Christmas and New Years have passed, but you wouldn’t know it in Xinjiekou. In Nanjing’s crowded, glittering commercial center, the Holiday Spirit lasts all the way from Halloween until Spring Festival. Restaurants and stores are still draped with tinsel garlands, and Chinese-accented versions of Christmas carols still float through the aisles of Carrefour. Jenga bears, jenga bears, jenga are de wei!

As I pass by a bank, I pause to take a closer look at the busy, glittery Santa Clause posters plastered to the windows. “Santa” looks suspiciously identical to one of Snow White’s Seven Disney Dwarfs, and interspersed among the glittery tufts of his white beard are representatives of the season’s spiritual iconography: butterflies, surfboards, and a boombox. I pass a nail salon where the single word “Merry” has been scrawled across the glass door in a shade of dusty red not unlike dried blood.

I’ve enjoyed the random and often surreal cheer of holiday season in China.

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Sometimes it’s very surreal.

But the part that’s gotten under my skin somehow, reminding me that I am truly on the other side of the world and standing on different soil, is the strawberries.

It’s strawberry season in China.

I can’t explain exactly why or how, but it is. Grocery stores and fruit shops have piles of fresh strawberries placed near the door. Migrants squat outside the metro stations selling them from baskets, and farmers push carts full of them down the street. 85°C, the Chinese bakery where I buy coffee because it’s three times cheaper than Starbucks, has a whole line of 草莓季(strawberry season) products, including fake-pink smoothies and strawberries-and-cream pastries.

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I can’t bring myself to eat any. Strawberries are delicate and vulnerable fruits, exposing their seeds and flesh to the world without even the thinnest protective layer of skin or rind. They belong in sunny June fields under a clear sky, and the organic ones are sweet, small, and delightfully misshapen.

I don’t know whether they were grown in local greenhouses or shipped from warmer parts of the country, but China’s Christmas strawberries are big, red, and perfect. Like Snow White’s apple, they are glistening and alluring. They are grotesque. They were grown under an orange sun pulsating in the metallic purple haze of a December afternoon. They send chills down my spine, like seeing a facial tumor or squishing a bug in a tissue and feeling its body between my fingertips.

They are a constant reminder that I am not home.

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