Travelling opens your eyes and bewilders your senses. Extraordinary sights abound. Natural wonders and surreal landscapes. Majestic temples devoted to devotion. People with profound kindness, insight, and talent. Rivers that go on for days. Mountains dominating sky. Underwater civilizations in colours and shapes unknown to life on land.
And then there are all the things we can buy, and if you’ve ever been to an Asian market, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Gobs of stuff, piled as high as skyscrapers. Every kind of everything you can imagine, in every colour, size, shape, and price point. Humanity’s every want in extreme excess.
Clothing, shoes, electronics, bags, bags, bags, their labels (Gucci! Prada! Hello Kitty!) stuck on, slightly askew, with cheap adhesive. Rows of souvenir trinkets (what my ex calls fine dustibles). Collections of cultural artifacts that aren’t supposed to leave the country. Stacks of dehydrated fish, greasy pools of pork balls, tarantula kabobs (no joke), and swarms of insect corpses basted with garlic chili oil. Piles of fabrics, buttons, plastic things, fake crocodile wallets, real crocodile wallets, beauty creams a weird shade of orange, indiscernible objets d’art, and more (nary a book btw, unless we’re in India where you can find best-selling covers housing photocopied pages of misaligned text, maybe in the correct order, maybe not).
It’s the Asian Walmart to the power of 1000. One big bargain bin bursting at the seams, teeming with want! need! must have! buy now! It’s retail-wholesale overwhelm, and yet the locals seem to navigate its avenues effortlessly, darting back and forth like the eyes of a madman.
If you want buying options, the Asian market is the place to go. And the Western shopping mall is much the same but slightly more refined. The only difference is that it takes mere minutes to erect an Asian market. One minute there’s a guy on a scooter with a box. The next minute there’s a pint-sized Sizzler selling meat sticks and Buddha statues from a 3×3 foot space.
When it comes to shopping, the differences between one culture and another are visually striking, but not dissimilar. It’s all just piles of unnecessary crap that, in many cases, are destined for landfills. And enter the newest brand of global consumerism: the online shopping ether where everything is tidy, brand-spanking shiny, and even more accessible than a pair of shoes on a shelf in a shopping mall. It beckons you from bed, the toilet, the dinner table, the car. Buy it! Try it! Send it back when it doesn’t look like the picture or it argues with your hips! This is our virtual Want it-Waste it World. The more exposure I have to this level of consumerism, the sharper my realization that I want to stay far, far away from it. It’s the vomitus greed of humanity spewed out all over the place.
‘Tis the season.
I’m just being all naysayer-ish about the recreational activity that was once shopping and now has become spending money. I’m not unique in this regard. And I too, participate in money-spending events, having bought tons of things I didn’t need, on a whim, because it felt good to do so in a moment, never devoting a second of thought to where those things actually came from and the people behind them. Those cute, cheap shirts at H&M? Who cares if they fell apart in three months because they didn’t break the bank. But shelve that greedy economic benefit for a second and consider why it can be so cheaply made at all. I won’t get into what actually goes on in those manufacturing plants because I don’t know the half of it anyway, but I will urge you to consider it when you’re drafting up your Christmas list this year.
Aside from the social-economic issue of Christmas commercialism, and the proliferation of Lego that poses a major threat to the unsuspecting barefooted adult is another, much deeper issue related love and kindness––traditional hallmarks of Christmas.
I know I run the risk of being one more person that says please don’t buy Christmas gifts (are there enough of us now?). But I’ll say it anyway because there are so many other ways to show love and kindness, and not just at Christmastime. Not giving material gifts is actually a kinder act because it inspires you to demonstrate love in other ways. We can shirk the laziness that surrounds Christmas gift-giving in favour of less tangible, more authentic acts of kindness. It’s not as easy as jumping online and ordering an item. It requires awareness, thoughtfulness, and genuine observation of and consideration of the person you’re giving to.
Buying a gift, shoving it in a box, and wrapping it in foil, is as powerful a gesture as the words I love you with no demonstration to back it up. Hollow words in empty boxes.
Recognize people. Practice Kindness. Show Love.
There was a time in the distant past when I would spend wads of cash on stuff for people because I felt like I had to. They were giving me something after all, and I felt compelled to return the gesture. Aside from not knowing what to buy for a particular person and making a gift-card the solution, it was useless spending, meaningless giving, and it fed into the false notion that giving and receiving were mutually dependent.
On the flip side, I also ended up with piles of things I didn’t want, that I’d either give away (re-gift) or stuff into a drawer or the back of my closet. I felt ashamed for receiving things I didn’t want––and equally––phony for giving gifts I didn’t want to give. I’m not a scrooge and I enjoy giving presents when it feels right to, in that moment, with a particular person, somewhat spontaneously. But the obligatory gift just feels yucky in its pointlessness and dubious in its insincere gesture.
