Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Christmas in China

The common question: Do people celebrate Christmas in China?

In a sixth-grade level of an answer: sort of.
They do not seem to celebrate it enough to make me miss home, but they celebrate it enough to be mildly entertaining.


The decorations mainly went up about a week (maybe two) before Christmas. The decorations were the entertaining part. The majority were typical trees, bows, and Santa Claus paraphernalia, but all with a cultural twist to them.

First off, nobody knows what Christmas really means. Well, no one I've met. Like home, it's a money scam, and here, an idea to attract foreigners for business profit. They will throw a picture of Santa Claus over a toy, but nobody seems to know the story behind the fat, jolly old man. There are no crosses, lambs, Wisemen, or baby Jesus' around. I've seen Santa's, snowmen, tinsel and bells hung in EVERY color and every size, omitting the true sense of Christmas and replacing it with "holiday" accents. Since when is Santa pink?

The most entertaining element about the decorations is what they say. How can you screw up Merry Christmas? I've seen decorations that read: Happy Christmas; or, Happy Christmas and Happy New Year. Many signs would reveal a word and not a sentence. For example, a bow that simply read: Christmas; or a bell that read: Jingle Bells. Christmas trees and tinsel went up in some areas. In comparison to what we are used to, as Americans, any one of us might argue that the way they do Christmas is nonetheless TACKY. Gaudy even. I am talking huge gold trees, silver trees, pink trees, red trees, etc., with repetitive bulky ornaments (stars, bells, reindeer, bows) bouquet-ed all over them. They certainly be lovin' red and gold, I'll tell you that much.


Quick, get my Ray Ban's

I cannot skip out on the festive baked goods in some of the western-style cafes and bakeries. I could really kick myself for not taking pictures of the madness while I had the chance. Where do I begin? To celebrate Christmas, some places opted to create molded chocolate Santa masterpieces (larger than your I-Pad and I am not talking mini), weird Christmas people who have nothing to do with anything, etc. For me, these Christmas creatures were the ultimate giveaway that nobody truly celebrated or understood Christmas over here. Some of these chocolate creations came in different colors. Must have mixed Christmas up for Easter. If someone handed me a red chocolate elf (with its beady, hollow eyes) that was twice the size of my rabbit, I'd turn the thing into a voodoo doll and melt its face off. That or repackage it and give it to someone who let the door hit me in the face one too many times. The nerve. Those Christmas sculptures of chocolate, cookie and RED BEAN were SCARY and the only people I saw buying them were Chinese. Just sayin.

             WANTED: Music for cause of homesickness.

There were certainly times I missed home throughout the holiday. I should have just steered clear of Starbucks. They brought in their seasonal beverages, set out all of their overpriced Christmas merchandise and played endless cheery Christmas music. Oh, it felt like home! Bring me figgy pudding grandma! Fatten me with your chocolate cookies and intoxicate me with your eggnog! Fight family-battle away! Grandmother, tell me one more time what I'm doing wrong or how someone else is doing it better! Father, joy to the bar! Mother, no joy in the kitchen! Sisters, let's jingle bell rock to the echo of mind numbing controversies! Regardless, it's love. Suddenly I'd find myself thinking about my nephews, Kaylie, Bri, my grandma <3 Ugh, I missed them. I'd imagine us celebrating Christmas in a way that was pleasing to the heart, but would later realize that Christmases never really turned out like that due to long work hours (to afford the gifts), class, studying, traffic, or bad weather. For me, it was always the thought of next year.

Speaking of music, another place that played (and is still playing) Christmas music was McDonalds. Every Thursday, if it's raining (and it usually is), I spend about 30 minutes at a McDonald's in warmth and sip my coffee between classes. They started playing Christmas music in early November and still haven't stopped (it's almost February). I'm not sure which is more predictable: the Christmas music to be played or the amount of bums who tinker in and nudge you for money. They both. Get. Old.

                                     Teaching Christmas
                                                       Bah, I was not trained for this.

Christmas with my first and second graders was great. I spent 2 sessions with them trying to explain the traditions of Christmas. On top of our language barrier, they were too young to fully understand the history of Christmas so I stuck to traditions. Although I did ask my collaborating Chinese-English teacher to explain some of the religious history with a link to an online presentation. I thought explaining Christmas traditions to them would be simple enough to foreign kids, but it wasn't. Silly rabbit.

