By pure coincidence, both May and I, the two Princeton in Asia fellows here at the Linden Centre, hail from beautiful New York. I don’t want to wax poetic about a topic that has been immortalized in both the screen and the page, but there’s really something about Christmas in our town. Yellow snow permeating my soaked boots and tourists ruining the flow of traffic as they take pictures with an iPad. A cold wind so biting I have to wonder whether this whole “being alive” thing is worth the trouble. Sitting here though, thousands of miles away, not one of the grating aspects of a New York Christmas could keep me from missing it.
When you’re living abroad, the days leading up to special holidays can feel like a gray cloud has moved in just above your head. It doesn’t rain every day, but previously repressed feelings of loneliness and existentialism start to make house calls. I’ll be pushing around stir-fried lotus root on my plate but feeling the warmth of Zabar’s deli on a cold December day. Deli’s are where New Yorker’s can buy the freshest cheese, smoked fish, sharp coffee – you name it. It’s also where you’ll really find what makes New York such a special city; it’s inhabitants. The complaints of old Jewish New Yorkers fill the air as I unwrap a lox and scallion cream cheese bagel* next to my dad. Maybe we splurge for chocolate babka* if we’re feeling particularly roguish. The sensory details of food and eating play a huge role in preserving memories and I think that’s why we miss those Christmas and New Year dinners so much when we can’t have them. We’re breaking traditions that can’t be replaced.
But we all gotta learn to live with the blues, and every day presents with it the opportunity to build-your-own-joy. I will not have my 23rd Christmas on this earth hijacked by my haunted nostalgia. Xizhou is about as far from the commanding presence of Manhattan as you can get, but she’s a slow burn with a heart of gold. I may not get my glittering snowy nights, but I have a sky full of stars that could smoke even the most remote corners of the Adirondacks. I searched far and wide for peppermint schnapps to pour into my friends’ hot chocolate, you see cultural exchange is very important to me. May and I snap on reindeer antlers with militant diligence and pay homage to Christmas icon Mariah Carey to anyone within forty-five feet of us. May’s on the naughty list though, as she gently reminded me that Santa will not be able to find us given there are no chimneys in Xizhou. I’m still recovering from that downward spiral.
I can’t make my point any clearer- there’s nothing like Christmas in New York. Doesn’t matter where you live or your budget, the spirit of the holiday is tangible and sweet. It dances on your tongue with the fizz of champagne toasts and sits in your ears as you walk past stores on 5th avenue. But the peace that Christmas brings me is travel-sized and has found its way to Xizhou and the Linden Centre. Our trees are decorated and tinsel glints in the strong Yunnan sun. The fireplace in the bar is warm and my friends’ company is warmer. I may not be as happy as I’ve been in years past, but wisdom from an old Christmas tradition comes to mind. My sister and I always watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy this time of year, and I’m due for a reminder:
“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”