'Tis the season to be lonely

A Christmas gone wrong in Shanghai – by Tom Pellman


I realised I wasn’t ready to handle Christmas alone around 5pm Christmas Eve. It was 2007, and I was sitting in the Shanghai office of the media company I worked for at the time. Ricky and Pang Pang from design were two of the few people still hanging around. Most of my foreign colleagues had left days ago, including my boss. I had a mountain of work to get done, but I wasn’t working on Christmas Eve because of my deadlines. I was still at the office because I didn’t have anywhere else to be.

I had moved to Shanghai from Kunming three months ago and knew next to no one in the new city. Between moves, I’d visited my home in US in October. Between that recent visit and being broke from a visa run to Hong Kong and an IKEA shopping spree, I wouldn’t be going home for Christmas, my first away from family.

My apartment, on Guangxi Road, had single-pane windows that let in the damp cold along with sounds of Yanan Highway leading down to the Bund. I lived in walking distance from my office on Huaihai Road, and worked long hours those first few months. When I came home late I got used to taking a swig from the bottle of Jameson whisky I kept near the front door, before taking off my coat.

As I worked on Christmas Eve, I chatted online with Chris, one of my closest friends who still lived in Kunming. He wrote that he and his now-wife Lily were prepping for hosting a Christmas party that night. I asked hungrily for details – who would come that I knew, what would they eat and drink. But more than anything, I recall a vivid and comforting image of waking up on Christmas morning in their apartment, on their sofa. That’s when I realised I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas morning.

I joked with Chris about booking an impromptu flight to make the party. And then I did it. It was a nonrefundable round trip ticket for three days. It left from Pudong airport in two hours.

I shut down my computer and raced home to throw clothes in a bag. I ran by the giant Christmas tree in front of Times Square on Huaihai Road, giddy. For whatever reason, the site I booked the ticket with required me to come to their office to pick up a paper ticket, where I could pay in cash. By the time I’d been home, withdrawn money, found a cab and been up to the offices of the travel agency – to date, the slowest elevator I’ve ever been in – I was stressed about the time.

Shanghai’s Pudong airport always feels twice as far as you remember it being. I’d landed a good, sympathetic cab driver who drove like a maniac once he heard my plight, weaving through the sparse highway traffic. He kept a caged live cricket in the inside pocket of his coat that chirped. I’d seen crickets kept on the street before but never in a cab. I asked the driver why he kept his pet in his pocket.

“He likes the warmth,” the driver explained. “This way he cries out more. Listening to him reminds me of the countryside. It’s relaxing.”

I told him I agreed but in truth I was tense as ever. I don’t think we talked about much else. I just remember staring at the dashboard clock and listening to that cricket chirp and chirp as we did 120 kmh, zooming East.

When we pulled up to the terminal twenty-five minutes before my flight, I relaxed slightly. I raced to the check-in counter but they refused to let me board. I was supposed to have been there thirty minutes prior to departure. I pleaded and yelled and threatened and tried invoking the sacredness of spending Christmas with my fellow laowai. They wouldn’t budge. The gate was closing. The ticket was gone.

I paced around the airport lobby shell-shocked, dreading the call I would make to Chris next. I remember starting that phone call still furious with the airline but, hearing his apologetic voice on the other end, mellowing into sadness. I wandered back outside the terminal and got on a shuttle bus that would take me back to People’s Square in the rain that had begun to fall.

I don’t miss many flights, but when I do it puts me in a strange, almost fatalistic mood. I feel displaced, out of time, unaccounted for – that I’m living out borrowed hours of a parallel life. I get an agitated feeling that fate must explain why I’m here and not there, where I was clearly supposed to have been. I also typically start drinking to expedite the arrival of fate.

It was in that spirit that I set off back down Huaihai Road in the rain – the neck of a bottle of Great Wall red wine in one hand, five red roses in the other. I bought the flowers from a street seller near the big Christmas tree on a whim, and handed them out to bewildered passersby on the street, wishing them Merry Christmas. I slipped one in the open window of a stopped car, another into the basket of a moving bicycle. I handed out money to all the beggars I saw too. What I wanted more than anything, I suspect now, was to conjure a spontaneous joy in myself by spreading it in the world.

This is the point in the story where the requisite Christmas epiphany belongs, where something elemental is revealed through a conversation or moment shared with a stranger. But the truth is, nothing much happened afterward. Both the wine and flowers were gone by the time I wandered into a McDonalds for food, where all the girls at the counter wore red Christmas stocking caps. I ended up at a jazz club, talked with a few strangers at the bar, and eventually returned home alone around five or six – well after the time when, as a child, I’d be awake shredding wrapping paper.

In a narrow sense, I suppose I did avoid what I had been dreading all along. By the time I work up hung-over and cold in my apartment on Christmas Day, it was already afternoon.

Tom Pellman is a co-editor of the Anthill. Read more of his stories here