Being an anthropologist is an incredible adventure, and one that I am really fortunate to be having. I am enormously privileged to be spending large amounts of time in a culture radically unalike my own, making friends with people who hold completely different views on the world, and, in the process learning a lot about both myself, and also about what makes us human (which is, after all, the point of anthropology).
However, living in a village in North China also has its difficulties: irregular water supplies, substandard housing and extreme climates, to name but a few. But the thing that really affects me at times is the solitary nature of fieldwork. Being a lone researcher far away from your family and friends is difficult, and especially so on Christmas Day when you know that those you love are at home celebrating together.
So what is Christmas like in the Chinese countryside? While urban Chinese shopping malls are increasingly adopting lavish Christmas decorations, in my rural Chinese fieldsite it is largely just a normal day. The only material sign of Christmas was a couple of subdued Santa decorations affixed to the door of a shop that sells snacks to local school children.
Imagine my delight, then, when I visited QZone (QQ‘s version of Facebook) this morning to be greeted by an image of Santa wearing nothing but a bobble-hat and a pair of underpants. A speech bubble next to the jolly old fellow pleaded “help my find clothes!”
Clicking on Santa bought me to an arcade-style game where I controlled the semi-dressed Father Christmas with the arrow keys directing him to catch falling snowflakes, baubles and candy canes. Capturing this yuletide precipitation resulted in Santa gradually accumulating both points and items of clothing. At the end of the game these points could be exchanged for a virtual ‘Christmas gift’: snowmen, santa hats, Christmas trees, etc., that could be posted with a comment onto the QZone page of a friend. Real stuffed santa gifts were also available for purchase to be delivered to a recipient of one’s choice.
Over the course of Christmas Day, I have also received many Christmas greetings, or ‘blessings’ (zhufu) from my informants via QQ and WeChat. Many of these greeting were memes featuring dancing Santas, Christmas trees and other festive images. Even QQ’s login pages and mobile app had special Christmas-themed landing pages and QZone skins for one’s homepage.
It struck me that, in many ways, Christmas as experienced on QQ is even more lively than that on Facebook, which retains it’s sombre blue-and-white page over the festive season. I think this can be partly explained by the fact that many of my informants understand Christmas to be, as they explain to me, ‘your Chinese New Year’ (nimen de guonian). One of the key features of Chinese New Year is a ‘hot and noisy’ (re’nao) atmosphere, when public places fill with people wearing bright new clothes, visiting relatives, setting off firecrackers. The Christmas that appears in Chinese social media seems to be a Christmas that emphasises this ‘hot and noisy’ atmosphere – one full of fun, games, gifting and pleasure.
It is exciting to see the Chinese appropriating Christmas, and making meaning out of it within their own culture. And for me, at the very least, being able to spending Christmas with a half-naked Santa certainly eases the homesickness.