The Great Manchurian Christmas Scarf Incident

“Welcome to Qiqihar,” they said in one accord. “There’s been an outbreak of bubonic plague.”

That ominous greeting notwithstanding, we were overjoyed to see our friends at the station in the middle of the night as we got off the train. We had spent the better part of 12 hours trundling across the Manchurian Plain, or what locals used to call The Great Northern Wilderness on an unheated train with outside temperatures in the double digits below zero.

Qiqihar is a small city in Heilongjiang Province — a midnight stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad that runs from Harbin to Moscow. A few more hours up the line would have landed us on the Siberian border. We gained a new appreciation for the expression “middle of nowhere.” I and two classmates (Liz and Kristin) from language school in Changchun had arrived to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Dennis, Rose, and Vangie. It ended up being a trip for the ages.

To start with, our train going north from Changchun seemed to date back to imperial times. It had obviously been very ornate at one time, but was now a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, the wood-burning stove that was supposed to provide heat was broken, giving us a winter camping experience. We were a motley-looking threesome of foreigners (who are odd no matter what we are wearing or doing), made more so by the fact that Liz had a frying pan strapped onto the back of her backpack that nearly turned into a weapon of mass destruction as we made our way through the crowds in the station. One of the items on our Christmas agenda was to enjoy Dennis’ famous pancakes, and since he didn’t have a frying pan, Liz brought hers along. Not being able to fit it insider her pack, she strapped it on the back!

The first stop on our journey north was Harbin, where we had 3 hours to wait before catching our train to Qiqihar. We were frozen stiff, and the only way we could think of to get warm was to go to a ‘beauty parlor’ to get our hair washed. At least the water would be hot (we hoped).

The heat on our second train was a bit better, which was a good thing because by the time we arrived in Qiqihar it was close to 30 below F.On

Christmas Eve Day, we set out to do some last minute shopping. Even though it was minus 30, the bus had no heat and all the windows were open. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all that fresh air!

Our destination was the only department store in town. This was Christmas 1990, before the jump-starting of economic reforms that happened in early 1992. Politically and economically China was on hold as the government dealt with the aftermath of 1989.  Consumerism was nascent, and commercialism still non-existent. There were no private stores or malls; only the state-run stores which sold what the government had determined the people needed. Red thermos, blue spittoons, plastic basins, and drab clothing were the staples.

Based on who needed to buy what for whom, we split up into pairs. I went with Dennis; Liz went with Rose, and Kristin went with Vangie. We wandered around, trying not to bump into one another. I had no idea what to get for Kristin, and just wasn’t seeing anything that looked interesting, much less nice–until we got to a counter that was selling scarves (which were definitely ‘in’ back then). Suddenly, things looked promising. They had 2 scarves that weren’t ugly to death, a red one and a blue one. I liked the blue one, but Dennis tried his best to convince me that Kristin would prefer the red one. He failed; I bought the blue one. What he wasn’t telling me was that he had already bought the blue one for Rose, his wife. With my insistence on purchasing the blue one, he now knew that both Kristin and Rose were going to open the exact same present on Christmas. “Well, this should be pretty funny,” he thought.

When we got back to their apartments, I decided to show Rose what I had gotten for Kristin. I proudly showed her the scarf. Dennis was there too and took note of the fact that Rose thought the scarf was beautiful. What Rose didn’t tell me was that Liz had just purchased the same scarf for me! “Well this should be pretty funny, she thought.”

We spent Christmas Day cooking up a storm: roast beef in a rice cooker; mashed potatoes; green beans; carmelized carrots; and I think an apple pie. It was comfort food heaven.

After dinner it was time for the gift exchange. For some reason, I went first, opening the gift Liz had gotten for me: a blue scarf. Dennis, having been prepared for the humor of seeing two of us get the exact same scarf suddenly realizes that there are three scarves in circulation not two, and proceeds to fall off the couch laughing. Rose and I are laughing too, but we still think there are only 2 scarves.

Rose was up next, opening the present from her husband — the blue scarf. Having just recovered from our laughing fit at the thought of 2 scarves, Rose and I now realize that there is a third one in circulation — the one for Kristin — and we proceed to descend into uncontrollable laughter. By this time, of course, the others are laughing at the fact that 2 of us have now gotten the exact same present. This misinterpretation of events dies, of course, when Kristin opens her present from me — the blue scarf. At that point the gift-giving was done and we laughed ourselves sick for a long long time.

In an entire department store, there was only one thing that suited western aesthetic sensibilities — a blue scarf. I visited Dennis and Rose this past weekend, and, as always, the story of what has come to be known as The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident came up. We had a good laugh, but unfortunately, were unable to come up with a picture of the scarves.

Oh…and none of us ever came down with bubonic plague.

Do you have a funny “China Christmas” story? Leave a comment and tell us about it.