It’s a rather warm Sunday, winter afternoon and it is Christmas Eve. It is one of the most charming and lovely days for me. I would have liked to admire the frozen nature and for my face to be bitten by the rushing wind, the flakes of snow and the cold air. Since mother Nature refuses to comply with my wishes I decide to make the most of my time strolling through a park. Thus, I leave the coziness and isolation of my house for a relaxing walk in People’s Park. (In China, by name, everything belongs to the people; e.g. :people’s money, people’s square, people’s bank, people’s hospital etc. Sounds like heaven, unfortunately it isn’t so).
Back to myself. I feel nostalgic and memories of Christmases past flood my mind. Imagine! Hills covered in blankets of immaculate snow, children giggling and running towards the very top of sharp-sculpted valleys with their sledges, people going to church when evening settles in, groups of boys and girls travelling from house to house to sing decades old carols, hosts receiving guests with a glass of mulled wine and a slice of sweet walnut bread (cozonac), delicious food shared by family and friends near the stove, the smell and heat of burning wood in my grandparents’ house, rosy cheeks and noses, woolen hats and gloves and vapors of hot air leaving our mouths and becoming magical floating smoke in the cold. And that is the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of winter that I am missing so in China. I did find at least a dozen small Christmas markets in Shanghai and fancy elaborate Christmas decorations in every reputable shopping mall. Probably this made it better than being stuck for Christmas in…let’s say, Saudi Arabia. However, the superficiality and commercialism of the holiday is what dominates Christmas in China. The kindness of Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, the feeling of being in a community where people share the same believes and relate to the most important festive season of the year in the same way is somewhere far away.
While all of this makes sense because Christmas is not a holiday rooted in Chinese culture my heart still aches. Why? In the upcoming years the government and certain cultural conservationist advocacy groups decided to forbid Christmas decorations in public areas. Their scope is to encourage Chinese people to concentrate on their own holidays and customs. They want to sabotage Christmas! Gosh, that is sad. People won’t even be free to enjoy Christmas decorations in public places any longer? Let’s just take it the other way around. In any of the countries I have lived before (Romania, UK, Turkey, Belgium) I was free to enjoy and attend celebrations belonging to various religious and ethnic groups. Displays of joy and decorations were welcomed and not ostracized. Shouldn’t we, inhabitants of Earth, by now celebrate and accept multiculturalism? Withdrawing into our own conservative, nationalistic corners that proved times and again to fail is not the right path for future evolution. Didn’t we learn already that not love and accepting each other means failure?
So just because I am not Buddhist or because I am not Asian, it does not mean that I should not be allowed to celebrate or share the meaning and joy of Chinese New Year. Many other people and I are curious about others’ holidays and their meanings and would like to celebrate along with them. And we usually have the freedom to experience that in any European country. But tables might turn in China….Chinese people might not have the same privilege in their own country and with them everyone else will be denied Christmas.
Now, let me tell you what Christmas was all about in People’s Park. The main scene was occupied by a huge marriage market. Middle-aged people and a few youngsters arranged colorful open umbrellas on the sides of alleys on the ground and stuck A4 papers on top. These sheets of paper contained the personal information of the elders’ daughters, sons or other related singles who wanted to get lucky in love. If you have ever been to a market: vegetable, fruit, flea market, etc. you will have an idea of how things were displayed here. Every person was standing next to the other and was advertising attractive marriage partners on A4 papers placed on top of her or his umbrella. They were also calling attention to more than one person. The most interesting part was that the man or woman who was mentioned on the sheet paper was not present and there wasn’t even a picture of them displayed. So what did this paper contain? The year of birth, age, job, height, university attended, phone number, what was their material situation (whether they had a car or a house), what province they were born in and future requirements from a partner. Everything was so chaotic and there were probably a few hundred people circulating through the market. There was a constant flow, a vibe of looking for the right arrangement. Old people were walking around and engaging in talks with one another exchanging information about their ‘goods’. The ones who were publicizing and trying so hard to find suitable partners for their offspring were calling out to passers-by. According to which principles are these marriages arranged? Who is considered a potential suitable partner for one’s daughter or son? What are usually regarded as good marriages in China according to parents and grandparents? Most old people or middle-aged ones resort to traditional matchmaking methods. Thus, they try to match future partners by analyzing their birth dates and their representative animal signs. Due to the unequal ratio of men to women (too many men and not enough women) brides-to-be require houses and cars or other monetary gifts as wedding dowries. Where is the love in all of these? Potential partners contact each other by phone or wechat (the Chinese version of whatsapp) and end up going for blind dates. Arranged marriages or at least arranged blind dates are all too common in China. Why? Because parents and grandparents pressure young people to get married and have children. That is the ultimate goal that young people should fulfill in China. The pressure is even higher for women, who come to be considered leftover women if they reach the age of 30 and they are still single.
Where is the love in all this affair? The delight and freedom of selecting one’s partner, the spontaneous first interactions and innocent flirts, the idea that you are independent and that you are in charge of selecting whom to share your life with, the ideal that love is not material, that love is not something that should be arranged or advertised or sold? That love happens in mysterious ways and exactly that is its charm? Well, that concept of love, that construction of the feeling of love varies from individual to individual and from country to country. Love is nothing but a made-up cultural and psychological concept which we learn from childhood onwards. We acquire the information on how to live it, how to feel it and how to think about it from our surroundings and experiences. The concept of love: what I described above, the ‘genuine love’ that some might say comes spontaneously and is partly based on shared interests, personalities, physical attractions and common goals is something we see in movies, in magazines, on TV shows, at celebrities, in articles, in books, idealized in our own minds and most of all in talks with people who share the same ideas about what love is. However, in China love can happen in arranged marriages, love can happen through blind dates, love can happen through negotiation and love can come if material requirements are met.