Imagethief likes the holiday season. He is not one of those December curmudgeons who bah-humbugs his way through Christmas. Give me trees, tinsel, candy canes and a big dinner with my friends. My dad used to roast a goose for Christmas. How traditional is that? And we’re Jewish.
There is, however, one Christmas tradition that I dread every year, and that never gets any easier to deal with. That is the office “secret Santa” program.
Anyone who works in a large office probably endures something similar. The way it works in our office is that the office assistant walks around with a box from which you draw the name of a colleague. You then have to buy that person a gift for under 50RMB. The gifts are all presented at a Christmas party at which Santa Clause, played by the white guy who most recently joined the company, calls each person up one-by-one to receive his or her anonymous gift. I did the Santa gig myself my first Christmas with the company, three years ago, and spent a miserable, hot, itchy two hours in the Santa suit pulling artificial whiskers out of my mouth while my colleagues, sat on my lap one by one. Someone else will be pulling those same spit-encrusted whiskers out of his mouth this year.
I would play Santa every year if I could only get out of the gift-giving, though.
The problem is that we are a fairly big company and I inevitably draw the name of someone I don’t know. This is a pain because if it’s a friend you have two decent options: either you have some idea of their tastes and you can get something you will be reasonably sure they will like; or you can get them a gag gift and be confident they won’t take the wrong way.
But I never, ever draw the name of someone I know well. I always get the shy, new, Chinese girl who doesn’t talk and whom nobody knows. I have a 100% perfect track record of this. And I know most of the people in the company (although given that I just spent ten months in Shanghai there is a slightly higher proportion of unfamiliar faces than normal). It’s like they’re rigging the draw on me.
In fact, I learned this year that some of my colleagues were re-drawing until they picked the name of someone they knew. I had no idea such a thing was allowed or I would have gamed my own draw. Some people in are office are easy to buy for, such as the company driver (baijiu). But, no, I had to play by the rules and ended up with a new girl who works way at the other end of the office and who has a spartan desk that reveals nothing about her life, loves, hopes, pets, celebrity crushes, get-even list, or anything else that might be remotely useful in picking a gift.
Not that with 50RMB to spend I could get all that creative. Our offices are in Oriental Plaza, which features a mall where the list of things that can be purchased for under RMB50 is this long:
Trust me: You don’t want to leave a box of gift wrapped dumplings under the tree for too long, unless you want to deck the halls with vomit on Christmas morning.
Thus inspired, I invariably procrastinate my purchase until the last possible minute and then end up in one of two places: Watsons or the “Ole!” supermarket. There I end up contemplating the usual range of naff or inappropriate possibilities. Doraemon shampoo? Nahh, toiletries are too personal. Who knows what fragrance this girl likes? Condoms? I don’t want to be hacked to death by her family And anyway, the Japanese ones are RMB75 and thus over the budget. Muesli? Nail polish? Stationery? A fake Rolex? (You have to go outside to buy this.) None of it seems very exciting. And the western get-out-of-Christmas-jail-free card, the gift certificate, doesn’t really seem to exist here.
I actually thought about breaking the rules this year and spending semi-lavishly just for the hell of it. Why not buy her a real Swatch or Casio watch? Or an iPod Nano? Or a sexy mobile phone? That would rock the party. But it might also kindle jealousy, dangerous recriminations or the (wrong) assumption that a certain Santa was on the make. The program might be “anonymous”, but even a fairly retarded detective could identify the offending Santa by simple elimination. This is especially true as secret Santas tend to out themselves at the party unless they are particularly ashamed of their gifts.
Faced with these undesirable options I elect to punt: I buy candy. At least, my theory goes, she can share it with her teammates if she doesn’t like it. Having become acquainted with the strange, Chinese fascination for a certain kind of imported candy, and mind controlled by the miles of it on display, I made the inevitable choice. Ironically, even though I have a world-beating sweet tooth inherited from my English, goose-roasting father, I hate this particular candy. How pathetic is that? I bought this poor girl whom I don’t even know candy that I can’t stand because I was too creatively bankrupt to come up with a better choice. Merry freakin’ Christmas.
To make this situation extra tragic, I have one-and-a-half boxes of this same candy sitting at home. They were brought over to my house by one of my colleagues when I had a team dinner recently. But these were in a distinctively shaped package, and I didn’t want to give the same configuration, lest my naked re-gifting ploy be spotted. Those candies are destined for my ahyi. She’s from Anhui. She’ll eat anything. Or, more likely, huishou it for cash.
So bought an RMB45 box of candy I already had and put in a gift bag that cost another RMB20, thus putting me over the limit but, I figure, allowing me to squeak by on a technicality as the bag isn’t technically the gift. I probably should have given her an envelope with cash in it.
I console myself with the thought that most of my colleagues, Chinese and foreign, aren’t much better at this than me. While buying my “gift” today I bumped into another colleague who was on the same mission. She, however, opted for default choice two, different famous candy brand. A couple of years ago one colleague of mine was so unimpressed with her secret Santa gift –which I won’t describe here for fear of driving someone to suicide– that she “forgot” it in the back of a taxi on the way home from the party. It wasn’t even worth passing to her ahyi. It was that bad.
At least I have this burdensome task dealt with for another year. But I’ll be on a plane back from a meeting in Japan during this year’s Christmas party. That’s a shame because, secret Santa aside, I genuinely enjoy the Christmas party. But at least I won’t be there to see the look of numb indifference on my colleague’s face when she becomes the 20th person that evening to receive a box of the same candy.
Ho, ho, ho.
Note: Slightly edited from the original to add some deniability.