I cannot access YouTube on the computers at school, so some of the educational videos I found were more or less useless. I found myself in disbelief how nearly every person uses YouTube as a source for video uploads. China can't see it; use something else!  I gave up on videos and turned to power points. I could not find anything that was fundamental/entertaining enough for my kids to understand. I tried putting together my own power point, but I have to use this "ghetto" program that requires decades of patience and half the time will reformat itself once I upload it to the computers at school. I really wanted my kids to enjoy my Christmas lesson AND understand it.Go big or go home.

So, I decided to dedicate a FULL Saturday to creating a video that would ignite some interest and that their temporal lobes would absorb. I knew I would not find what I wanted online here, so I just had to make it. I prayed it would come out alright and they would actually LAUGH and LEARN something. Otherwise, I'd have wasted all that time. Most of the pictures I used came from random friends pictures on facebook, along with my own family photos. I downloaded some free Christmas music for the background and threw in some effects. My roommate was home during this. If I analyzed what he thought I was doing in my room all that time and where those noises were coming from, I may not have done it.



                                          The Outcome

I was way more nervous than anything when my face was on that big screen in the classroom and those preliminary phrases were flying from my mouth. Suddenly I felt vulnerable to ridicule and haters. However, I would call it a success because each class seemed to be out of their seats while watching it and made some pretty enthused, responsive noises throughout. If I could do it over I would have shortened it by two minutes and I would have added a question or two along with the answer. I sent it to Val and he said he was so inspired he was making his own video. He asked permission to show it to his classes. Feedback like that made it worth it; even if I do look like one of the Wiggles :[ But NOT the purple one.

I have to say, this will be one of the most memorable Christmases I've had yet. Christmas alone has made this whole adventure worth it. The culture here has taught me so much about MY OWN and the things that WE DO differently from EVERYONE ELSE. We don't realize the ways in which WE are DIFFERENT because we aren't surrounded by anything but what our society creates; because we expect people to think and live like us; and because we tend to negate ourselves from accepting the unknown. I've come to appreciate holidays different from my own, as well as the various ways of celebrating them. For example, Teacher's Day!                                        

                                         My Christmas

This year I received a priceless Christmas present: my boyfriend flew in from New Jersey and would be staying with me for a WHOLE MONTH! You have no idea the excitement and anticipation that pulsated through my body as the days drew closer to his arrival.

Christmas, as well as Christmas Eve, were full work days and would be the first time Brandon had ever seen a Chinese school and me teach! I could not believe he was about to watch ME teach in a CHINESE school. I just couldn't even comprehend it. He barely had any time to allow the culture shock to sink in. It all came at once for him. I HAD TO WORK.

On Christmas Eve, Monday, I told Brandon to sleep in while I taught for two hours in the morning. We had just gotten back from Shanghai the night before, and he was taking a lot in. I don't think anything could prepare you for visiting China for the first time. Arriving in Nanjing, he had the eyes and motions of a newly delivered baby -eyes rollin' around and stiffened-like reflexes. Gazing, lookin' like he's seen the light for the first time, not knowin' which way to look.

I got back, and we spent the afternoon walking around the area I live. There was so much to say! He was in a different world. He was now entering the world I had been talking about for months. He would FINALLY understand. I pointed out markets, all the hanging meat and clothes, the everyday traffic, the constant noisy construction, shaggy apartment buildings, where I tutor, places I used to live, my office, and I introduced him to street food. Underground meat and grease. My God he loved chicken boutza, or steamed bun. For lunch I took him to a hole-in-the-wall noodle/joutza (steamed dumpling) joint right at the center of a typical, run-down, haggard side street. Dogs roamed, people picked trash on the hour, and in the summers, some would sponge bathe outdoors in large bowls right in the street.  I'm sure many of you have bedrooms larger than the little restaurant we ate in. They practically cook everything outside. I ordered us chicken soup. The soup here is nothing like the soup at home and one of the few reasons is because they ONLY use freshly soft noodles. It is SO GOOD. They do not dice anything nicely for you. With their hands, they will pull apart and throw in vegetables; they do not chop egg, they throw in the whole egg; and they only serve a little bit of meat which comes out in big or small hacked chunks. Chicken always comes on the bone. I had to explain to Brandon that he had to use his chopsticks and eat the chicken off the bone if he wanted any meat. Watching this was hilarious. He gave in and used his hands. He reminded me of myself when I first got here.

