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2004 Christmas Message

I remain in China, once more playing Santa Claus for Chinese Children. Christians in China celebrate by lighting their houses with beautiful paper lanterns and decorating their Christmas trees, or ‘Trees of Light’, with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns. Chinese Children await a visit from Santa Claus, or the ‘Chinglish’ Christmas Old Man.

One Christmas tradition that most Chinese enjoy is the giving of apples on Christmas eve. The apple symbolizes friendship, good health, and safety. If a peanut is attached to the apple you are wished a lifetime of safety. I look forward to enjoying a feast of apples and peanuts again this year. It is said that if you peel an Apple on New Year’s eve, looking only at the apple in a mirror and peel it without breaking the ‘snake’ you will marry whomever you are thinking of whilst you complete the task. Given the concentration this would take, enough universal energy would be generated to at least make a connection with the object of our desires.

Since the vast majority of the Chinese people are not Christian, the main winter festival in China the Chinese New Year which is a lunar New Year so it occurs on a different date each year. The Chinese winter holiday blends into a three day New Year’s celebration as part of the 14 day Spring Festival. Chinese New Year is a time when children receive new clothing, toys, and money in red (for good luck) envelopes. Sometimes children are taken on a tour of relative’s houses so they can add to their red envelope which is reminiscent of collecting candy door to door at Halloween.

Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year rolled into one which may be why the celebration lasts for three days. People travel from all over China to return to their family home for the New Year’s celebration creating a logistical transport nightmare in the process. However, the experience of travelling en masse is soon forgotten with a 3 day feast shared with family. Family is perhaps more important in the lives of Chinese than many other countries because family is the only social security and safety net available to most Chinese. An important aspect of the New Year celebration is the worship of ancestors. Portraits and paintings of ancestors are brought out and hung in the main room of the home. Fireworks are used to awaken the ancestors and again to send them ‘home’ to the spirit plane after the celebrations are over.

One of the most fascinating aspects of life in China is the constant change. What is so today is not so tomorrow. I continue to marvel at the ability of the Chinese people to adapt and to flow with the constant change. We look for order, for consistency and at least for the illusion of control, but the majority of Chinese seem to thrive on chaos, to flow like a river around every obstacle placed in their path. We will often stand, banging our head against a wall, loudly demanding that the wall be removed, usually patting ourselves on the back for rallying against the wall.

One day I spoke about my first journey to Australia from England as a three year old immigrating with my family by way of an international passenger liner which once sailed the oceans of the world. The children were placed in a day care center which was fenced because a ship can be a dangerous place for young children. I hated it, I felt that I was caged and at 3 years old, I would escape from my ‘cage’ each day, proudly announcing to my parents… “I escaped”. A student told me that she hated cages. When I asked her why, she explained that when she was young, she was left in a cage while her parents worked. Her grandparents had died when she was very young, too young for school. Without grandparents, there was no support network for the family because everybody in the community needed to work to scratch together a meager living and literally feed, house and clothe their families. There were no social services. If people could not work they starved. A harsh environment which still exists, alongside modern China.

Without a support network, and being unable to take their child to work with them, her parents had little choice but to leave her safe in a cage, while they were away. Regardless of the circumstances, my initial reaction was to be horrified, and to indignantly explain that in a civilized country she would have been removed from her parents and given ‘new parents’ who would be able to care for her properly.

Later, I considered the situation that my student’s parents were faced with. I could see that they literally had no other way to keep their child safe. They had not caged their child because they were uncaring, cruel, selfish or even just bad parents. They had caged their daughter because without a support network, they had no other way to protect their little girl. They caged her because they love her and wanted her to be safe. I am sure that it broke their hearts every time they did so.

