Today it’s minus 4 degrees and counting in Beijing, and the air is drier than British wit. And yet, since the government turned on the heating – much later than needed – two weeks ago, it’s gotten too hot inside our flat. We asked reception if there was a way to turn it down in our room. No, they said, the strength of the heating is fixed throughout the building. Open the window, they suggested. We can’t, we said, because the pollution is bad. Of course, the pollution is bad because the whole city, including our building, is burning coal for heating.
A very Beijing problem. And a very expat problem, faced only in a building whose heating system and insulation are, I fear, far better than in most other houses around the city.
And so, I walk around the flat dressed for summer, while DD keeps waking up at night. Our air purifier and humidifier hum loudly and glow in the dark, pumping out good artificial air. Outside gusts of biting wind make me sing soprano, and when I take off my coat the static sounds like scrunching plastic.
DD says he’s heard it gets as cold as minus 15 in deep winter, while I say I’ve heard it’s more like minus 20. The only time I’ve ever experienced such cold was years ago on a family holiday in Lapland at Christmas, when it was minus 32. We were dressed stiff in ski wear and goggles, and I remember it was so cold my baby brother was crying, and when he tried to pee in the snow it froze in an arch. Now, this may be a slight exaggeration, but I like to think that it happened.
A more reliable memory is of gathering in the hotel lobby with the other children, waiting excitedly for Santa Claus, and feeling that something was definitely not quite right when he eventually turned up in a helicopter.
Like the rest of the world, it’s been Christmas in Beijing’s expat area since the day after Halloween. Every cafe is playing bad covers of Christmas classics, every shop has fake snow on the windows and the diplomats are either planning trips back home or booking into buffets and galas at Western hotels.
It’s been a long while since I’ve genuinely felt the Christmas excitement, without the anxiety that comes with gift-giving and the inevitable regret after two weeks of abusing the stomach. But the magic that remains untarnished, for me, is the Christmas carols: the beautiful simple melodies, the picture-postcard lyrics and the voices that sound like they’re enjoying the best bath ever. I remember I listened to carols on repeat in the height of summer one year in Tokyo, when I wanted to get away from it all.
In Tokyo, as in Beijing, the Christian message of Christmas is largely irrelevant to its more commercial pursuits, and the whole event feels hollow. I’m not sure what I’d want though, since I’m not Christian and my festive activities of choice back home in England include putting up the grossly oversized Christmas tree with mum, buying a Starbucks gingerbread latte just to check it still tastes of Fairy liquid, and tottering down the local high street with its so-naff-it’s-good Christmas lights to meet up with old friends in the Wetherspoons. But while I don’t take part in the religion, I do love walking past church windows flickering in candlelight or remembering how I played one of the three kings in the school Nativity play, or wallowing in the unadulterated joy of the carols. Christianity makes me cynical, and yet it’s also Christianity that keeps my cynicism at bay around Christmas.
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