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S2, Ep 2 Betrayed: The Campus

betrayed beijing, china, christmas 1984 a barely credible cross-cultural story

Episode 2 of Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution, Series 2 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News‘ podcast

Series 2, Episode 2 Betrayed: The Campus

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.

In Episode 2, we discover what brought Calum and Robert to China, and how their fellow-foreign students were dealing with Christmas in China.

Next: Episode 3, The Mission

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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Episode 2 : The Campus

Calum responded to Robert’s gleeful declaration that Christmas Day was just a day like any other. 

His scarf muffled his reply and made it unintelligible, but Robert didn’t seem bothered.

The north wind blew harder. Calum and Robert buried their noses deeper into their scarves, dug their hands deeper into the pockets of their green padded greatcoats. 

These were basically stiff upright sleeping bags, army issue, made from the same cotton wadding used for the doorway curtains. 

You wouldn’t wear one to play badminton, but these greatcoats were just what Calum and Robert needed for their Mission to Save Christmas. 

Peering through the slot between the peak of his furry hat and the top of his scarf, Calum took in what was by now a familiar scene.

Robert was right. The campus was indeed just as it had been on any of the preceding December days: washed-out, dreary, dusty. A muted bustle of dull green and blue padded cotton jackets. Students in bunches, hunched against the cold. 

But still, thought Calum, he didn’t quite get his new friend’s delight at the absence of tinsel, Santas, and fairy lights. 

Calum’s parents, both teachers, had raised him to be politically aware, and were no fans of rampant capitalism, but they’d never particularly associated Christmas with Mammon. Christmas was just…nice. 

As they made their way towards the main gate of the campus, Calum said as much.

This time he risked raising his lips above his scarf, to make sure Robert heard.

‘But you didn’t have to take the bus to school up and down Regent Street every day’, retorted his friend, as they passed the sports field. 

When they’d first arrived, Calum and Robert used  stop and stare at the tracksuited martial artists wielding their tin spears, pikes and swords in a shiny blur.  Now they barely noticed them.

‘Every day, I’d sit on the top deck, just below the Christmas lights that they’d put up in October’. Robert’s outrage was building nicely. ‘The bus would barely move, crawling through gawping masses of shoppers, all clutching bags of tat’.

Calum had heard this rant a few times by now, but still found it entertaining.

He’d started to notice how it got better with every rendition – a turn of phrase here, a gesture there.  Robert may be a bit full-on, but he was funny, smart, and observant. It was ages since Calum had thought of him as a public-school twat.

Robert was now onto Calum’s favourite bit, about ‘Santaphernalia’ – his name for the trappings and tinsel of Christmas back home. 

As Robert hit his rhetorical stride, their own paces became less tentative. Now in lockstep, Calum and Robert had hit the broad path leading to the campus main gate. Heavy student footfall had eliminated any treacherous icy patches. They could now move with confidence.

Any of the passing Chinese students could have detected a sense of purpose in Calum and Robert’s body language, though they may not have guessed the nature of their purpose. December 25th was, after all, just another winter’s day for them.   

Robert had quickly dubbed their expedition ‘The Mission to Save Christmas’. His Scrooge-like contempt for the celebration’s commercial obligations, or religious ritual, turned out not to extend to its festive spirit.

Robert showed every sign of relishing as much as anyone the frenzy of festive improvisation now taking place at the Foreign Students’ Dorm.

It was Robert who’d instigated yesterday’s Christmas Eve tree-raiding expedition. 

Calum had been among the dozen or so members of the International Coalition Commando Force – another of Robert’s phrases.  

First thing Christmas morning, Calum had literally written home about it.

The hour’s bike ride to the Summer Palace. The foraged branches smuggled through the exit beneath their stiff green overcoats. Their triumphal ride home, each ‘Flying Pigeon’ brand bicycle festooned with a ransacked limb.

The resulting ‘Frankentree’, branches bound together with string, has been decorated with extemporised baubles: earrings, bus tickets, stamps from the care packages sent from home, scraps of calligraphy practice paper. 

All four stories of the dorm had been converted into a complex of impromptu arts-and-crafts workshops. 

On their heroic exit, Calum and Robert’s loud proclamation of their Mission to Save Christmas had elicited cheers from every open bedroom door. Homesick students interrupted their craft activities to give them the thumbs up. 

And what a variety of activities! Every improvised paper chain, streamer, banner, party hat, someone was even having a crack at crackers, defied the indifference beyond the doorway duvet.

It was truly international. Classmates from all over the world were nearly all mucking in, even the Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. 

Like all non-Asian-looking foreigners, Calum, Robert and their cohort of a dozen or so Edinburgh University students had discovered it was surprisingly hard to meet Chinese people at the Beijing Foreign Languages University.  This mattered less when it was so easy to meet the rest of the world.

They now lived cheek-by-jowel with just about any other nationality you cared to mention. ,The laowai dorm, was populated by people from around the planet, all fascinated by some aspect of Chinese culture, language, martial arts or expertise. 

The Brits, for some reason, were leading the Christmas push, but had been enthusiastically joined by French, Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, Americans, Canadians, Russians, Cubans, Angolans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans… 

Even the Mongolians were pitching in. Their grasp of Christmas was sketchy, but they were always up for any party involving drinking. Baikaa and Purevdorj had just arrived with their contribution to the festivities – litre-bottles of vodka mysteriously acquired from their Embassy, four of them, held aloft in triumph, and two broad grins.

They were immediately roped into making paper chains from coloured paper, having added two vodka bottle tops to the Frankentree decorations.

The only ones not joining in were the North Koreans. But, as Calum had remarked to Robert when they passed their closed doors in the dorm, the North Koreans never joined in with anything. 

Calum tried to imagine himself uttering that sentence at all, let alone in such a throwaway manner, three months ago.

Kirkaldy, for so long Calum’s entire world, was now looking very parochial. 

They’d reached the campus main gate.

While Robert transferred a glove to his mouth in order to locate the scrap of coloured paper bearing their directions, Calum scanned the crossroads outside the gate.

He took in the chaotic masses of students, streetside vendors, bicycles and buses, and pondered the maze of possible paths that lay before them.

Had he glanced back, Kirkaldy would have been a speck in the far distance… 

In Episode 3, The Mission, we find out what Calum and Robert’s Mission to Save Christmas actually involves.