Dreaming of a white Christmas…

Did you know that Buddhists love Christmas? Neither did I. Well, it’s either that or they are shamelessly kissing up to the tourists. I can’t figure out which.

The Christmas decorations that festoon this palm tree jungle line every road, shopping mall and public square. The sheer number of neon Santas and fluorescent reindeer I have seen throughout the city put the holiday spirit of some U.S. cities to shame. That being said, I don’t think they get it. It’s almost as if the people of Bangkok banded together and raided a few Walmarts, snagging the most tacky light displays they could find.

“I’ve got the fat Santa with twinkle lights!”

“I grabbed the neon snowman that plays ‘Let it Snow!’ And I picked up all the Santa hats with Mickey Mouse ears I could find.”

“Good work. Just grab the blue light-up Star of David and we can wrap this up.”

Even the department stores and local grocers play Christmas music. It’s a holiday lover’s paradise here. Except that it feels like July.

Though I won’t be going home for Christmas this year _ the one year that seems to promise a fresh snowfall _ I will be here celebrating the holiday with friends. A Christmas dinner, some eggnog and a night of karaoke (not sure how this ties into it but I’m keeping an open mind) are all in store for the big day.

I hope you all find yourselves in the warm company of family and friends, and that your holiday is filled with much happiness and love.

Music by Dean Martin.

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A 10-day winter in Beijing

This man has a serious cold. He keeps hacking and coughing. He’s hocking up a big … Eww.

The array of polyphonic public spitting sounds in Beijing is just one of the many cultural idiosyncrasies that I found in China. Slurping, shoving and a general aggression also top the list.

But Beijing is not all mucus and bruised elbows. The city is charmingly old-world with its traditional Chinese architecture, a preference for two-wheeled transportation and an, albeit dwindling, maze of hutongs, or narrow alleys that zigzag around older courtyard residences. At times the likeness is so similar to what one might expect from a dynastic rendering of the city that it’s easy to forget it is 2008. But step out onto the busy eight-lane streets (try not to get hit) and see that Beijing is a modern city complete with electric buses, expansive pedestrian-only shopping streets and sophisticated restaurants. And that other moniker of industrial and urban progress … smog.

I stayed in a small hostel off a quiet hutong, close to the Forbidden City. The first two days I stayed close, exploring the area’s well-preserved remnants of imperial culture and enjoying some quiet afternoons in a cafe sipping tea (in part to avoid the shock of the cold weather my body refused to acclimatize to). I noticed that within an hour of being outside my throat would grow sore and a headache would form. I suspected pollution, but since I couldn’t see it, I had myself convinced that the government’s push to clear the air ahead of the Olympics had done the trick. Sure. A trip to Tiananmen Square on day three put to rest all idealism I had about Beijing’s efforts. Forget the scarf I had fashioned into a gas mask; I wanted a real one. Quite simply, nothing prepares you for the fog-like quality of the pollution. Not only can you taste it, but your ability to see it only serves to further gross you out.

However, the choking, foul air I experienced one day, rolled into a brilliant blue-sky day the next (though I’m told this is not common). I toured the major landmark sites, attempted to communicate with taxi drivers using my adept pantomiming skills, and tried my best to avoid confrontation with angry Chinese women _ a test I failed twice. But with all bad experiences come valuable lessons:

1) Watch out for bicyclists before opening a car door.

(This lesson is quite self-explanatory, though be extra vigilant about this in China. The woman whose finger you nicked with the door will scream, gesture wildly, draw a crowd and do everything short of making a federal case of it.)

2) Don’t eat sea snake.

A night spent perusing the exotic offerings at the Donghuamen Night Market _ a vast stretch of food stalls selling everything from scorpions to squid _ turned to sampling. A chicken skewer here. A few dumplings there. And not one to walk away without at least attempting adventure, I settled on a stick of sea snake. But when the busker charged me more than double the listed price, I balked. Then I pleaded for my money back. She yelled. I yelled. The incident ended with my money being slapped onto a pile a octopus. That and the sea snake _ whose minimal value I fought so successfully to defend _ smelled curiously of sweaty butt. Yum.

Music by Ben Harper.