Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'll Be Home For Christmas (if only in my dreams)

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Psalm 137:4

This month I will be celebrating, if that is the word, my eighth Christmas overseas. The first two were in Germany when I was a toddler, so I have nothing to recollect. (1) I was in Japan for Christmas in 1992, '93 and '94, Korea in '97, and here in the Philippines last year, though in a different region.

My three Christmases in Japan were rather disorienting (no pun intended), since the Japanese, non-Christian, observe Christmas as a purely commercial holiday. As I discovered, many Japanese believe that Jesus is Santa Claus as a young man. (2) They cannot seem to reconcile our juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular, and exactly what does St. Nick and all his elves and reindeer have to do with a child's birth in Roman Judea some two thousand years ago anyway?

In Japan, in my mid-thirties, I was hardly a feckless youth, but, making up for lost time, I was trying my damnedest to be. here never seemed to be enough shit to stir or brain cells to destroy. One of the peculiarities of military life is that it inspires alcohol abuse. One astute observer (3) suggested that it had something to do with "unrealized potential" - the frustration of always being somewhere other than where one wants to be, performing one's patriotic but soul-destroying duty. One extra frustration for me in Japan was watching as all of my admiration for Japanese culture - its literature and its films - was returned by the Japanese themselves with their flawlessly polite but no less devastating hostility for a gaijin like me.

In South Korea, I was with the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division in what they called "Area One" between Seoul and the DMZ. A constant condition of readiness for war made Christmas and Peace on Earth a rather a moot subject. (4) South Korea, a nation supposedly under siege since the cease-fire with the North in 1953, had just seen its currency - the won - devalued by about half when, a week or so before Christmas, I first visited Seoul, a shining, vibrant city with - thanks to the 1988 Olympics, a superb subway system. Koreans themselves did not seem all that worried about their commie cousins to the north. Unlike us soldiers, they were not preoccupied by an impending invasion.

I spent last Christmas in a hotel at a so-called "resort" on the northern island of Luzon, scurrying from ATMs (which I called "Auntie Em's" when I was in Korea) to Western Union offices trying to scrape together the money to get myself out of a predicament I had got myself into, and wondering if I should ever see home again. That I am here for another Christmas, albeit on a different island, means that - needless to say - I have not seen it yet.

Of the many lies and half-truths that expats here have shared with me, one of the most untrue is that, around this time of year, I would only miss the snow "for a few moments" at most. And they invariably named the most unpleasant things to do with snowy weather - scraping ice from one's windshield or shovelling it off one's driveway. But what of the delicate beauty of falling snow? And the marvelous feeling of being inside when it is snowing, however heavily, outside? Or parting the curtains in the morning to find that the snow has transformed the world while one was sleeping?

Irving Berlin wrote the song "White Christmas" when he was living in Southern California, where snow is a freak accident at best. Having grown up in the American South, where snow is a rare occurrence, it has always had a magical quality for me. Maybe this is why my home in the States is now in Alaska, where the snows come early and stay late, and where a White Christmas is inevitable.

In the Philippines, Christmas is called Pasko, which is a Spanish word derived from "Pascua de Navidad" or, literally, "Nativity of Easter". Traditionally, instead of a Christmas tree, most homes display a star, or parol (from the Spanish word "farol" - "lantern") representing the star of Bethlehem. Children go door to door singing carols - the same Christmas carols I used to sing. But without snow so many of the songs don't make much sense. Even Christmas trees are out of place here, since there is not much point to an evergreen where everything is always green. And a snowball would have a better chance in hell than here.

This December, walking the streets of the town near where I live, regardless of the heat and the glare of the sun, my thoughts are never far from other scenes in other places. And why not? In my dreams I am nearly always still in the military, in the company of people lost to me in time and space. How well I have learned, over the years, the depth of meaning in these words from Albert Camus' novel The Plague:

[Doctor Rieux and Joseph Grand are trapped in the modern city of Oran by a quarantine when it becomes clear that there has been an outbreak of bubonic plague. After months of fighting the disease and watching how capriciously it takes some lives while sparing others, Grand, long since deserted by his wife Jeanne, whom he still loves, has gone missing, last seen wandering the streets aimlessly] "At noon Rieux stepped out of his car into the frozen air; he had just caught sight of rand some distance away, his face glued to a shop-window full of crudely carved wooden toys. Tears were steadily flowing down the old fellow's cheeks, and they wrung the doctor's heart, for he could understand them, and he felt his own tears welling up in sympathy. A picture rose before him of that scene of long ago - the youth standing in front of another shop-window, like this one dressed for Christmas, and Jeanne turning toward him in a sudden access of emotion and saying how happy she was. He could guess that through the mists of the past years, from the depth of his fond despair, Jeanne's young voice was rising, echoing in Grand's ears. And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one's work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart."

(1) My brother took his one-year-old to Disney World. "He won't remember any of it," I told him. "It doesn't matter," he replied. "He'll have the video."
(2) They also believe that, on Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate Noah landing the ark at Plymouth Rock; and that, at Easter, Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.
(3) James Earl Jones in a TV interview.
(4) I sometimes wonder how many American GIs brought home with them the disgusting and ignorant ball cap or jacket with the slogan "I'm sure to go to heaven 'cause I've done my time in hell" on it?

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