Cody Hoffman, an English teacher in Shenzhen, describes the novelty of experiencing Christmas in China with students, colleagues and friends – even if the Christmas parcels from home may not arrive until Chinese New Year!
“So class, December 25th is a SPECIAL DAY!” I looked at my captive audience, 50 tiny first-graders staring at me with wide eyes – showing their eagerness to learn, or maybe complete bewilderment. I gesture to the calendar page projected on the classroom screen. “Does anyone know… what December 25th is?” Blank faces. Okay, I prepared for this. I press a few buttons, and some colourful lights, a red and green gift box, and a dancing Santa appear around the circled date. “December 25th…” I prompt… “Does anyone know?” Blank faces. Then a couple of voices tentatively call out “…Christmas?” Okay, so at least a few of them know what Christmas is, or at least know how to say it in English. But this may be harder than I thought. I mean, how do you explain to a group of six-year-olds with a shaky grasp of the English language the concept of a magical, overweight, bearded man sneaking down people’s chimneys at night with a sack of gifts in tow? Do any of these kids even have a chimney?
Yes, Christmas is here in Shenzhen, China, even if the chance of seeing snow is approximately nil and most of us foreign teachers are a grueling long-haul flight away from our families. Shopping malls are decked out with massive, LED-light covered “trees” and reindeer window stickers. You can find Christmas decorations and festive accessories at any grocery store – take your pick from a selection of traditional or Hello Kitty-themed Santa hats! Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here – though you’d be hard pressed to find any religious connotations in the sparkling storefront displays.
One thing that I’ve learned from living abroad is this: the holidays can be some of the most challenging times, yet they’re often the times when you can feel the strongest sense of community. For one thing, I barely have any time to feel homesick, as the whole month of December has become packed with festive activities. The celebrations kick off with a pot-luck dinner and party; our friends have decorated their flat with lights and snowflakes, and will be hiding their best pillows in case someone gets a bit too ‘festive’ and spills their ‘Christmosa’ cocktail. The following Friday, our teaching agency is holding a fancy bash for all of us teachers, then on Saturday we’ll check out the Christmas market in town before heading to yet another friend’s holiday bash.
In December, the holidays have been an endlessly interesting topic of conversation. One evening last week, five of us were at a British-themed pub sipping our toffee-apple cider (or ‘Christmas in a glass’ as my friend Kate called it). She explained her philosophy on Christmas gifts: “My mom always said that everyone should always have something to unwrap on Christmas morning, even if it’s just … a pencil or something. It doesn’t matter, as long as you can unwrap something, that’s the important part”. But as we all knew at this point, we’re probably better off not expecting holiday parcels to arrive from family back home. We’d all heard the horror stories spread through WeChat group conversations about care packages that took months to get to China, or worse, never arrived at all.
My boyfriend and I are lucky: his mom is Cantonese, so she can write out our address in Chinese characters. Because of this helpful skill (and most likely sheer motherly determination), she’s somehow managed to successfully mail us two separate packages. The most recent of these is scrawled with a message: “Do not open until December 25th!” So if all else fails, we at least have something to open on Christmas day, even if it is wrapped in sturdy bubble envelope rather than shiny paper. I think Kate’s mom would still approve.
Later in class, I learned that most of my students somehow know how to sing Jingle Bells – or at least they know the general tune of the carol, if not the actual words. As the excited students bounce around me after class, shouting out random syllables that very loosely sound like “one horse open sleigh”, I can’t help but feel a bit of festive spirit. After all, it’s the little moments of laughter and joy that make the holidays special. Christmas in China may not be what you’re used to, but it ultimately comes down to what you make of it. You can spend your time dwelling on the fact that things are unfamiliar, or you can embrace the unique experience with open arms, and perhaps a full glass of mulled wine in hand. I know which one I’m choosing.
If you’ve been teaching in China for a few months and are starting to make plans for 2018, check out our article on deciding whether to stay in China: http://www.teachersforasia.com/whats-next-weighing-up-the-pros-and-cons-of-staying-another-year-in-china/.