Brandon's first tea 

Brandon's first joutsa

Later I took him to the university I tutored at. He met Carrot, Sampson, Bobby, Bryan and Joyce for the first time. My students greeted me with Christmas chocolate. Truffles, Rochet, a big chocolate bar with dried strawberries all over it, and a chocolate (kids) egg. It was cute. I had them make Christmas cards for their parents. Brandon probably spent more time laughing than anything else. They are quite a group. Tutoring is more intimate and laid back. They do not have drills and I allow them to express how they feel and goof off as long as they aren't too silly. By that time of day, 4:00pm, we had all had a long day. There was no way Brandon was not amused by their sense of humor. Impossible.

This was how Carrot, Sampson, Bobby, Bryan and Joyce described Brandon in a later tutoring session.

                      In School: Christmas Eve & Christmas

So, I had my first graders on Christmas make Christmas cards. I entered class wearing my Santa antlers proudly and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. My second graders stared at Brandon a lot and wanted to know who he was. After they saw the colored paper and paper Christmas shapes that Brandon helped me cut out on Christmas Eve, they were motivated to start gluing their Christmas cards together. They read:

"Dear Mom and Dad,
Merry Christmas!
Love, ______"
Brandon assisting with glue on his first day

2nd grade making Christmas cards

One of my second grade classes making Christmas cards

Brandon got his first taste of what I go through while teaching: language barriers, not enough hands, and thinking on my feet because every teacher knows that lessons often do not go the way you intended. Imagine a faltering lesson with a foreign group of students who do not know your language and very little resources to work with. I went in with three glue sticks for 22 students and one of them ripped the glue out of one of them. The next thing I knew they were fighting over glue. I didn't have enough hands to help (the ones who needed the help) ALL of them write their card. I have a teachers assistant, but she sat at a desk the whole time and graded papers. All class long: Lexy, Lexy, Lexy! Look at my card! I need yellow! Where's the glue? I don't understand! Who is that!? I want a different shape! I ripped my card! Help! Then they all tried giving me their Christmas cards when they were finished, I had to explain (many times) that they should give it to their parents. I had to gesture the act out in order for them to understand. Then the bell rang and I had to do it all over again, only now I had one less glue stick, wrinkled shapes of paper, and marker on my jacket. Brandon saw it all. He wore an observant smile on his face the whole time. 

I have to say, it was enjoyable. It was enjoyable because I knew my students were engaged in making their Christmas cards. Even with them yelling my name and crying over not finding the right shade of green for their tree, how can you not break into smile when they start singing Jingle Bells or show you their card and then give you a big hug? Moments like that warm my heart.

That day I gave chocolate and cookies to the other teachers I work with, and gave Amy a shirt I had made for us. It's an inside joke, but I had us shirts made that read: We're English Teachers; Not Miracle Workers! I don't think parents realize just how hard it is to learn a new language and I'll leave it at that.

After teaching at one school on Christmas, I moved on to the next school and brought Brandon with me. He was in awe of their appearance. Their design is contrasting to schools in America. In school, you feel very outdoors. He was also taken back by how cold it was. I cannot stress enough how hard it is to warm up in the winter. My students learn while wearing layers and layers of clothing and their jackets. Their legs are stuffed in leg warmers. The same goes for me. There were times Brandon had to walk out of class to regain feeling in his hands and feet.

You Shao 2
Brandon helping kids feed fish

My next class was from 3:20-5:00pm and not only would they be making Christmas cards, but they (and Brandon) would be watching my homemade Christmas video. Brandon would also be introduced to my partner in crime: Wasabi (my little green frog). Brandon was in for a surprise because he had no idea what my video was all about. The feeling that he could share that moment with me brings me to life. I can try to explain what it was like to see their faces light up to Christmas traditions they had NEVER SEEN BEFORE, but I feel you had to be there to really honor the moment. We are so used to seeing houses lit up, reindeer, Santa with his reindeer, decorated stockings stuffed with candy, gingerbread houses, turkey, decked out Christmas trees, toddlers on Christmas morning....well they aren't and no holiday they celebrate is anything like it.

My lil beggars: Batman and Snow White

Assisting Transformer with glue.

"I got this."

"Okay, still got it..."