There are certainly two China’s and I do not refer to the political Taiwan issue. The current generation of Chinese youth exist, often caught between these two Chinas. The harsh, unforgiving China of their parents. The China where families live in one or two small rooms, where they share a communal toilet, often little more than a ditch without plumbing, and where they collect bad water for a communal location which stains and damages their teeth. The China where working more than 12 hours a day produces barely enough to live on, where food is of low quality and nutrition unheard of. A China from which the fear of hunger and not having shelter is not only born, but also very real. A China which exists throughout China, often side by side with the new China. A China hidden from foreigners and modern Chinese by walls, but a China which is very real to any who choose to look beyond the façade. I have ventured behind the walls in cities and in the countryside. I have been in places where the inhabitants have never seen a foreigner so they stare in disbelief. I have never felt unsafe, but I have felt that I do not belong. Living in the new China as I do, it is easy to forget that the old China exists.

The new China, the China of the children of today’s youth, is a modern developed society, full of fashion labels, fast food and department stores. The youth who enjoy this new China, some of whose parents remain in the old China, are like kids in a candy store. The clothing is bright, sometimes outlandish, full of sparkles and glitter… and not just the girls. Colors are mixed as much as styles to create a uniquely Chinese sense of fashion. Some of their outfits are a delight to behold, and an absolute contrast to the drab grays, browns and olive greens of old China. New China is loud, it is exciting, it is friendly, and full of anticipation for the future. Old China is much quieter, full of resignation of their fate, the people stand apart, and there is a feeling of acceptance without ambition. As much as new China feels full of hope, old China feels that there is no hope.

New China is full of life, bubbling over with energy. Old China feels lifeless, an existence more than a life. China is transforming rapidly, but it is impossible to complete the transition overnight. It will take a generation and more to complete the process, many in old China will die without ever having seen the new China. Souls will still be born, live and die in the harsh environment which is old China.

Sometimes, I encounter ‘Christian Missionaries’ who come to China to teach English in Chinese Universities. Usually they go to first tier universities where they live in modern Western style apartments. Their missionary work is to work without pay and attempt to convert Chinese students their particular religious brand in their spare time. The universities take them as cheap labor so they take them on because they can spend their budgets elsewhere. Seldom do they venture off campus where they might encounter real China. It seems to me that true missionaries would be working in old China where they could do some real good. Not that I work in old China, but I don’t pretend to be a missionary either.

The existence of two Chinas is in some ways a physical manifestation of the reality that there exists two earths. An earth which is full of fear and an earth which is full love. Two earths, like the two Chinas which exist simultaneously, occupying the same place and time but which seldom meet. When I ask Chinese people ‘what has changed in China?’ I am sometimes told about the physical changes, the modern buildings, the increased freedom, the growing economy, but mostly I am told that the Chinese people are friendlier and happier. It seems that to the Chinese, the change in people’s attitudes and outlook is the most tangible and real change that has taken place. When I ask about their fears, I am effectively referred to old China, as even well off and well fed Chinese talk of a fear of not having enough food, or not having clean water, or heat in the winter.

The youth of China straddle the two Chinas, the China of their parents and the China of their children, just as so very many souls throughout the world straddle the two earths, the earth based on fear and the earth based on love.

China is proof that a country, or indeed an individual cannot be judged based on media reports, or government (any government) ‘spin’. Whenever we learn the truth of any situation, we learn that it is different from that portrayed by the media and government ‘spin doctors’ who are often one and the same. We can safely assume that the truth according to the media and government ‘spin doctors’ is anything but the truth. Nevertheless, we continue to allow those who would control us through fear and lies to convince us that their spin is true….. despite our knowing that it is not true.

We need to learn to trust ourselves, and our own instincts, and to not accept the words of those who have demonstrated a capacity and a desire to distort the truth. People, who in more honorable times would have been shamed as liars and charlatans. A glass of salt water does not really become other than it is by the addition of a little sugar. Nor does a packet of lies become other than it is by a few words, a few canned phrases of truth, included to mislead us. Truth used to sell lies.

This Christmas, give yourself a present for life, for your life, for a better life, for the future. Give yourself a belief in yourself, and in your instinct. Accept your inner knowledge and discard the lies you are fed on a daily basis. Accept the truth of love and reject the lies and fear designed to control us.

Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Song

Mel Tormé (c) 1946
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey
and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys
and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer
really know how to fly.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it's been said
many times, many ways

Merry Christmas to you.


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