All I want for Christmas UPDATE

Thank you so much to everyone who responded to my earlier post about my Christmas wishes. I’m really grateful for the support I received, and it gives me hope that we can all build a better future. Hopefully, it will touch more people’s lives — my piece was published on Christmas Eve in the San Francisco Chronicle opinion page. Thanks again everyone, and have a merry Christmas.

Beijing Christmas

As Western things have continued to grow in popularity and prestige, Chinese elite have increasingly adopted our fashions, mannerisms, buzz words and yes, even our holidays. While the Christmas blitz starts later in Beijing than in the US, it’s definitely here, albeit a little bit altered.

You can buy traditional looking plastic Christmas trees in Beijing at large chain grocery stores, although they’re pretty expensive. Instead, I bought this little metal tree at Ikea and decorated it with some on-sale decorations from WuMart.

My tree looks even more pathetic next to some of the decorations up around town. In typical China fashion, they do our holiday bigger and flashier than even we do.

Several weeks before Christmas, large parts of the Joy City shopping mall were walled off for work on giant Christmas displays.

I sort of wonder what the migrant workers make of giant purple Christmas trees and irridescent glitter paper.

Eventually, it all came out like this:

As we affectionately call it, the “expresscalator” goes up six stories, so you can imagine the scale of the display. It’s pretty incredible that it was all handmade. We got to watch workers gluing fabric, painting, assembling, and even sleeping inside the display.

Trying to act like real locals, we took pictures in front of the displays. I personally love that they had cleaning ladies dusting them during busy mall hours. Oh, China.

This display also goes up six stories, and is in the same mall.

Here is the outside display at Joy City:

I don’t know what Swan Lake has to do with Christmas. I think somewhere along the way The Nutcracker got lost in translation and they decided any ballet name would do.

The swans are over ten feet tall and have glowing butts. I’m not sure why they glow, but they also change colors. Neat!

And of course, Chinese Santa!

I love the perfect metaphor within this picture for the way Chinese see Christmas. Everyone is just gawking, nobody really gets what it’s about, yet everyone wants in the action.

Anything but a lump of coal…

Dear friends and family,

While many of the pictures we have seen in the media portray a booming China, the truth is that most people, even in the cities, are desperately poor. In many ways, I think that China today is something like the West as it was going through the Industrial Revolution, except that China is determined to fit more than 100 years of progress into a scant few decades. As a result, I have seen the most cutthroat manifestation of capitalism I have ever seen here. From birth through adulthood, most people are in constant and fierce competition with their peers in almost all aspects of life, and the society has no safety net or compassion for those who can’t compete.

Many of the middle schoolers I teach have told me that they don’t have friends and they don’t care much about the big problems of the world because they only care about their studies. While we can always forgive them because of inexperience and limited perspective, the fact is that many, many people here retain a self-centered attitude throughout life. If you don’t fight tooth and nail in China, you are likely to get surpassed by classmates, pushed out of jobs and unable to get on or off the subways.

But this means that there isn’t any compassion for those who simply can’t make it, and there are more and more of these people as economic conditions worsen. Nearly every time I take the main subway line in Beijing, beggars come through my subway car. Unlike beggars back home, beggars in China are often children, and almost every single one has a disability. Without a government safety net, these children are shunned by society and cast out by single-child families, only to end up with no hope of a normal future. Many of the people I have seen have incredible disfigurements, burns, loss of limbs and birth defects. Unlike people back home, disabled people in China face incredible discrimination, hatred and fear, and have no government help. These children cannot afford school, and certainly can’t compete with children their age for a better future.

In addition to this lowest class of people in Beijing, there is a vast and growing class of migrant laborers who live barely above begging in astonishingly bad conditions. Many people in Beijing have no clean or running hot water, no bathroom and no heat. Until I came to Beijing, I had often read about this kind of poverty in books. I imagined that these people would live in the outskirts of cities, sequestered from the “normal” population and would be visibly poor. In reality, many of the people who live in my neighborhood face these living conditions. Most shop owners live in their shops, and many people live in homemade shacks built with sheet metal, plastic and other found materials.

The waiters (at least five of them) at my favorite restaurant live in a roughly eight by eight foot room. They don’t have hot water, they don’t have showers and they don’t have heat. They use an empty lot next door as a latrine. While it’s hard for us to imagine, they are actually quite lucky and seemingly happy. They have made it to Beijing from much poorer parts of China, and are sustaining a business that keeps them fed.

After living in this environment for so long, I can’t help but reflect on the incredible luxury Americans have. Even the poorest Americans have some assurance of government help, and can always turn to NGOs, churches and soup kitchens when in need. I suspect that many of my friends and family would even find my current living conditions unacceptable. My apartment is small with strange furniture and leaning, unevenly white washed walls, my hot water takes a while to come on and turns off spontaneously, my laundry machine is always flooding the place, my windows are drafty, and my building probably doesn’t meet any safety codes. I don’t have nearly the amount of luxury I enjoyed in America. I walk and take the bus everywhere, even to places hours away. I have a tiny wardrobe compared to what I had back home. I don’t have much in the way of knickknacks or books.

But I can’t help but feel really lucky and satisfied with what I have. There are so many things that I could want, and sometimes I do wish I had more of the comforts I used to have. But usually, I think these living conditions are better than fine, and not having a car really isn’t that bad. I’m reminding daily by my neighbors of what it means to live in desperation. And, I’m often reminded by my students of how important it is to value and care for the lives of all humans, even those outside our friends and family.

Since this is so, I’d like to ask for something a little different for Christmas this year. I have a warm place to live, warm clothes and all the things I need to succeed in school. There really isn’t anything I need beyond that. So, instead of spending $20 at Borders to get me something, I hope that you will make a donation in my name to one of these charities. My apologies that some organizations do not have exact links. I’m working with the Great Firewall of China, and they’re a little hostile toward human rights organizations.

Human Rights in China

Compassion for Migrant Children

Unicef in China

China Charity Federation

Even if you weren’t going to get me a gift, please consider giving just a small amount to help someone else in need. In the past, I never gave to charities because I felt that the amount I would give would be so small and meaningless. But with the wonders of exchange rates, no matter what you can give will make a huge difference in someone’s life here. Just $20 would be 140 RMB, which is actually a decent amount — you can get a meal for as little as 5 to 15 RMB.

There are so many things we don’t truly need. I just hope that we can funnel some of that money toward something that someone else truly does need, so that we can all begin to make this world a better place in these hard times, just one kuai at a time.

Thanks everyone!

P.S. If you really feel compelled to get me something material, it’s not like I’ll look down on you or anything. Everything is much appreciated, tangible or not!

Let it snow!

Today it snowed for the first time this season! It was really light snow, like if you made light fog or mist into snowflakes, but it was really pretty nonetheless. Nothing stuck to the ground, but my coat had little white sparkles all over it by the time I got to school this morning. I’m excited!. It says on Google that it’s snowing right now, but it’s not. I hope there isn’t a rip in the time-space continuum because Google isn’t right.

Apparently Beijing has a few manmade ski hills and some ice skating rinks, so I hope it keeps snowing! I want a white winter!