"Aw, crap!"
One of my favorite memories of the first 2 days was telling my kids that Brandon would be picking three of his favorite Christmas cards and those students would win a prize (bookmarks). They !stampeded! him to show him their cards. It was like throwing bread to starving geese. He had mobs running after him. I saw some of the same students show him their cards more than 5 times. Poor Brandon! Welcome to day 1!

                                        Christmas Eve/ Christmas Dinner

On Christmas Eve, I brought Brandon with me to a small JESIE dinner where he would sit with Chinese people and meet some of my coworkers for the first time. It would also be the first time he'd have Beijing duck. Wraps. Delicious, and Brandon's new favorite. This dinner allowed him to try a lot of traditional Chinese food, including: fresh jasmine flower tea, lamb, egg drop soup, flat bread, fish, stir fried noodles, various vegetables, a typical Chinese dessert (always jelly-like), squid, 100-year-old eggs, etc.

Mouthwatering Lamb

JESIE Christmas feast

Christmas would be the first Chinese dinner where we would go out and I would do all of the ordering. Luckily I had gained a good amount of knowledge on Chinese food through much experimentation and trial and error; and it helped that I picked up a few Chinese words so I could actually order. If there were communication issues, I had to get us out of it. I did not have a translator. I wanted us to have a nice dinner, so I was feeling the pressure!

The first restaurant we walked into was scary. It looked elegant and traditional through the glass windows, but then we were greeted with a line of hanging animal flesh upon entering which hung off a line. I barely even noticed the two Chinese girls in their red Chinese dresses offering us a seat. I want to say they were attractive girls, but the meat is fogging my memory of them. I DO remember asking for a menu, caidan, and the woman looked confused which then confused me which surely confused Brandon. This is a typical moment in China, for anyone. Instead of telling me the menu was on the wall (there were two walls of pictures), she went into some twitch fit and pointed to some thought as if I was a mind reader. We walked forward and I saw walls of pictures. I thought, "why wouldn't you just walk us over here?" It turned out, the first restaurant I brought us to was known for their fresh slaughter. You saw birds chirping in cages; hanging meat; living creatures slightly hidden under tables (chickens, turtles), etc. We left, frightened. Good job, Alexa. 

The second restaurant was a total score. It was another traditional Chinese restaurant, not too fancy, but most certainly no hole in the wall. Christmas was a busier-than-usual night, so we had to wait about a whole ten minutes. Brandon had no clue what anything on the menu was. It was 100% in Chinese, but it did offer pictures. It hit me that I had come a long way; I knew a great deal of the menu, but wouldn't have 4 months ago. As usual, our server, or fuyuan,  stood over my shoulder and waited for me to order. Do you know how annoying that is? They give you a menu and just stand there, right over you, staring into your eyes impatiently. I knew Brandon was uncomfortable. I wouldn't make eye contact with her and eventually (thanks to a crowded restaurant) she left. Brandon said he trusted me so I chose a few dishes for us to share (because you always order to share). Next, we  cheers'ed our green tea to a Merry Christmas!

The food I ordered for us:

Duck: I ordered duck, but only got it halfway right. The duck came out, but it was cold. Wah!

Tuna Rolls: They were these cold, thin, sliced  appetizer rolls filled with tuna, cucumber and I don't really know what else. I ate most of them- Brandon was not a huge fan.

Soup: Having soup with our meal was important to me, so I chose a thirst quenching, brothy fish soup. I took a real chance with it because I didn't know what kind of fish it was. It looked like cod. I recognized tofu soup, but tofu was already in our main course. The soup was very good, BUT hard to eat. The fish had bones in it. I hate that. I'm tired of eating around bones!

Tofu: Soft tofu marinaded in a dark spicy sauce.

Flat bread: A signature food here. I find flat bread everywhere. Apparently it goes well with soup. It did not accent fish soup too well, but this deep fried flat bread was super tasty with everything else.

Tofu silk: A cold side dish. A new texture of tofu for Brandon. They were tiny strands of tofu mixed in a ginger-sesame sauce. We were both fans of the silk.

Indeed, it was a memorable Christmas dinner. I thought of the movie A Christmas Story, when the turkey is ruined so the family goes to the only place open: a Chinese restaurant. That's kind of what it felt like. I didn't ruin the turkey, but I ordered cold duck. In all seriousness, the food was excellent and we had a wonderful Chinese meal together. Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this post Alexa, thanks for sharing.