10 A not so Holy Man

As December was approaching, the weather really turned cold, with sub-zero temperatures almost every night and more and more of the days. The skies were still mainly blue, creating that typically crisp Beijing winter feeling: the combination of a harsh freezing wind and sunshine on your face.

The heating systems were turned on mid-October.

Central heating was really central in China those days. A building as our dormitory had a boiler burning coal that was regularly replenished by a couple workers with shovels from a pile of coal outside the building. That pile in turn was continuously restocked from trucks driving to and fro all day.

All buildings in the school and almost all multi-storey buildings in Beijing were heated that way. Some groups of apartment buildings belonging to one organization were serviced by one boiler room. All that coal being burned in city like Beijing created huge amounts of fine black dust in the air that we were breathing. However, we appreciated the heating, although the radiators were usually lukewarm and could be touched with your bare hand without having to be afraid of burning yourself.

The dormitories were small enough to be heated to a comfortable temperature. I have never liked overheated rooms anyway, but there was a gap of about two weeks between the beginning of the cold season and the firing up of the heating system. In that period, rooms on the sunny side of the building would get some warmth from sun, but once the sun had set, the concrete buildings often seemed colder inside than outside. Later in the evening, we would fill our mugs with hot water, not so much for drinking as to warm our hands.

Classrooms could also be chilly, even after the heating had been turned on. They were bigger and therefore less easy to heat up. The main building as a whole was also too big for such a heating system, although it had a huge boiler room, or better building, as the boiler was located in a separate brick building close by. We would take our padded winter coats off at the beginning of the lectures, but hang them over the backs of our chairs in such a way, that we could easily drape them over our shoulders, when we would start to feel a little chilly, after sitting still for so long, and our bodies had burnt up the calories taken in at breakfast.

During the breaks we walked around to revive our circulation, but there were no hot drinks to warm our insides. Towards lunchtime, even I would feel cold and hungry. When noon approached, I would habitually make sure to be one of the first to get up and leave the classroom, and run to the dining hall. Surely, I still did the utmost to do so without being too conspicuous.

Being one of the first to enter the dining hall would put me in a position to have the first look at the table of dishes and pick myself a dish with lots of protein and carbohydrates. My favorite was a sizable meatball with a whole egg inside and some green vegetables. I regarded that as one of signature dishes of the Chef. It was also a kind of fusion cuisine avant la lettre, as it resembled a Chinese dish called ‘lion head’, with the hidden egg as a Western addition.

This habit of taking three greasy protein laden meals a day already started to affect my waist line. I might have felt hungry at lunchtime, but the calorie intake of the lunch described above would repeat itself at six in the evening.

Breakfast usually was a helping of fried eggs and bread. The variation in my diet apparently was sufficient to ensure a proper intake of nutrients; at least I never suffered conditions related to malnutrition. However, the energy all that food contained exceeded my body’s energy need by far. And I have not even mentioned the inevitable snacking.

A dorm packed with young male students was bound to have a regular stash of beer and snacks to go with it. Skipping meals was merely a theoretical option. As mentioned before, meals were so much more than simply occasions to eat. The dining hall was the center of our social life. It was the place where we made new friends and reinforced existing relationships. There, we made arrangements for the evening, or what to do in the coming weekend.

We did not have mobile phones then and not even landline phones in our dormitories. In our building, there was only one phone, at the counter of the janitor. Phoning within Beijing was free, as far as I can remember. That would not have cost the school an awful lot of money, as we did not have so many acquaintances to call and chat up anyway.

We even used snail mail to communicate with the few people we did know. A diary entry for December 12, 1975, states that we received a package from the Embassy by mail. The following day we wrote and sent a letter to the Ambassador’s wife who had sent the package.

No, we absolutely could not afford skipping a meal in the dining hall. Obviously, once you were there, even when your main purpose was socializing, you would have a bite and a drink as well. So there you go.

Our festive season started early.

The winter festivities start earlier for us Dutch than for most other Western nations. We have Saint Nicholas’ Eve (5 December) and Saint Nicholas’ birthday on the morning of 6 December, which has been celebrated in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium for more than ten centuries. This celebration of Saint Nicholas’ birthday has been joined with that of the birth of Christ in the English speaking world, leading to the name Santa Claus for the figure that used to be known as Father Christmas’.

We give and receive presents on December 5 or 6, not on Christmas, which is more a time for reflection. Feasting on seasonal delicacies is an inalienable part of both celebrations in Holland, with special types of traditional Saint Nicholas treats, different from those consumed during Christmas.

This is a real bonus for being a child in the Low Countries (and long after you have grown up). Just when our bodies have roughly processed the Saint Nicholas goodies, we can start all over again during the days leading to Christmas, all the way up to and including New Year’s Day.

The Saint Nicholas celebration was a recurrent headache in Beijing.

The Dutch community in China was small indeed in 1975. Except for the Embassy staff and their dependents, there were the odd business people, a few Dutch staff members of UN representations and that was it. The core ritual of the Saint Nicholas celebrations is that the Saint himself, with his loyal aide Black Peter, visits your home, school, or workplace. The holy man carries his Big Book in which all the good and evil deeds of the children in the family (and many adults) have been kept. Black Peter carries a jute bag filled with presents.

The Saint is seated in the family’s most comfortable chair and starts calling the names of the children, and the other family members, one by one, and starts praising or criticizing them. Obviously, all of them get at least one present. In the old days, children with extremely bad attitudes may be given a birch as a symbol for the birching that they deserved. The Dutch, being such a tolerant people, had already abandoned that tradition long ago.

For the readers who still have not guessed, both Saint Nicholas and Black Peter will be disguised family members. Each year, it is a real problem to determine who will play what role. It is not that fun to play either role, but surely not the role of Black Peter, as you will keep finding black spots behind your ears, inside your nostrils, or wherever, days after the big event.

