Since mid-November, the Golden Century Mall was blaring out a Christmas mix on repeat.
I first walked into the Golden Century Mall at the end of August, a few days after arriving in Nanjing. Although I would have probably gone there anyway, sooner or later, that first time was really just in order to find shelter from the rain. But retrospectively, that became a meaningfully symbolic first encounter, since the Golden Century Mall – or ‘the Golden’ as I call it – quickly became my safe place in Nanjing. I go there in the daytime to sit at the little Costa Coffee tucked away on level five and read a book or study; and I go there in the late evenings for a quiet stroll along empty luxury stores and Western restaurants. In this chaotic city, with road-works, honking scooters and people shouting everywhere, walking along the clean, quiet floors of ‘the Golden’ is like visiting a spa.
Needless to say, that Christmas mix has had a major impact on my mood.
Mind you, it’s not that I hate Christmas – I used to rather like it actually. Back home in Australia, Christmas was holidays and beach time – fish and chips on the sand, barbecues in friends’ backyards, volley-ball. Then during my time In Berlin, I always took a plane south for Christmas – Spain, Italy, Morrocco, Senegal – so that I could get some heat back inside me, and these were always happy times. Even last year, my contract in Tianjin ended right on Christmas Eve, and I flew directly to Yunnan for much nicer air and livable temperatures. But this year, Nanjing sucked out all my energy, and I haven’t even been able to plan a trip away. Not that I would know where to go: my dreams of exotic travels are gone. I don’t even crave home anymore: I’ve been away too long for it to make any sense.
– I think China’s just affecting my mental health.
– I’m finding it really hard to relax.
– It’s just the air, and the weather, and the people – everything’s just really weird and aggressive.
– Well, I try to get a massage every week, that helps a bit.
– I guess, I haven’t really made friends. I don’t know, the expats are just… the ones I met have been actually pretty vile.
– Oh, just men drooling over Chinese girls, and the women, I don’t know, they’re just air-heads, the ones I spoke to.
– Thanks, I might try to do that – have a good night!
I don’t want to develop a facebook addiction, but it’s the only thing that gets me out of here. That and streaming movies. Except when my VPN isn’t working, or my internet is down, and then I get even more depressed. All I want for Christmas is just – to have myself a merry little Christmas. It’s not asking for much, it’s just what the soundtrack is telling me to do. But I don’t have any faithful friends here, to gather near to me once more.
And on top of that, now my safe place is making me crazy. When I sit at the Costa Coffee trying to read, all I can think about is Christmas, Christmas everywhere. They’ve done this weird thing too: they’ve hung a full set of stuffed reindeers upside down over their indoor ice-rink. Well yes, there’s an indoor ice-rink inside the Golden, on level four, you can see it from the Costa and that’s pretty weird already. But the reindeers are just, really bizarre. I mean, what next? indoor snowflakes? A live-in Santa? Make-your-own-snowman workshops for the kids? So yes, now I decided every time I come to the Golden, I’m just going to lie down on the floor for a minute, and look up at the reindeers, dreaming of a white Christmas. It sounds crazy, but it’s working for me.
I was lying on the floor like that when the face of a young woman with too much make up on bent over me. “Excuse me, are you from America?” She needed more flesh on her bones, but at least she was polite. “I’m from Australia”, I replied, standing up. I almost hoped she was from the mall and would ask me to leave, but no: there was a full TV crew behind her. Maybe they were shooting this new program showing foreigners in embarrassing positions, and I’d just been caught?
“Would you like to do an interview with us? Share about Christmas in your country?”
I don’t know what came into me, but that’s when I thought, you know what, I’m just gonna make shit up. “Sure,” I said, “can we do it now?” I don’t know, it was the setting, the Christmas music, the ice-rink: I stood up, facing the cameras, and I started my riff.
“In Australia, we’ve got a summer Christmas, it’s not cold like here. So there’s a few strange customs. Everyone wears a swimsuit for lunch, because we’re all on the beach, but the women wear gloves and the men a jacket and tie, so it’s a bit formal. Also, some families do the Christmas race: the kids all dress up as reindeers, and they must run to the place where all the presents are: it’s a lot of fun. And then, all December, we play ‘spot Santa’ – that’s what I was doing here – you lie down on your back, and look up in the sky, trying to spot the flying sleigh. There’s people spotting him every year, and you see pictures in the paper – I wonder if I’m gonna spot him this year.”
The skinny woman with too much make-up on nodded all the way, then she politely said “thank you”, and handed a name-card: I should send her an email to find out when the program was on. I’m not sure if they’re gonna show the footage, but it would be fun if they did. I mean, it sounds outrageous, but I’m sure there’s been guys on drugs to lie down on the ground and play Spot Santa somewhere in Australia.
The TV crew left, and I lay down again. The rein-deers had a mysterious kind of sparkle, maybe their fur was made of shiny material, or maybe that was just an effect of the Golden Century Mall spotlights reflected on the flat surface of ice below. Jingle bells were jingling through the air, mingling with the wafts of coffee from Costa. Wave after wave of new families descended from the nearby escalators, alternating girls in yellow boots and oddly quiet little boys. Then for a second, the music stopped, and the shrill voice of a child echoed around, shouting ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’.
Then the music started again, “Silent Night” – and for the first time in a very long while, I felt happy, calm and peaceful.
NOTE: This story is the third in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.