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Chinese Santa

"That is messed up!"

"Why? WHY?!"

"That is just plain WRONG."

These are some of the most common responses I've received from my western friends when confronted with the photo above. I received this fantastic photo just before Christmas from a friend in our city in northern China. Even in my wildest dreams, I doubt I could have constructed this particular holiday mash-up (Santa-lyn Monroe?). And yet, there is something about this photo that is instantly recognizable to any expatriate who has spent an extended time living in China: it is a classic example of those vaguely definable "only in China" moments that are one of the great joys of living in this country.

Those of us coming from western traditions where a very particular "Saint Nicholas" notion of Christmas has been celebrated for one or two hundred years see this image and wrinkle our noses. Sure it is funny, but Santa doesn't wear a skirt and no oneNO ONEis interested in catching Santa unawares over a steam vent. At a visceral level, this kind of thing leaves us feeling that China is "doing Christmas the wrong way." Or, more forcefully, this isn't what Christmas is about; China doesn't "get" Christmas.

That may indeed be the case, that China does not "get" the way we expats celebrate Christmas back in our home countries. The problem, of course, with this way of thinking is that we are not in our home countries; we are in China. And yet, despite the fact that ours is a minority viewpoint (and in China we are an EXTREME minority), we still act as if our own personal experiences and preferences from thousands of miles away are universally normative. Moreover, we then look down on all these "incorrect" cultural practices with a sense of superiority, as if we are better than those around us because we have it "right."

Any Chinese young person can tell you exactly how they celebrate Christmas: flood the center of town with friends and classmates, buy a light-up Santa hat, give a few Christmas cards, and hit the karaoke parlors. For Chinese young people, this is what Christmas looks like within their cultureand what you or I did when we were twelve years old is completely irrelevant.

And this isn't just about Christmas, is it? Popular clothing choices, musical styles, baby hygiene, compelling dramatic plots, favorite ice cream flavors, child discipline, home dcor, hair styles (and colors!), acceptable thicknesses for men's hosiery, the temperatures at which beer and Coke are best consumed, even the preferred style of toilet equipmenthese are just some of the more common areas where we foreigners may find our tastes out of step with what most people in China seem to prefer. We need to accept that people in China are fully able to determine for themselves what they think Santa should look like, as well as what clothes they wish to wear, which songs they will blast outside their shops, how they will pose for photos, and what color they will dye their hair.

Being more "cool" than the Chinese people around us often makes us feel superior, and can even lead us to patronize our Chinese neighbors. But why? The presence of McDonalds and One Direction on the streets of China may delude us into imagining that we are on the vanguard of Chinese culture, but do we honestly think that conformity to Madison Avenue presentations of American chic makes us "better," or that Chinese people are even interested in measuring themselves against our American notions of hip?

To see our Chinese brothers and sisters as true equals, we need to let go of the subtle cultural pride that leads us to look down on our neighbors. In China, we are the cultural outsiders. We are not the arbiters of what is and is not normal. On the contrary, if we want to enter into people's lives, and earn the right to speak meaningfully to their situations, then we need to learn to see through Chinese eyes.

This means learning to become comfortable with a new concept of normal, one that is defined and shaped by the Chinese people around us. Of course, there will be a lot of variety of opinion amongst Chinese people about what is normal for them. This is one reason why as foreigners we often find ourselves drawn to people more on the cultural margins. To the degree that a given set of Chinese people are also cultural outsiders, their "fringy" tastes may overlap more neatly with some of ours.

And, of course, to learn to function within, rather than fighting against, the Chinese cultural sense of normal does not mean we must surrender our calling as Christians to speak prophetically to the world. As citizens of heaven we are beholden and committed to a more authoritative standard of normalto a normative set of rules that transcends all earthly cultures, including those of both China and our home. But as long as we are in China, we need to relate our citizenship in the Heavenly Kingdom to the citizens of China, rather than to the citizens of wherever we came from.

The point is, this is a picture of a Chinese Santa, a Santa which is perfectly entitled to look different from my Santa or your Santa. Though I still can't help hoping that this particular version of Santa won't catch on.



Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio