A year ago today, on Christmas day, I was with my partner Elee, having breakfast in the cold and faintly damp restaurant of the Red Age Themed Hotel, in the town of Anren in Sichuan. We were there to visit the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, an extraordinary private museum complex dedicated to the various sufferings of recent Chinese history. The ideal Christmas date, in other words.
We were joined at our breakfast table by the Old Revolutionary and his daughter. The Old Revolutionary was dressed in a Mao suit and cap. He smiled at us as he sat down, and introduced himself and his daughter. He then pointed to Elee. “Is this your wife?” he asked.
I nodded, because it was easier to lie.
“Is she younger than you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He tutted and shook his head. “You should get an older wife,” he said. “Like Karl Marx. His wife was much older. Older and more experienced. It is good to have a wife who has such experience.”
Elee looked at me with puzzlement. I translated briefly into English. She laughed. “There’s still time,” she said.
The Old Revolutionary’s daughter smiled apologetically at her father’s directness. “I can’t hear my father well,” she said, as if to absolve herself. “I am deaf on this side.” She pointed to her ear closest to her father. I suspected that the side she was deaf on was whatever side her father happened to be.
The Old Revolutionary said that they had been in Anren for several days, and they intended to stay a week. He was in Anren to relive his past. As an educated youth (知识青年) in the Cultural Revolution, he was sent down to the countryside to be “educated from living in rural poverty”. Whilst he talked about his childhood, he was tearfully nostalgic. His daughter squirmed in embarrassment at her father’s tearful reminiscences. As they left the breakfast table, she confessed that she was an English teacher in a rural school, but that she rarely spoke English because she was too embarrassed. Particularly in front of real English people. Then — for the first time in English — she said “Happy Christmas!”
“Happy Christmas!” we replied.
As I write this on Christmas day, one year on, and as I look through the photographs from Anren, it is hard to make sense of how much has changed this year — Elee’s diagnosis with secondary cancer, my early return from China, the too-quick progress of Elee’s illness and her death in August, my departure from my job of eight years at De Montfort University, and all the other changes that have followed from this. It has been a strange and difficult year. But despite all these changes — and despite the gloominess of the bigger picture politically — I cannot think of a year when I have been more appreciative of the ordinary virtues of friendship, community, good humour, kindness and mutual love and support.
Later this morning, I will head up the road to have lunch with friends, then I will be heading out of town to visit my family for an evening Christmas dinner. And at the moment, at least, it seems to me that this sharing food and wine and friendship and conversation — this ordinary human business of trying to live well alongside each other — is one of things that matters most.
So this year, be kind to one another. Feast well. And have a Happy Christmas.