When the realization that I didn’t really enjoy Christmas gift-giving began to arise and was threatening to steal Christmas altogether, I attempted to overhaul the whole tradition in my family:
Let’s make each other things! (in a secret Santa kind of style), or write each other little poems! I suggested. You can imagine the ensuing eye-rolling and groaning. Total resistance, not even considered for a second:
Not everyone can make things, Colleen. Not everyone can write poems. Which is actually total bullshit because I have watched people without arms make stuff, and the structure of a haiku meets even the most elementary minds. They don’t even have to rhyme.
Had we arrived at a point where material gifts have become one of the hallmarks of Christmas, even though––and I’m making a major projection––so many of us hate it?
Why do we attempt to show love and kindness with hunks of Chinese-manufactured plastic and polyester wrapped in dyed, shiny paper, tied with ribbon that comes with a choking hazard warning (watch you don’t kill your kids this Christmas!).
What difference do material gifts make if we have no real connection to each other?
(Side note: During a chat with my nephew a few years back (he was 8 at the time), I asked him where he would like to go if he could go anywhere in the world. China! He responded without hesitation. Why China? I asked. He lit up like a Christmas tree: so I can see where everything is made!)
So my attempt to reconceptualize Christmas gift-giving fell flat and we continued on as we always have.
And then I started travelling for a very long time.
Travelling wasn’t just about going to new places and seeing different things. I also wanted to leave behind a certain kind of life whose growing stench of inauthenticity was permeating my days. I experienced the painful realization that I had too much stuff, and it was impairing my perspective of what was really important in life. I could see it happening, and it left me with a desire to skin-shed my way out of this unfamiliar, slightly hoggish person I was becoming.
Yet behold my first Christmas away and the realization that some aversions aren’t so easily evaded. I sent home mounds of stuff, duly purchased at Chatuchak market in Bangkok during a two-day shopping extravaganza. They would expect it, I thought, though it was more likely that I was trying to remind them I was still there. The self-interested side of gift-giving––it’s about me, not you.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in Laos at Christmastime, in the absence of familiar people and in the loving company of strangers, trekking through the jungle. And the Christmas spirit is alive and well in the presence of community, story-telling, sitting out under the stars with no other objective than to just be in that moment. (I’ll tell my Christmas in Laos story in a separate blog because it was too wonderful an experience to summarize).
And just a couple years ago in Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia, Reid and I are strolling home from dinner under a starry sky when familiar Christmas carols float on air, reaching our grateful, bewildered ears like the gift of hearing to someone who’s deaf. We looked at each other, is that Silent Night? our minds asked the other. It certainly was a version of it, trimmed with the distinct accent of the Indonesia tongue. And they were harmonizing. It sent currents of gratitude through the diaphragmatic region of my body, and I sought out the sound.
A few more steps down the road revealed its origin. Under the harsh fluorescent light of a small patio out front a nondescript concrete house, sat a small group of local people. A single string of lights, which would have represented a rather lazy attempt at seasonal decor in some Western country, hung bright and proud, a more-than-adequate indicator of Christmas on an otherwise dark street in a Muslim nation. We stopped and watched this collection of men and women sing cereal-box Christmas carols, sitting on collapsible chairs, arranged in a sloppy but well-intentioned circle, staring down at sheets of paper, clutched in determination. Visually, there wasn’t much enthusiasm there, but the concentrated effort required to sing in a non-native language was clear and veritably heart-warming. We spied from the street’s dark shadows. How badly I wanted to join! And just when I conjured up the nerve to ask, they stopped and began folding up their chairs.
For me, that was Christmas. That mere five minutes spent watching those folks sing the songs of my childhood Decembers, without the flash, the presents, the lifeless tree, the booze, the store-bought nanaimo bars, the Lego lashing, (the snow!), the unwarranted family remarks and ensuing regression back to adolescence, the hollow bank account. I got the heart of the Christmas experience, somewhere near the South Pacific, in a small fishing village, unexpectedly, on my way home from dinner. And those people didn’t even know what they were giving. Sure beats the pants off two days spent crap-grappling at a 14-hectare market, or being eaten alive by the venus fly-trap of shopping malls.
I’m not saying don’t give gifts this Christmas.
Give, give give.
Give to your heart’s content. And equally important, receive what people wish to give you, with an open heart and gratitude. But let’s consider what we’re giving. Your attention, gratitude, and kindness give so much more than an Amazon gift card.
How can you practice kindness this Christmas? In what ways can you express love? Who will receive your genuine embrace, your thoughtful word, your gesture that shows them they’re acknowledged and accepted? How far will your heart expand?
My other little nephew said to me on a video chat the other day when I asked him to give his mom a big hug for me this Christmas: my arms can’t reach around the world. Oh, but they can!
A haiku for my darling nephew
Those teeth hide and seek
Giant space for all your jokes
Sweet goofy Michael
And a version of Silent Night (I don’t love the song but I love to sing it):