A couple of weeks ago, John and I made a quick day trip to Shanghai to run an important errand. Our journey also brought us to Nanjing Road – the ultimate shop-till-you-drop heart of Shanghai’s retail world – and the many malls towering over the street. We happened to pass through some of them during the day where I spied glittering silver tinsel, wreaths, painted wooden nutcrackers and even a montage of snowflakes twinkling under the soft white lighting in a department store.
There they were, all the signs that Christmas is coming. And yet, with every sight of a Christmas decoration, I felt all melancholy inside, as though I were housebound in the midst of a huge winter blizzard.
After all, they’re a reminder that another Christmas in America will pass among my family members – and I won’t be there to share it with them. I’ll be spending it here in Hangzhou, China with my husband.
“Home for the holidays” sounds like the title of yet another saccharine made-for-TV Christmas movie. In the holiday movie world, the script of my life would work like this. A young American woman who returns to China with her husband says “good riddance” to her seemingly dysfunctional family in the US. But she suddenly has a change of heart on Christmas Eve, rushing to Shanghai’s Pudong Airport with her Chinese husband, where they buy tickets for two to Cleveland, Ohio and make it just in time for Christmas Eve mass at Grandma’s Catholic church with the whole family, singing “Silent Night” together as the credits roll.
In reality, none of that’s true. I didn’t return to China with my husband John to escape my family in the US. I still love them all very, very much. In fact, I would love more than anything to once again be reunited with everyone around Grandma’s cozy little table in Cleveland for Christmas Eve, and then wake up the following morning at my father’s home to a delicious spread of bagels, sweet figs and truffle chocolates.
Unfortunately, I’m just not able to make it home this time around.
For months leading up to this holiday season, I expected this. I told myself, It’s just another holiday season. You did it last year, after all. And you even spent a number of Christmases away from family in the US. Why the big deal now?
Yes, why should I feel so blue about the holidays? I’d love to offer a rational explanation for that and yet, I come up empty every time. How can you have a rational explanation for something that comes from the heart?
My Chinese husband John has long become a home to me – an adult home, in a sense, a home that I’ve created on my own. He is the one person in the world who has seen all of me – the Midwestern American, the woman who came of age in China, even the me that speaks half a sentence in English and the other half in local dialect (making him erupt in a fit of giggles). It is the greatest gift that I have someone who knows who I really am and loves all of the messy and imperfect things about me.
But when the holidays arrive, I still long for the home I knew as a child and the Christmases that once captivated me year after year. It was a place where the snow covered the ground like thick layers of sweet white frosting, where the aroma of cinnamon-spice pinecones greeted you at the local supermarket, and the local electric company put on a dazzling show of Christmas lights strung together to make Santa’s sleigh and reindeer and Christmas stockings and stars.
As much as I have come to love Hangzhou, my husband’s hometown and my new home, and as much as I appreciate the many signs of Christmas that you can find in China, there are some things that I’ll never quite replicate in this place. That’s part of life when you choose to make a life for yourself in a foreign country like China – especially one that doesn’t officially celebrate the holidays you do.
Of course, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll make the best of the season by decorating our apartment in Christmas stockings and lights, and I’ll buy a small tree to place in the corner. We’ll make a plan for Christmas Day to stroll around the West Lake and then indulge in a little coffee and Christmas cookies for two at a local Starbucks. I’ll call family that day and wish everyone the happiest of holidays.
But now I truly understand the meaning of that nostalgic tune, “White Christmas,” because I’m dreaming of my own white Christmas back in the US – and wishing that sometime, maybe next year, I’ll finally make it home.