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Freezing warm Christmas
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By Nguyen Thi Cam Phung

A lot of Beijing expats carp at Christmas here because of celebration allegedly without regard for its true spirit.

Not me.

I'm from Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, where Christmas is more like Mardi Gras than a celebration of Jesus Christ's birth.

Granted, on December 25, people gather in droves at "one particular church" in Saigon, as we still like to say. But what happens there is anything but holy.

Mayhem, if not murder, ensues.

That's a little hyperbolic, but then again, could you imagine being given thongs and birth control as Christmas gifts by strangers? Even the motorbike swarm-so characteristic of my hometown-is scared away by the human masses, forcing passersby to wallow at a maximum speed of 0.5 kph.

By contrast, Beijing looks like a manger scene.

In all seriousness, despite the freezing temperature, I'm feeling quite warm this Christmas.

Christmas here seems to be about family and about spending time with the ones you love. It's what puts a smile on mom's face at a local mall when her

son's eyes light up at the prospects of dressing in a costume like Santa Claus. It's what makes a young girl idle for 10 minutes in front of gift cards before she chooses one with a big heart, presumably for her boyfriend.

If the spirit of Christmas isn't about these things, I'd be a serious scrooge even if I were the Pope.

So I'm happy to say I believe in Zhongguo (Chinese) Claus.

And I'm wishing for a perfect Christmas.

So far, so good. I came to Beijing to build a new life with my love, and despite the relationship hiccups, I'm happy to be here with him.

The holiday season perks aren't bad either.

This is my first time outside of Viet Nam, and in some ways, I'm like a newborn this December.

A few days into the month, I was shocked when I threw a rock in a lake, and it didn't fall to the bottom because it was-gasp-frozen! My laughter reached a pinnacle when I saw the look of a Chinese guy standing next to me, dumbfounded by my schizophrenic behavior. I wonder if he would react like I did if he saw a coconut fall from a palm tree for the first time. I guess not.

On December 10, I saw snow for the first time in my life. This time I exhibited mere retarded behavior, licking a clump and thinking it tasted better than ice in my refrigerator. Fortunately, no one saw that, except my boyfriend. And it's about time he smiled in mental revenge, since I usually refer to him as "mentally disabled" (even though he is helping me write this).

Other things on my Beijing Christmas to-do list: I'd like to be invited to a Chinese family party to experience warmth rather than just witness it. I'd like to get some munchies together and invite our friends to gather around for some yuletide cheer. I'd like to put some gift in a sock and stick it under my boyfriend's bed.

He tells me now that it's customary to hang it by the fireplace in the West. We don't have one, so it's going under his bed anyway--smarty pants.

And here's something on my not-to-do list: ice-skating. My rock-thrown-at-the-lake-test showed that frozen lakes can thaw, as the stone went straight through the slushy surface. I imagine a bigger, more lifelike likeness of that rock-namely me-might encounter the same fate on skates, and I'm plain horrified. Lakes are still for swimming in my tropical book, and not for meandering over like Jesus, even if it is just about Christmas.

Sure, there are a few things I dislike about Christmastime in Beijing. I don't like having to wear long underwear, thereby fattening my legs both with chocolate and cotton. I'm also not especially happy to be away from my own family.

But Christmas pales in Beijing not because it isn't spirited.

It pales only because it's an off-white tundra compared to Saigon. But what it loses in Celsius, it gains in true merriment. And this for the Gentile readers: What Christmas lacks in religion in China, it gains in joy to the world (or at least to 1.3 billion people).

So the next time you hear Jingle Bells at a hypermarket or see Santa's helper in a red miniskirt, just think: WWJD (What would Jesus do)?

Smile, I guess.

(Beijing Review December 27, 2007)

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