A Very Merry Un-Christmas

On Friday, I had a goofy holiday moment that spurred a little American Christmas shopping nostalgia– something I thought I would never have.  And it was at Starbucks, of all places.  

I was meeting a Taiwanese research contact for lunch in the area, and in the morning I had filed my Vietnam visa paperwork in record time, so I was looking for a cafe to fill my downtime with writing.  Since Nanjing East Road is pretty corporate, I was lucky to find a Starbucks amid banks, corporate offices, hotels, and a whole lot of roadwork construction.

I also haven’t actually been inside a Starbucks coffee shop for months, and haven’t bought a drink since September, when there was a buy-1-drink-get-1-free deal. Compared with local Taiwanese coffee and even 7-11, Starbucks is just SO expensive! Not worth it.  I can usually eat a full lunch (often with drink included) for the less than a Starbucks small latte.  But today I was in a great mood and not caring too much about money– my visa was sorted, the fee was cheaper than I thought, and I’ve been LOVING Taipei December weather.

Despite all of this though, I haven’t really been feeling the “holiday spirit” much.  Now I kind of wonder if Americans in the Northeast use the “holiday spirit” as a device to bolster sinking feelings about the weather getting colder and the days getting darker.  But in Taiwan, Christmas is definitely an afterthought, not a major holiday.  And no need for excessive shopping– I did ALL of my Christmas shopping in one day at the Shi Da Night Market, and traveling in Tainan (more on gift giving to come later).  So although my awesome roommate Susan has decorated a small synthetic Christmas tree that lives in our living room all year (it’s a nice source of green!), any other festivities of the American variety have to be self-initiated.

So you might imagine my surprise when I walked into Starbucks, and felt like I had taken a time machine back to Boston– because it looked EXACTLY like every Starbucks in America has ever looked at Christmas time.  The interior was decked out in reds, snowflakes, decorative holiday sprigs of holly and colored Christmas tree balls. Usually I don’t even notice this, when heaped upon every other holiday decoration in every other store– and Starbucks merely means I can get a quick caffeine respite from a day of marathon xmas shopping at the mall or downtown city neighborhood.

On Long Wharf in my hometown, the windmill gets its holiday lights, and the Lions Club sells Christmas trees. All in the salty, freezing spray of the nearby bay. Merry Christmas Sag Harbor!

With this deluge of sudden decoration, I remembered all of a sudden: the holiday village light show in the small town where I grew up, how all the pine trees in town would get covered in lights, how houses would create winter scenes on their snow-covered lawns that brightened up the dark streets at night (aka after 4pm).  I actually miss that stuff– who knew?  Here, at Starbucks, was a tiny little international embassy of American commercial kitsch.  While I never thought I’d miss that side of Christmas at all, I found it surprisingly charming.

Then to my amusement, the barista insisted on speaking only English to me. Just when I was so pleased that I knew ALL of the Chinese words (and how to pronounce them) for my whole order: Caramel Macchiato with a small Belgian style waffle (cookie/pastry thing)  焦糖瑪奇朵(jiaotang maqiduo) 跟比利時鬆餅 (gen bilishi songbing).  But the friendly employee spoke English so adamantly back to me– just as adamantly as I spoke Chinese to him– that I figured the graceful thing was to relent, speak English, and compliment him on it.  He was so triumphant when he said “For here, or to go?” that I chuckled internally, and recalled my happiness when I first learned to say “Wai dai!” (to go) in Chinese.  Merry Christmas, barista– your English is quite good!

It’s true that I don’t really miss American food anymore, and I don’t have many American items that I lack or need.  But man, Starbucks, what an unexpected trip down memory lane.  This is the first (and last) time that I’ll be grateful that you’re exactly as ridiculously and consistently as American as you are.

This photo published in the Sag Harbor Express, the local paper. Click here to read more Sag Harbor news from the article it illustrated!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Very Merry Un-Christmas

  1. Erin

    Hey, Kim! I know what you mean about the holiday spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever sent out Christmas cards before. I got a message on Facebook, asking for my address to send me a Christmas card (a couple weeks back). I decided Christmas cards were an amazing idea. I’ve found some of the most adorable Christmas cards here…some as cheap as 7 NT, and it’s only 13 NT to mail them back to the States. I’ve sent out about 30 cards, bought a small poinsettia at Jialifu, and am getting ready to mail some Christmas packages home. We had a holiday party in Yilan this weekend–Andrew, Jill, and Kyle even managed to make eggnog.

    I think part of the reason it’s hitting hard this year, is because I’ve been used to a school schedule that revolves around Christmas–the semester ends in time for you to go home and see your family. The school semester here is 20 weeks–winter break doesn’t start until January 20 (that’s why the midyear conference is that weekend).

  2. Rose

    To be absolutely honest, if you continue to speak Chinese to Taiwanese who are speaking to you in English, eventually you will break them down or they’ll get the point. You have to be confident and just say it strongly in Chinese (not easy, I know).

    加油!

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