I walked into a bookstore the other day and immediately heard the unmistakable voice of Bing Crosby crooning, “I’m dreaming of a whiiiiitttteee Christmas….” Keep dreaming, Bing. It’s 76 degrees outside (today, but tomorrow we cool down to 72).
Christmas, of course, is not a holiday in Taiwan. Back in the day of the six day work week, many schools and businesses would take off December 25th because it is (conveniently enough) Constitution Day, a rather minor administrative holiday, but that practice was disbanded when Saturdays at work came to an end, and I will be in class next week. Because my midterm is scheduled for December 31 and January 2 (we have January 1st off, but not really, given the whole major-test-the-next-day issue), I can’t really afford to be out of class either day. Still, it has been interesting to see how the Christian/western holiday season has “translated” into Chinese.
Mostly, Christmas is sort of a early precursor to Valentine’s Day – people send cards to loved ones, go to dinner or have dates with spouses or significant others, and eat assorted Christmas sweets. (Incidentally, I’ve discovered that anything is a Christmas treat if you name it as such; my pastor’s wife gave me a bag of “Christmas melon ‘cakes,'” and I just finished the last of my “Christmas Kit-Kats.”) This “Christmas is for lovers” mentality does a great deal to explain the hearts and teddy bears that abound in Christmas cards and decorations (it does nothing, however, to further one’s understanding of the periodic use of jack-o-lanterns on products with a holiday motif). There is no mistletoe, though, because most Chinese and Taiwanese condemn public kissing or other displays of affection as ‘icky’ (that’s a quote from my language partner). Another common theme is four-leaf clovers, which (of course) stand for good luck and therefore (by Chinese standards) are emblematic of one’s hopes for the new year, and since western new year is only a week after Christmas, lots of Christmas cards are bright green with large glittery clover. It’s impeccable logic, really.
This brings us to the most important “Christmas tradition” to catch on in Taipei: the sending of Christmas cards. These cards are often in English, and have pictures of snowy New England landscapes and Santa at work (curiously, usually many Santas at work together, all driving sleighs pulled exclusively by red-nosed reindeer, giving the impression that there is some sort of community of “Christmas Old Men” or “Christmas Grandfathers” – the two translations of “Santa Claus” – at work together, perhaps dividing the world into territories so each can cover a manageable chunk for one night, maybe unionizing to protect their rights and ensure fair wages…. Really, it is a much more pragmatic take on the whole legend). Most cards carry meaningful messages, such as:
“May the Spirit of Christmas” (yes, it stops right there)
“May the spirit of the season flow you all year,” or
“Today Santa prepares presence to make happy gor the nice kid.”
My personal favorite reads, “May your season be filled with love and joy, Kill the Raiders!” (I see several possibilities for what happened here: it could be a catastrophic breakdown in translation, or some kind of a mix-up at the printer. Perhaps the card was penned by a rabid Broncos fan. Hard to say.)
Every store is playing Christmas music, usually the full-fledged religious variety, not the watered-down secular “Frosty the Snowman” stuff (the major exception is the imported Japanese holiday tunes, which will be completely incomprehensible to my unlearned ears, but then have a line in English like “I’m in love with Santa Claus” to make you really start to wonder what the rest of the song is about). I find this sort of sad; I sometimes lament all the non-Christ Christmas stuff going on at home this time of year, but at least there is an awareness there that Christmas was originally a religious holiday, but then the shops and advertisements began to take pains to avoid any references to this fact for fear that one might not shop enough. Here the whole concept of Christmas is so utterly meaningless that an extended chorus of “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the Starbucks loudspeaker is not only not offensive, it is usually unnoticed.
Most Christmas music is in English, though, which is part of why it goes unnoticed. For example, consider the official translation of “O Holy Night” into Chinese. It can be a new challenge for Heidi on Christmas Eve this year…. (reference to my dad’s family, for anyone thinking, “Heidi who?” right now).
The “pinyin” is romanized pronunciation, that is, phonetic words written to describe how the spoken words sound; this permits a (decidedly non-standard) approach to making Chinese characters, usually all calligraphy, to be butchered by us foreigners. For each “word”, there are accompanying numbers that stand for which tone applies to the particular word pronunciation; they are:
1- high tone
2- rising tone
3- low tone
4- falling tone. (It is quite simple …. hah!).
Actually, it is a good example of how difficult translation between English and Chinese can be – if you read the Chinese version by character – and not by long phrases, implied meanings, reordering Chinese grammar into English usage, you’d be left thinking, “huh?” (Disclaimer for what follows: This, of course, is true for word-by-word translations between any two languages from different linguistic stems, and should only be done for entertainment value, not taken seriously, of course.)
First- here, for all of you forgetful types, is the first verse of the song in its standard English form: “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shinging; it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and my soul felt its worth.”
Now, in the revised version, the song starts off, “Ah, holy good night! Crowd stars illuminate really show off bright light, this night good time dear saving advocate just before dust. World people drown in vice, whole land already sin evil truly become full, directly advocate arrives, my soul feel treasure precious.”
Actually, it all makes sense to me except for the “just before dust” part, which should correspond with “birth.” I can’t find a dust/birth idiom in my dictionary, but if I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know (ashes to ashes, and dust to dust…. but that is not a part of Chinese cultural heritage, now is it? Besides which, it would better correspond with death…).
It is impossible not to be homesick during the holidays, and as much as I enjoy the random plastic trees (just like our plastic tree at home… sniff), omnipresent tinsel, and (at one school near my house) the fence decorations that bear a suspicious resemblance to balled-up tinfoil, I’ll be glad when it is all over. But in the meantime, wherever you are in the world, I wish you a Merry Christmas (and, of course, Kill the Raiders).
Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen