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Christmas Day - Business as Usual E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Matthew Grist
Christmas in China doesn’t happen on Christmas Day. The decorations and Christmas music have been progressively increasing throughout December, but today was just another day, with shops and eateries all plying their daily trade. The canteen, for example, doesn’t have any special Christmas food. This is understandable: the Chinese have their own cultural days and festivals.

This morning, sitting in the Hotel lobby and doing a little study, (the lobby is cooler than my room!) I overheard a conversation between two Chinese women, who must have been practicing their English, (otherwise I doubt I would have been able to understand very much of their conversation!) in which they talked about young people in China today, and discussed why it might be that more and more of them are starting to celebrate Christmas, and whether in consequence they are gradually identifying less with the Chinese festivals.

The biggest Chinese festival is of course the Spring Festival, occurring after we are back in Australia. I understand that at this time of year a lot of people go home to spend time with their family, overloading the already busy public transport networks, so if you are in China at the time of the Spring Festival, it’s very wise to plan not to be travelling at all, but to stay put until things come back to normal. I have also been told that the snow we enjoyed on Christmas eve is something of a rarity in Xi’an, occurring only twice or so each winter. This makes the timing of it all the more heartening for us homesick westerners. (Not that it snows at home – but it made this morning feel a bit more like Christmas day for us.) Today was another beautifully sunny day, and by sunset most of the snow had melted.

My own Christmas celebrations were a little low-key, apart from voice-chatting with family back in Tasmania, which is always a big encouragement to me. I watched “The Blackadder Christmas Carol” on my iPhone – a heartwarming tale if ever there was one, featuring some footage that I’m sure Tony Robinson would love to forget. Then I watched a German comedy program (on the iPhone again) and, after a stir-fry redolent with Sichuan Pepper, heated up a Coles Bakery Mini Christmas Pudding (brought with me from Australia) by immersing the punnet in boiling water for a while. The pudding was actually very tasty, and warmed through quite satisfactorily, although custard would have been a welcome addition.

Here in China, custard, cheese and chocolate are not available, at least, not in recognisable forms. (I have already mentioned the ersatz ice-cream, which I suspect is made with soy powder. I still haven’t tried any.) There are products sold as chocolate, but after trying one, I decided that it was some form of faintly sweet biscuit, sparingly encrusted with a substance bearing only a superficial resemblance to real chocolate. Chocolate addicts beware: bring your own if you are coming here. The only cheese I have seen is “American Singles” (sounds highly appetising) in the imports section of a large supermarket.

I decided that cheese imported from America wasn’t worth spending any money on, let alone the high price asked for goods imported from the USA. There is, however, yoghurt, which tastes like real yoghurt, but is very runny, almost a liquid. It is relatively expensive, but I think I may buy some more tomorrow, as a Christmas treat.

When shopping in China, it is advisable to observe other shoppers closely, and learn how things are done. Being a society of such large numbers, there are ways of doing things that allow large numbers of people to use a particular service with a maximum of efficiency and speed. It seems like people all know the rules without needing to be told, so that everything runs smoothly. Therefore, if a westerner comes along and doesn’t know how things work, it can really throw a spanner in the works.

At the Vanguard supermarket, for example, if you bring something to the register and it doesn’t have a price or a barcode, the assistant may well just toss it aside. There is no call of “price check on register 3″ and, if you really need the item, you will need to come back again and get one with the price on it. Fruit and vegetables need to be pre-weighed and priced in the grocery section, which makes the checkout process much faster, so long as you know to get the items weighed, and don’t just rock up at the register with unweighed groceries. Additionally, you need to go to the right weighing station – don’t take your fruit to the one that just does groceries, as I’ve tried to do more than once until I worked out why the staff were rolling their eyes at me.

Another thing you notice in Vanguard is the large number of staff on duty – which I assume is only possible by virtue of the low salaries paid here in comparison with Australia. In any department selling more expensive items, there will be staff constantly on duty waiting to assist customers to make their selections. Furthermore, there are staff full-time on duty at the end of each inclinator track, ready to assist customers with trolleys to negotiate the transition to level ground again. In the books, music and electronics sections, purchases must be made at the relevant desk, and not taken down to the main cash registers on the ground level. (By the way, China observes the same floor numbering convention as America, such that the ground floor is called the first floor, and the next floor up is the second floor.).

Often, one assistant has to fill out a paper form, detailing your purchases, and this form is passed to the cashier who rings up the purchases and collects your payment. Lately, I have been going as often as possible to the smaller supermarket (only one level!) here on campus, which is often cheaper, is much closer – directly opposite our hotel, and is more convenient because we can pay with our campus card, instead of fiddling about with cash and counting change.

Our valuable Editor Matthew Grist has been with us since Tuesday, 28 December 2010.

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+2 #2 CMarsland 2011-03-16 06:51
lol checkouts that are fast and efficient... i haven't seen one.

Matthew you need to check out Metro. It has cheese from all over the world (camembert, chedder, gouda etc..)
+2 #1 gorch 2011-01-30 19:30
"Being a society of such large numbers, there are ways of doing things that allow large numbers of people to use a particular service with a maximum of efficiency and speed. It seems like people all know the rules without needing to be told, so that everything runs smoothly."

Yes... and Chinese are quiet and polite. And their capital is Tokyo...

(where did I spend my last three years?)

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