I am tired. After a truly excruciating week of exams (one test had over 225 new characters), Michael and I headed to WuDaoKou last night to ring in the new year, albeit without plans or 150 RMB tickets to Nova, Beijing’s biggest New Year’s Eve party. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in a bar surrounded by friends! In a blur of colors, lights, drinks, and taxis, we were waltzing down the red carpet leading into Nova, housed in a giant, disused industrial gas tank. Beijing nights… Happy New Year!
And Merry Christmas! Amidst all the exam and travel preparations, I haven’t been able to blog at all about my Chinese Christmas adventures, which I must say they were quite exciting! Initially, my group of friends wanted to have Christmas Day brunch at a hotel in Beijing. Most of the foreign hotels host lavish meal with free flowing champagne in thoroughly decked halls, so naturally they’re incredibly expensive. At the last minute, Michael and I opted out and jumped in a cab on Christmas Eve heading to none other than IKEA. Maybe a few years down the line when I’m a rich Beijing business professional (哈哈) I will wine and dine with Beijing’s finest at the Westin, but at the moment, you just can’t beat a 15 RMB plate of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes on Christmas. We expected to see more but nonetheless spotted a few other foreigners who had had the same idea. On the way out, we stopped by the Swedish food mart for some ginger snaps – a real treat!
Although I no longer consider myself a Christian, I was raised Catholic and have gone to church on Christmas every year since I was born. Over the past few months I’ve been interested in attending a Catholic church here to see what it’s like in Asia but never got around to it. What better day to go than Christmas, right? Wrong, but I’ll get to that later. After gallivanting around IKEA for an hour or so after dinner, it was still several hours away from the 11 o’clock midnight mass. We headed to the church via subway but got off one stop early at Xidan, a popular commercial area in Beijing that I had just done Christmas shopping at the night before. The square was full of young people laughing, holding hands, and, funnily enough, wishing others a Merry Christmas.
The trees were beautifully decorated in gold Christmas lights, and a section of the square had actually been fenced off and lined with hundreds of thousands of white lights, giving the illusion of snow. We spotted a Santa promoting a nearby blood bank, so naturally I made Michael pose for a photo! It was a lovely evening, and the joy of the holiday could literally be felt in the air. A young man approached us to sell us apples wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper. Earlier in the day I had gone to WuDaoKou to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Around every corner, vendors could be found selling Christmas hats, cakes, and even Santa suits, but by far the most commonly sold items were apples and oranges. I bought a huge orange in an elaborate pink Christmas box and asked the girl why Chinese people eat apples and oranges on Christmas. She said it’s because the word for “apple,” 平果, has the same character as the word for “peace,” 平安. This struck me as beautiful, and when I peeled into my orange, I reminisced nostalgically about Christmas mornings past when my brothers and I would run downstairs to our stockings to find big apples or giant oranges placed there by my mother, who had done so just like her mother before her.
Finally it was time to head to church. Beijing has four major Catholic churches: a north church, south church, east church, and west church. I chose the south church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for midnight mass even though it was perhaps the farthest from IKEA. The foundation of the original cathedral was laid in 1605, making it the oldest church in Beijing, but the current building dates back to 1904. I chose this church because the present archbishop, Joseph Li Shan, was presiding. Interestingly, he is one of only a few bishops recognized fully by both the Vatican and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church.
When we exited the subway station, we entered into the church’s pseudo front yard. We immediately encountered long tables lined full of creche figurines and framed holographic pictures of Mary and Jesus that were being sold. People were everywhere, and we were hassled into a line by men with megaphones. I asked a woman behind me what the line was for, and she responded, “圣诞节礼物！” Christmas gifts. Umm what? Red candles in the shape of apples were shoved into our hands before we were quickly shuttled off. It was absurd but nonetheless a heartwarming surprise.
We finally arrived in front of the church, but when we tried to enter, another megaphone blared in our ears telling us to get in line. And then we saw it. A line a mile long! We started walking. And walking and walking and walking. More men with megaphones kept yelling something about having a 票, a ticket. My heart sank as I looked down the line at the green tickets in everyone’s mitts. I had read something on the internet about how church goers were required to buy tickets for midnight mass in 2004, a policy met with outrage that was subsequently revoked. Eventually I decided to stop walking and ask someone in line how we could buy a ticket. The magic of the evening was truly heavy the air that night because I somehow managed to stop and ask probably two of the only people in line with extra tickets. I grappled with my language as I tried to express my delight for their graciousness, eventually blurted out “Merry Christmas” as Michael and I headed away to the end of the line.
While we were waiting, a couple in line in front of us turned around and asked in broken English, “What will happen inside? Will we eat?” Umm no? I quickly discovered that the large majority of the people who had come to attend mass were not only not Christian, but they had no idea what Christmas was. They were simply curious and had heard that you were supposed to go to church at midnight on Christmas Eve. This little gem of Chinese culture drove me crazy when our section of the line finally arrived at the doors of the church and they stopped letting people in. Michael and I were confined to a jam packed square out front of the church. Two huge television screens showed the happenings inside, and familiar carols sung in Chinese spilled out the wide open doors. As we waited for mass to begin, none other than Santa came tearing up the aisles of the church, tossing candy into the crowd. How Catholic, am I right?
The only good part about standing outside in the freezing cold in poorly selected tights and pumps was that the procession came right through us. People all around us were pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the action. Amidst the chaos, archbishop Li Shan looked simply at peace.
Right after mass began, we left. It was simply too cold to be standing out there any longer, and the mass was entirely in Chinese save for an “amen” here an there. It would have been cool to hear it though. On Christmas day we headed to the east church for an English mass, and I was surprised that I still knew almost the entire mass word for word. It would have been very easy to follow along. In the cab on the way back to Zhongguanxinyuan, Michael and I agreed to open one Christmas present each. We both outdid ourselves and had a plethora of wrapped gifts under my six inch Carrefour Christmas tree. My gifts consisted entirely of chocolate, as I had requested. We fell asleep watching “Miracle on 34th Street,” a tradition my family usually practices on Thanksgiving, although I had had exams the Friday after this year.
The next morning, Michael and I were joined by two of our friends, Megan and Angus, for a delicious breakfast of pancakes, sausages, home fries, scrambled eggs, and hot chocolate before heading to the east church via cab. We arrived about fifteen minutes before mass was scheduled to begin, and we joined the mob of about fifty or so foreigners and Chinese outside the locked front doors. We waited and waited and waited. All of asudden it was 4:00, and then 4:15, and then 4:20. Finally someone came around and said the side door was open. Michael and I and a few others ventured over and went in. To our surprise and frustration, mass was already thoroughly underway with about eight hundred people already in attendance. We stood in the back. The mass was exactly the same as a Christmas mass in Minnesota. The songs, the prayers, the giving of people, all the same. The only difference was the old white minister stopped and asked in truly the worst Chinese I’ve ever heard for more volunteers to help administer communion. It was pathetic…
Michael and I had dinner at Subway (our favorite!) after trying and failing to locate a quality Chinese restaurant in a nearby new glitzy shopping mall on Wangfujing. After a stop in the foreign bookstore, we strolled up and down the decorated street of Wangfujing, veering off down the snack street before heading home. We passed on the star fish.