Letters From China (Holidays 2007)

As the year slides to it’s final months, let’s take a look back a whole decade and see what my very first holiday season overseas was like. In many ways it seemed like western holidays were a bit of a novelty in China (not unlike how Chinese New Year is in the West?). Thanksgiving Dinner specials at expat restaurants were the only place to find turkey and cranberry sauce; and Christmas was entirely bereft of religious overtones (not a single nativity, angel, or baby Jesus anywhere!) focusing instead on Santa, beautiful lights, and fun gatherings, which since I’m not actually Christian are really my favorite parts. Happy Holidays!


Nov 23, 2007 at 10:21pm [American Thanksgiving]

It was strange to celebrate this holiday so far from home, but it turned out pretty good.

I had a class in the early morning, so we headed into Beijing after lunch. We did some shopping, and stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing Christmas muzak, which was vaguely cool.

We had reservations at a place called Grandma’s Kitchen, and we had a small map to it on the back of thier card. The interesting thing here is that it was in a Soho compound, and there are about 80 of those in the city, and the girl who made the reservations thought it was the one at Dawanglu, when it was actually at Yong’anli, 2 subway stops over. I managed to figure out what part of the city it was in from the map, but even in that complex there were like 7 Soho buildings, labeled by giant letters in front (I should have thought to take a pic, but we were lost). It took us quite a while, and three times asking directions (in Chinese) to get there, and then one of us (Kevin) had to go back to the subway station to meet Michelle, because she was meeting us there and went to the wrong place.

After much adventure, we all arrived. The place was empty at first, although by the middle of our meal it was packed. I was really surprised to see so many Chinese people there for the holiday dinner. The menu included a full 5 course dinner, not all of which was traditional American T-day stuff, but it was all tasty.

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The first course was a choice of bacon wrapped shrimp or stuffed mushroom, I ordered the shrimp, but traded one out for a mushroom. Both were good. The second course was salad, I got the spinach and pear, it was also nice. The third course was awesome, a rich pumpkin soup.

The main course included turkey with gravey, sweet potatoes which were mixed with a touch of cinnamon and the white thing on top is a marshmallow with a little lemony bit in the middle, which was a really nice combo with the cinnamoned yams, carrots (mediocre), bread stuffing that I avoided, cranberry sauce which was quite nice, and for no apparent reason, baked beans (they were out of mashed potatoes). And I chose the pumpkin pie for dessert, which was almost, but not quite, as good as mom’s.

Over dessert we went around and said what we were thankful for, and for me this included my friends and family at home who support me in my crazy life, finding a decent job here in China, and finding good people here to share the experience with. We told stories of Thanksgivings past, and generally had a really good night. I took some pictures of us, and had some pics taken so you could see the people as well as the food.

From left to right its Bill, Kevin, Michelle, Erwin and me.

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I love and miss you all, I hope you had wonderful Thanksgivings wherever you were.

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:28pm

Although I have actually seen a couple Christmas trees around town (amazing though that is), I decided the only real way to have my fill of Christmas spirit was to decorate!

So I went to Wal-Mart and got a little plastic tree (20 kuai), and a string of lights to put on it… (16 Kuai), and some cute little painted pine cone ornaments (honestly the most tasteful ones available, most were gawdawful plastic do-dads, there were some nicer glass ball types, but they were too big for my mini-tree), and a Santa topper (ok, not really a topper, its really an ornament that I cut the string off of and poked a hole in the bottom of so I could shove it on the top of the tree, but hey…14 kuai)

However, the lights were blinkey, and not in a nice way, in a terribly erratic way, and like so many Chinese things, they were broken 5 minutes after I got them, and the middle of the strand stopped lighting at all, I have no idea why. So I went to the local store and bought new lights in the shape of little presents, which I like much better. (10 kuai)

And so as not to waste my blinky lights, I hung them in my window which faces the street to spread my Christmas cheer to all passers by.

Dec 16, 2007 at 7:21pm

Its been strange, building up to Christmas in a place where every street isn’t lined with decorations, houses aren’t competing for the biggest, brightest light show, department stores aren’t spouting Christmas carols 24/7 and there are no bell ringing Santas out front of the grocery stores. Some days it seems like it must still be November.

There are a few trees and decorations here and there, plastic trees and paper Santas. I’ve got a tree, of course, and my window lights, which are the only Christmas lights on display I’ve seen in Yanjiao.

I went to Wal-mart in Beijing today, though and there are bigger trees. It looked like some workers were setting up a light display, and there was even a store that had reindeer out front.

I treated myself to a gingerbread latte at Starbucks, and sat amid the Christmas music and decorations and almost felt like I was just in another city in America… almost.

But one of the amazing things I noticed in the middle of all this complete lack of Christmasosity (I can’t even find candy canes), was that my students, 20+ tho they may be, are like little children about Christmas. Its still magical and amazing to them, because they haven’t done it every year of their lives.

I downloaded some classic Christmas tv, like Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph and of course the Grinch (the good cartoon version), and as I sat in the darkened classroom, watching these cartoons for the umpteenth time and taking some solace in the sameness and familiarity of them, I realized something really amazing.

As I sat there listening to my students laughing out loud at the Grinch’s dog Max *for the first time in thier lives*, it was an amazing experience for me to hear that laughter and realize that these young adults were enjoying Christmas tv for the first time.

Say whatever you want about Americanization, cultural pollution or even the evils of Christianity, but the fact is, I’m not Christian, and Christmas is older than America, and whatever these kids have in their own culture, there isn’t a winter holiday that’s getting pushed aside to make room for Christmas, so if they can find out from me that Christmas is joy, and cheer and goodwill and cookies, then that makes me pretty darn happy.

Dec 17, 2007 at 9:37pm

Despite the fact that most of you seem to have forgotten I’m in the future, and that today was my birthday… and more gruelingly the fact that I’ve got a horrible cold, and that I’ve finally broken into my third decade, as my mother was so kind to point out, and its freezing cold and I had to start giving finals today… it turned out to be a good birthday after all.

The morning was ok, I woke up too early, but it gave me some extra time to chat online. All my students wished me a happy birthday at the exam this morning, and a couple even gave me presents. One boy gave me some dried fruit snacks and a girl gave me a lovely Peiking opera mask miniature of the monkey king.

100_0693After the exams I went to lunch and enjoyed some hot soup, then came home to grade papers, not really thinking much of the day. The school sent over a cute little cake which i decided to hold on to until I could share it with some folks at dinner tomorrow. I graded papers, looked at more evil forms and watched some X-files, all the while becoming more icky feeling and more cold.

Finally it got to be time to go to my evening class, which I didn’t want to go to cause I’m tired and sick and have to be up super early tomorrow for another final. But I drag myself across campus in the cold, I get up to the 9th floor and see one of my students going into the classroom and closing the door behind her.

I thought, ‘well that’s odd, I could swear she saw me’. Then when I tried to go into the room, another student asked me to wait outside, and when they finally let me in, they had prepared a birthday cake with candles and everything, and they sang me “happy birthday” in English and Chinese.

I couldn’t blow out the candle on the first try (probably because of my cold) but on the second try I actually blew it over (fortunately it was out first). The cake said “We ❤ U” with a picture of a heart, and was decorated with a huge frosting Santa. The cake was quite large enough for everyone in class to have a big piece. I didn’t have my camera, but several of the students took pictures on their phones and I asked them to email the pics to me, which I’ll post once they do. *(they never did)*

I honestly don’t remember the last time I had a surprise party. I’ve been organizing my own birthday parties for so long I figured here I am so far from home and I haven’t invited anyone to celebrate with me, so nothing will happen. It was so sweet and thoughtful of these students to organize even a simple cake and singalong that I feel like I really have had a happy birthday, in spite of some pretty overwhelming odds.

If this is anything to go on, I hope the whole decade is full of such happy surprises.

Dec 19, 2007 at 11:17pm

Wow. I have just gotten back after 4 hours of dinner and party.  The dinner was held in the hotel next door, in a huge room decorated with a Christmas tree and other festive decorations. We had so much good food, most of which was far less oily than my usual, and they even had french fries, which were fun to eat with chopsticks. They also had lots of booze, wine, beer and baijiu, as well as a homemade “wine” from one of the women there.

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It actually turned out to be pretty fun, as every 2-3 minutes someone else came by our table to make a toast, so we all got pretty toasty. We sang a Christmas song, and the Chinese sang us a song about friendship, then we went across campus to see the show the students had prepared.

The show was put on by the business department, so none of my students were there (there’s another party on Sunday night for that, I hear). There was singing, dancing, and performances by many unique instrumentalists (both the instruments and the players were unique).

There was a student dressed up as Santa Claus who gave us all Christmas cards and candy (I even got a Santa hat!).