The next issue is to hide the real identity of these generous gentlemen from the children. One solution is to hire a professional Saint and helper from a temping agency. We have that kind of service in the Netherlands. In university cities, it can be a lucrative side job for students in need of some extra cash. We Dutch are an inventive nation. However, more often people request two persons in a neighborhood to take care of all families in that region. Those families can then share the costs for hiring costumes and gifts for the good volunteers.

Our presence was a blessing for the Saint Nicholas celebration.

Chris and I have never felt more appreciated during that year than on December 5. The Dutch children, except Ronald’s, had never met us. We were the ideal Saint Nicholas and Black Peter. A flip of the coin decided that I would be the holy man (probably not destiny this time; this was sheer luck, and I am still grateful for it) and Chris my black helper. After just having resigned to our modest living quarters, this was another blow to his self-esteem, but we had used a real coin.

We were dressed up in the Embassy. The Ambassador had no children, and the only set of Saint and Peter clothes was carefully kept in good shape in the Embassy. The local staff had grown used to this peculiar Dutch habit of catching an occasional Dutch visitor to the Middle Kingdom, dragging him (or her, when the least known Dutch citizen was female) to the Embassy, putting a ridiculously big white wig on his head, a red miter and cape and driving him to the home of one of the Embassy staff members.

The real Saint Nicholas moved around on horseback, but except for the fact that the Embassy did not own a horse, we would probably have gotten into problems with the traffic police, not to mention the enormous crowd a man dressed like that would have drawn; with a man dressed in an equally peculiar outfit, and his face painted pitch black, following the horse on foot. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Dutch style.

Such an occasional visitor needed to be lured with an attractive reward, or sedated to make the embarrassment more bearable. As we had missed the opportunity to negotiate an award, we opted for the latter, taking care of it ourselves. Neither Chris nor yours truly was volunteering for this job. It was presented to us as our holy (!) duty.

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Unfortunately for the Dutch crowd in Beijing, we were far from holy people. We got ourselves a bottle of one of the ingredients of Peter’s Potent Punch. It was one of the strong distilled liquors named Jinjiu, which literally means ‘Golden Spirit’. It was a simple colorless spirit, so the origin of that brand is just as obscure as the Gold Fish brand for you-know-what. However, it did its job, and both Saint Nicholas and Black Peter arrived at the Embassy in a slightly inebriated condition. No, not drunk, we wanted to express our feeling of protest, but keep up our style.

Arrived at the home of one of the Dutch diplomats, we immediately became the center of attention. Saint Nicholas has arrived! The little brats started to bellow, singing those songs the lyrics of which I had happily stored in some backroom of my memory.

Already at that age, I was determined not to reproduce myself and have been loyal to that decision up to the present day. It is not that I never enjoy other people’s children, but I have never felt the urge to put one of my own on this planet, obliging myself to invest in it for at least two decades, only to have to endure it leaving me, once it can stand on its own feet.

I was also frightened by the emotional ties most people with children that I knew had with their offspring. Finally, you had reached a stage in your life at which you were generating your own income, enabling you to travel wherever you wanted, dress and dine in style, buy your first house, and then you had to give all that up again, or at least slow down, when the first little brat arrived, constantly yelling to be fed and clad.

The Dutch little brats were all there, gathered in that living room, screaming with only one thought on their greedy minds: what will I get from the old man. That was already not my favorite environment, but something snapped inside my mind, when Ronald started the ceremony with the wrong question: ‘Saint Nicholas, would you care for a drink?’ I simply had to follow suit with the wrong answer: ‘A young one please’.

You have to be Dutch, or someone with some experience with our culture to be able to understand this reply. Our national drink, Jenever, comes in ‘young’ and ‘old’ (aged) varieties. The insider does not ask for a glass of Jenever, but ‘a young one’, or ‘an old one’. However, young or old, the choice of beverage was not a wise one.

The contents of the first glass immediately started a cross-cultural negotiation with the local spirits already in my system. The Jinjiu and the Jenever formed a joint venture, half a decade before the Chinese government gave the green light to joint ventures between Chinese and foreign companies.

As a real joint venture, it had its upside, and downside. The upside was that, I learned that later, that year’s Saint Nicholas party turned out to be the liveliest since years. I excelled. The downside was that the holy man turned a little obstinate and moody after a few young ones. Ronald tried to play the clever clogs and handed me glass of water, but that was only counterproductive. It made good old Nicholas swear in front of all those innocent little brats. He duly apologized, after receiving a glass of the real stuff.

Luckily, the ceremony did not last that long. The Dutch colony in Beijing was small in 1975. We were driven back to the Embassy, where the Ambassador, and his wife obviously noticed the merry state of the holy man. They already had decided to let us stay the night, and take us to the Great Wall to that grand monument in winter the following day.

That offer to stay had been expressed since our arrival in the Chinese capital, but we, two young men finally completely independent, had been reluctant to accept that invitation so far. Now at least there was a proper excuse not to get into a taxi and return to our dorm. Chris would have had a much harder time in carrying me upstairs than the three of us had after his birthday party not that long before.

I obviously turned in early and we did enjoy the Great Wall. It was not our first visit. The school had driven us there soon after our arrival, but seeing it during winter, with a few patches of snow (snow is rare in the arid continental climate of Beijing) was real a treat. It was also the season with the lowest number of tourists, which made the place even more enjoyable.

Afterwards, we received, again by mail, packages from the Embassy, gifts to thank us for our services on December 5. My present was a bottle of liqueur; I have not noted the brand in my diary. Mrs. Ambassador had added a handwritten note saying that she ‘had preferred to send something else, but assumed that I would appreciate this best’. These were wise words.

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