Episode 3 of Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution, Series 2 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News‘ podcast
What is The Mission To Save Christmas, in Beijing 1984, and who is betrayed?
The second series of our podcast The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories takes place over 30 minutes or so on the morning of December 25th 1984, in Beijing.
For best results, start from Episode 1 – The Staircase
In Episode 3, we find out why the Mission To Save Christmas that’s impelled Calum and Robert to brave the winter cold is a lot more challenging than you might think.
Next: Episode 4, Fire Chicken
If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
Betrayed is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.
See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
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Series 3, Episode 3 : The Mission
Jenny from Leeds and Valérie from Marseilles were in charge of Christmas dinner.
It was their idle remark on how nice it would be to have a turkey, that had launched Calum and Robert’s Mission to Save Christmas.
A turkey. This was the object of Calum and Robert’s Christmas Day Quest.
This was what had driven them from the comfort bubble of the dorm, into the bleak cacophony of Beijing’s streets on the morning of December 25th, 1984.
The slot between the peak of Calum’s fur hat and the top of his scarf afforded him the field of vision of a fully-armoured mediaeval knight.
He suddenly realised Robert was no longer beside him.
He turned back and saw Robert chasing the scrap of coloured paper bearing their directio ns, to the great amusement of a row of peasants selling vegetables outside the campus main gate.
They all smiled broadly, leaned over to their neighbours and pointed, as Robert trapped the scrap of paper with a stamp of a black cotton-padded corduroy boot.
Ignoring them, Robert resumed his study of the coloured paper. Between the wind, his gloves, and deciphering his own writing, Robert was clearly struggling.
Calum watched, as amused as the vegetable sellers. Robert glanced to his left, shook his head, re-examined his piece of paper, and then pointed a decisive gloved finger to the right.
Calum and Robert’s strides soon re-synchronised. Their conversation now turned to the reliability of the directions they were following. They began to share their doubts about their Turkey Guru, Wim.
Wim was a Dutch economics postgrad, and veteran of three Beijing winters. He had the best room, on the top floor, and seemed to know just about everything.
It was Wim who’d revealed the mystery of the 1970s Euro-disco that formed the soundtrack of public life in China in 1984. Apparently the Ministry of Propaganda had recently started approving a few foreign songs, and Chinese radio had embraced them with enthusiasm.
Wim couldn’t explain why half the approved songs were by Boney M, or why this particular German confected disco combo represented the acceptable face of capitalism.
Calum, a music connoisseur, found this daily exposure to Boney M particularly tortuous. ‘They’re giving it the full Dr. Seuss’, he’d once said after spending 8 hours standing on a rammed train listening to non-stop tra-la-la-la-la-ing. ‘On a train, on a plane, on a boat, with a bloody goat’. ‘I do not like that Boney M. I do not like that stratagem’.
Calum, Robert and their Edinburgh University classmates, weaned on punk and now supping on New Romantics, suspected it was an act of subversion.
If repeated exposure to One Way Ticket, Ra Ra Rasputin, and the Rivers of Bablyon, Robert had said, didn’t convince the Chinese proletariat not to touch capitalism with a bargepole, nothing would.
Wim the Dutch Oracle said that in China, everything was political, but Politburo subtlety probably didn’t extend to differentiating between genres of Western pop music.
Wim speculated it was all part of a high-level rapprochement. He’d even heard a rumour China was negotiating with Wham! to tour China. Much as Calum and Robert had learned to respect Wim’s encyclopaedic knowledge of China, that was too ludicrous and surreal to take seriously.
Wim had been able to answer many of their questions about their new home, but his three years in China hadn’t left him unaffected. Wim’s doctoral thesis had something to do with street markets, but his main passion seemed to involve bedding as many women as was practical.
Jenny and Valerie being both attractive, and unconquered, Wim had been loitering in their room when he’d overheard them mention Mission Turkey.
Eager to impress, Wim had mentioned that one of his sources had just told him about a new street market specialising in poultry.
He’d already told them that all the red-faced roadside vegetable-sellers were a very recent phenomenon.
It was only a couple of years since the Chinese leadership had permitted peasants to use small plots of communal farmland to grow their own produce, he explained. They could sell this produce for personal profit.
The newly-arrived students, like Jenny, Valerie, Calum & Robert were familiar with the vegetable-sellers, but none of them had ever even heard of a roadside meat-seller.
The canteen at their foreign students dorm had a pork dish every day, but they were aware that for most Chinese, meat was still a once-a-year luxury.
These days, Wim told them, as he edged along the bed towards Jenny, it seemed some city dwellers could now afford to eat meat quite often.
‘Do you think Wim noticed us sniggering when he started going on about how excited he was at the advent of a meat market’, Calum asked Robert.
‘Nah. He was too busy trying to get into Jenny’s knickers’, said Robert. ‘But do you think what Wim said about the Friendship Store selling out of all those turkeys they fly in for the embassies is really true? Was he really interested in helping us find a turkey. Was he simply showing off in front of the leddies?’.
