some much needed joy and reinforcement of the good in the world.

Santa Con is a gathering of people dressed as Santa Claus, which apparently began in Copenhagen in 1974 and has spread throughout the world.  It is essentially a "Santa convention" that moves throughout the city, having a good time and spreading goodwill.  It is kind of a mix between a pub crawl, a parade and a city tour.  SantaCon now takes place in 275 locations in 37 countries.  We were surprised to learn this was Shanghai's first SantaCon.  SantaCon Shanghai was put together with help from Shanghai Pub Crawl, BEAN (a volunteer organization) and sponsors like Daily Secret Shanghai.  BEAN, which does great volunteer and charity works in Shanghai and brings together young professionals for events and networking as well, benefited from donations collected along the route.  Donations went to pay for diapers and supplies for orphans, and they also sold flasks to help fund operating costs.  Check out BEAN online for ways to contribute (there are BEAN organizations in many cities throughout the world too).

After receiving the loose schedule online (the location and route is kept somewhat secret up until the day or so before the event), we arrived in the Former French Concession to find a group of Santas loitering on the corner near a Lawson's, fueling up on Santa Con juice (beer and wine coolers for some, water for others).

Commemorative spandex Santa suits were for sale, complete with full face cover.  Not so great for drinking beer, but no one let that stop them!
Other Santas gathered at a nearby bar, The Camel, playing pool and enjoying some Santa juice and food for the long journey ahead.
The group quickly became the curiosity of the neighborhood, and the first of many photos were taken.  After experiencing the curious onlookers (and resulting traffic jam) at the Halloween party we attended in Shanghai, we had anticipated and looked forward to being a source of wonder to the locals.  I'm sure SantaCon attracts attention anywhere, but the pure curiosity and joy of the people in China at such sights makes it especially fun.

Eventually, the group gathered and got a little introduction about the festivities, took a few photos and began our march.

Our group made its way over to Yongkang Lu, a great little street of cafes and bars.  It was a drizzly, cold day but overall not a bad one for a SantaCon--no downpours or extreme cold, and we had Santa hats and beards (and spandex suits or hot pink tuxes, depending on your interpretation of Santa style) to keep us warm.
The Santa march begins

Gathering on the street and bars at Yongkang Lu

The locals' curiosity built and we began attracting onlookers.  Bryan and I delighted a little boy with a camera by posing for his first photo and then giving him one of the lollipops we brought along to give out on the route.  I especially enjoyed watching the little old ladies grasping arms and giggling walking down the street.  I imagined the phone calls going out from the apartments over the street, "You have to come see these goofy Laowais (foreigners) dressed up as Santa.  Crazy!  Come take pictures!". 

A little boy, who I nicknamed Waldo, became the local star as he came along in his Santa hat, Christmas sweater and eyeball glasses and joined in the crowd.  His family enjoyed watching him have fun and take part in many photo opps.

We had mostly traditional renditions of Santa, along with a few "girl" Santas in dresses, an elf, and one guy in a skimpy cheerleader-like belly baring outfit (brr!).  While hanging out on Yongkang Lu, a biker covered in stickers joined us.  I don't really know what it was all about, but he was big on giving hugs (maybe to keep warm) and seemed to be in the spirit, if not in the proper costume.

We enjoyed a spot at the Handle Bar watching the action in the streets, and then grabbed a couple of slider sandwiches at Sliders to fuel up for the rest of the journey.  Of course we had to snap the obligatory "wherever you go" shot of the ubiquitous Yankees hat (may be a little hard to see in this photo)...
Next, the group walked to the Metro and gathered on the platform to catch the train together because of course Santas must stick together on the same sleigh.  We sung various carols as we rode to our next destination.
Santas on the train
We arrived at People's Square metro and had some politically incorrect photo opps with the statues.
We proceeded to East Nanjing pedestrian road--one of my least favorite (touristy, crowded, constant hawkers) places in Shanghai, but which is a lot more fun at night with a large group of Santas! We stopped for a great photo opp by the tree (sponsored, of course, by the Galaxy Note II).
We even had our minute of fame, gathering on a small stage and dancing and singing along to some tunes.
Our adoring fans (and a few of the Santas--and cows, from the group, documenting the moment)
There were various photo opp stops along the way, as we continued to be the objects of fascination and we delighted in spreading joy by posing with many, many people who were thrilled to have their photo taken with one or more of us.  We gave joy through photos, candy handouts and simply by existing.  It really was a refreshing way to spend the evening after such a sad start to the day.  As a few beggars approached, we had no change to give but handed them each one of our lollipops.  The reaction was amusing, as of course it was not what they were hoping for, but yet they smiled and were thankful.  Bryan gave a lollipop to a little grandmother who was walking with her family and you would have thought he handed her a winning lottery ticket.  She smiled widely and thanked him and all of the family joined in the thanks and joy.  This occurred over and over with children as well, though a couple children and parents were a bit shy/unsure about the whole thing.

We made our way up to The Bund.  Normally, this would have been the best photo opp, but the Shanghai smog was at its finest.  However, we took some group photos and then spent a lot of time giving out joy by posing with many Chinese people for them to snap pictures with us.  I wonder how many of these photos are traveling around the internet on Weibo or being messaged to friends ("Look at me with these goofy Laowais who were parading around as Santas.  I don't know if this is some kind of Laowai traditon?").  Bryan was asked by one group who spoke a bit of English if we were all friends.  "No, just strangers who got together and dressed as Santa for the night." and in reply, "Oh, so this was on the internet?"  They got it!
Our group rounded out the night at the South Bund/Cool Docks area, at Bubba's Texas BBQ (nothing says Christmas like BBQ and beer).  We jumped in taxis and cozied up inside with some food and drinks.  Many of the SantaCon participants continued the party with a Christmas Pub Crawl and loaded into a bus from Rico Rico.  We said goodbye at this point as we're not quite as young as the rest of the group (not that we couldn't have done it, we just have enough life experience to know Santas need rest!).

There may still be the opportunity to participate in a SantaCon this year in your area and I'd highly recommend it, especially if your Christmas spirit is lagging and your faith in humanity has been shaken.  If not, dress in something cheery and go spread some joy anyway! 

Happy Holidays to everyone and let's all wish (and work towards) for peace and kindness in 2013!