Hainan for the Holiday

Migratory birds seem to have it all figured out: in the winter it gets cold, so they pack up and fly south to warmer climates. Unlike my feathered friends, when the cold sets in, my winter jacket comes out and I begin a four-month stint of brooding and whining about Beijing temperatures.

Last year, after seeing a flock of birds heading in more equatorial directions, I too decided to follow that animal instinct, flying south to Hainan, China’s tropical island province. It was my Christmas present to myself, a nice gift basket of beaches, sunshine, clear skies, palm trees and good food.

Hainan, which sits across from Vietnam, has historically been a backwater for the Chinese mainland, reserved for the likes of exiles. Today, the island is undergoing a rapid transformation from uninhabitable and remote to posh and hospitable. In the past few years, as part of the Chinese government’s initiative to turn Hainan into the “Hawaii of the Orient”, money has poured in for massive construction projects on everything from resorts and hotels to infrastructure and other accommodations.

I flew into Sanya, the southernmost city on China’s southernmost province, with lofty expectations of spending Christmas sitting on one of the city’s pristine palm tree-lined beaches while getting some sun under smog-less skies. Fresh seafood would be on the menu each day, and I’d finally get to see those monkeys of south China I’d always heard about.

What I got was slightly different.

It was kind of like asking Santa for an iPhone 4, but getting an iPhone 3GS instead: the picture quality isn’t as good, it’s a little less fun and way less cool, but it’s still an iPhone, and not the same prehistoric era cell phone your parents probably use.

Sanya had beaches, but they were trash-ridden and small. The skies were void of smog, but a light sea mist blanketed the bay in a trippy, wobbly haze. For most of my stay, the sun was hidden behind a heavy overcast. Clearly, those birds that had been flying south weren’t heading to Hainan. But the seafood was delicious, and the monkeys were, well, monkeys.

What saved the trip from turning into a complete holiday flop was the Christmas Eve party at my hostel. The crowd was predominantly Chinese, but the hostel’s main lounge area had been tricked out in Christmas decorations, lights and a proper amount of alcohol to fuel the festivities into the wee hours. Christmas music by Enya – not my first choice for holiday melodies, but hey, twas the season – and a recording of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer that skipped and repeated the words “had a very shiny” played as we all sang and drank the night away.

At midnight, someone produced a cake from behind the hostel bar and everyone began singing “Happy Birthday”. I looked around to see who the singing was for. When I asked “Whose birthday?” one of my newfound Chinese friends pointed to the sky and said “God”. I had to laugh. Close, I thought. At least he knew the religious basis for Christmas — despite the overwhelming commercialization of the holiday in China, even by Western standards — and hadn’t thought that the holiday marked the birth of Our Lord Lady Gaga or the Prince of Peace Prize Barack Obama.

As I’d expected, it really was one of the hostel guest’s birthdays. The Chinese guy had been joking around.

On Christmas day, I took a train from Sanya to Bo’ao, for their pristine beaches. Again, disappointment.

I was able to find friendship in a tiny old man from Harbin who was also seeking refuge in Hainan from the cold climate of the north. He offered to show me around, asking questions about America (“Does America have dumplings?”) and myself (“Are you married?) with follow ups (“Why aren’t you married?”) and commentary (“Harbin is so cold.”).

Then he asked a question that touched a nerve: Why wasn’t I spending Christmas with my family? It was instant homesickness made worse by the sand being blown in my face from the steady ocean breeze that had picked up. I told him I’d be going back to the States for Spring Festival, when everyone else in China made their own pilgrimage home. Still, I realized that instead of sitting on this beach, even if the weather had been more favorable, I should have been home enjoying a Christmas feast with friends and family. Next year, no holidays with Chinese characteristics in Beijing – just home.

And more importantly, I won’t follow those birds unless they’re heading to the West.

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