‘He was eliminating two of his most powerful mating rivals for as long as possible’, said Calum.
Robert’s scarf barely muffled his bark of laughter.
Now he thought about it, Wim had been particularly insistent that this new market was their only hope of buying a turkey in Beijing that morning.
To be fair, Wim had warned them it was a long shot. And he’d added that if they were lucky enough to find a turkey, it was almost certain to be alive.
But by this point Calum and Robert had already accepted the Turkey Challenge, so they decided to cross that bridge, or wring that neck, when the time came.
A long shot was good enough for Calum and Robert. It would only take one peasant to decide his path to riches was paved with turkeys, and in a couple of hours they’d be returning to the dorm as the Heroes Who Saved Christmas.
Calum gave an involuntary wince as they approached a street barber, and began copping a blast of One Way Ticket To The Moon.
Robert noticed Calum’s reaction, and pulled a sympathetic face. ‘Don’t be too harsh’, he said. ‘Poor bloke’s just trying to make a living’.
They’d discussed this before. Peasant entrepreneurs may not have shared the refined musical tastes of British second-year university students, but they knew how to sniff new opportunities to make some cash.
This one must have reckoned investing in a radio would give him that extra edge. As he was the only one with a customer, an old man having his head shaved with a cut-throat razor, maybe he was right.
They passed a row of 5 hessian sacks laid out on the pavement, each heaped with one kind of vegetable, each accompanied by a squatting peasant.
As the laowai passed, the peasants glanced up, dangling the scales they used to measure how many jin of spring onions, chilli peppers, potatoes, carrots, garlic, or whatever it was that they’d been giving a lot more care and attention than the crops destined for the state.
Calum jerked his head towards another row of squatting peasants as they passed them. ‘Were they here last week?’ he asked Robert.
Robert shrugged. It was impossible to keep pace with China’s emerging entrepreneurship. The reforms had opened up a tiny crack in the command economy, which was now being breached by a mob.
‘My tai qi teacher said that in winter there used to be loads of vegetable shortages ’ said Calum, ‘but now he can always buy anything’.
‘Look at that woman by the bicycle repair place – she’s selling eggs, never seen that before’ said Robert. ‘If nothing else, Wim has a bumper harvest of material for his thesis. He said he was thinking of calling it ‘Observations on The Invention of Capitalism in Real Time’.
‘Wim said he’s still puzzled as to how people get the cash to buy meat’, said Calum, ‘He said he’s heard they’re going to stop the ration tickets for meat, grain, oil and cloth next year, but doesn’t understand how it’s possible. He says it’s fascinating because there aren’t many ways Chinese people can earn personal cash -officially’.
‘Yeah, but he’s not quite so fascinated that he wanted to join us on our hunt for a bird, is he?’.
Calum knew Robert was grinning beneath his scarf.
Truth be told, neither Calum nor Robert was all that bothered about the turkey.
This was just another round of the daily initiative test and obstacle course that constituted daily life in 1984 China.
Calum was already mentally writing it up for his next letter home.
Robert stopped again to check their turkey treasure map. He pushed up his glasses to examine his laborious, child-like Chinese writing.
There was a lot that could go wrong, thought Calum. Wim had never actually been to this meat market.
His directions to get there were second-hand. And it involved two bus changes.
Plus he may have made the whole thing up, to clear the field.
It wouldn’t have been hard for Wim to confuse them. Not only were they strangers to Beijing, but Calum and Robert had only been studying the language a bit over a year. Even simple directions presented a considerable linguistic challenge.
Wim had been studying Chinese for more than a decade and was in his third year in Beijing. And he seemed to know pretty much everything.
Robert had diligently written down all the street names, navigation landmarks, cardinal directions, bus numbers, and destinations onto the coloured paper.
They’d reached a major crossroads, and he was now examining it again.
Calum bent over to try to help, but struggled to make sense of Robert’s notes.
‘I find your character hard to decipher’, he said, pointing to one of Robert’s childish scrawls, deploying one of their growing range of in-jokes.
Robert gave his usual response, for some reason always delivered in a high-pitched Scottish accent, ‘Aye, well there’s the human condition for yae’.
In fact, Calum was finding Robert’s character easier to decipher, and was finding himself enjoying these kinds of convoluted running gags.
He found them almost as amusing as Robert did, but only almost. No one found them as amusing as Robert did.
‘Ah!’, exclaimed Robert, rotating the scrap of paper 180 degrees.
He gave a confident nod towards an improbably-located four-story-high chimney, a landmark Wim said he thought might be part of a defunct brickworks.
As they set off, Calum silently shook his muffled head in wonder. Three months ago, he’d have been happy to leave this kind of mission to others. Now, he was volunteering for them.
Robert seemed to relish such challenges.
When he’d met him in that first Chinese class at uni, Calum had attributed Robert’s self-confidence to his public school education, but no such thoughts even crossed his mind now.
There were more pressing matters to which to attend.
It was Christmas, and they were hunting for turkey.
In Episode 4, Fire Chicken, we discover what turkey means to Calum and Robert, as they continue their Mission to Save Christmas