I’m going to have to buy more batteries so I can take pictures of the parties in my classes and the one on Sunday night, as well as our ‘teachers only’ dinner on Christmas eve.

I thought for a while that I would miss out on Christmas by being here in China, but the faculty and students have gone out of their way to make us have a good Christmas, and even though the traditions aren’t quite the same, I definitely feel full of Christmas cheer.

Here’s the show: dancing girls, rapping guys, singers, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, accordion player, and a whole crowd of audience.

 

The students threw glitter and spray snow all over the teachers.

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Dec 26, 2007 at 5:20pm

I had 6 parties in all, one you’ve already seen was the department party, then there were 3 class parties and a school dance, and our teacher dinner. This post will have 2 of the class parties (the third one wasn’t much to look at), and the school dance.

Here’s the first class, they’re advanced conversation. They went to town decorating the room.

Here’s the school dance, I was warned it was going to be like a middle school dance with the girls on one side and the boys on the other, but there was a performance, which I missed most of because Kevin wanted to get drinks first.. the VP of the college asked me to sing. I couldn’t exactly refuse, so I sang one verse of silent night. And I got dragged out to dance quite a bit, and I noticed how much the smog affects me, since my lungs stayed on fire way worse than even at the Merc [a Seattle dance club]. But it was fun, and there was certainly lots of dancing.

And here is the last class party, once again, there was an abundance of decorating. In both cases the class monitors brought speakers to hook up an MP3 player to so we had music, people brought snacks and decorations, I brought Christmas bingo, a puzzle game and taught them some Christmas carols, including the 12 days, which was hilarious, at least for me. There was also dancing in the classes as well. They really like singing and dancing.

Merry Christmas from all the Chinese kids!

Dec 29, 2007 at 2:53am

The long awaited Christmas Eve Dinner. We went to a place called Cafe Europa, it was in the same giant shopping complex as Grandma’s Kitchen, but a totally different atmosphere. It was elegant, but not overstated, which was nice, since so many Chinese Christmas decorations are like 5 yr old meets raver kid style. There were 9 of us, and 9 is an auspicious number in China, so who knows, maybe we get some good luck.

Erwin, Michelle, Rebecca, Jonathan, Bill, Peter, Terry, Louise and myself.

It was a pleasant evening, the restaurant never got too crowded or noisy, but we weren’t the only people celebrating. We had some champagne and beer, and a (mostly) pleasant conversation, tho toward the end it devolved into “first date deal breakers” thanks to Peter.

The menu was very nice. We started off with a small foie gras appetizer, served over a tomato vinaigrette salad, entirely too many people were hesitant about the paté, but I thought it was lovely. This was followed by a salmon appetizer with a quail egg and salmon roe in addition to the normal onions and capers. This was my first salmon since leaving Seattle and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Then there was a lobster bisque, nice and rich.

Followed by I think the biggest pile of prime rib I’ve ever been served, huge thick slices, tender and well seasoned. YUM! It made me glad I hadn’t eaten much all day. Dessert was a mousse plate, there’s a white chocolate mousse which tasted a lot like devonshire cream, in a chocolate dish, and a milk chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.

On our way back to the main road toward a taxi, we passed these pretty lights and Peter redeemed himself by singing Christmas carols in harmony with me, which was fun.

Christmas (11)

When we got back to Yanjiao, we went to a local bar and stayed out drinking until 4am. (the people working there kept going to sleep behind the bar between rounds, but they never asked us to leave) I somehow got roped into doing tarot readings with a deck of playing cards, which amused everyone, and we finished off the evening with a rousing game of “I never”. Maybe not the most Christmassy ever, but there was a big tree decorated and lit up in the bar, and we had a toast at midnight to welcome Christmas in.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been hard to be away from you all during the holidays, but given the circumstances, I had a pretty good Christmas.


It makes me cringe just a little bit to read how totally Americentric and culturally illiterate I was back then, but on the other hand, it was having experiences like these that helped me grow into the person I am now. We all have to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll look back on my current blog entries and groan.

I can also see the slow detachment I’m having from Western holidays. I still like going to expat dinners, and I definitely still like decorating my home for Christmas, but every year it’s easier to focus on the holidays that the country I’m in is celebrating rather than pine for the celebrations I’m missing. Buddha’s Birthday has been one of my favorites here in Korea when everyone decorates in beautiful lanterns.

However you celebrate, and whoever you celebrate with, I hope you have some very happy holidays this year!

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