Let me start out by saying I am not a Christmas person. I’m not against Christmas in most respects, I’m not that much of a scrooge; I’m just genuinely not that into it. I love the lights and the Starbucks Christmas drinks and the joviality of most people, but that’s about it. Having said that, however, today was very possibly the best day and night I’ve had in China and it all has to do with Christmas.
Today started as the first day of teaching for the week (surprise no classes Monday) and set out to be an abnormal day from the beginning. Today I started giving exams to students and thus we all (my students and I) had an experience none of us had ever had before – an oral English exam given in 40 minutes of class to 50 students each period. Before bed last night and this morning I was actually quite anxious about giving the exam. The performance of my students (and reflectively on me) hinges on the grades of these students since this exam is the only grade in my classes. I didn’t want to make the exam too easy or too hard so as to make it worthless (the school threw out the foreign teachers’ exams last year) but I wanted to give the best exam I could given the extremely limited time and format – one that would adequately demonstrate to me, to the administration, and (possibly most importantly) to the students that they are indeed learning functional English in my class.
I walked in to the first class of the day (in every other situation my worst seventh grade class) and was greeted by a classroom of ear-to-ear grins. Even though some students were asking me repeatedly if they did indeed have an exam today and whether or not it was oral or written, they were all so cheerful and genuinely elated to see me. When I asked them “how are you today?” (as I always do to begin class) a roar of “I’m very happy” responded (even more unexpected given the usual answer is a half-hearted “I’m fine, thank you” from about half of the students). When I asked them why they’re so happy today they said “its Happy Christmas Eve Day! (and tomorrow is “Merry Christmas Day!”)
The exams went much better than expected (though each student only got asked 3-5 questions rather than 10 because of time restrictions) and I was given a handful of Christmas gifts (read bribes) from my students. The other three seventh grade classes I had the rest of the day went about the same with much jubilee, unexpected excitement about an oral exam, and discussions of “Merry Christmas Day”.
During the mid-morning break, the students had a “ceremony” for us and gave us a whole bunch of handmade Christmas cards for the students at Duncan’s mom’s school in North Carolina (whose students sent handmade Christmas cards to our students earlier this month).
After classes were done for the day, we were picked up by Enkui and driven to a restaurant to have “barbeque” to celebrate Christmas. The traffic (and smog) was absolutely terrible on the way there and I was amused by the explanation that it’s because tonight is “silent night” (meaning Christmas Eve). Though much different than we were expecting, Chinese BBQ was absolutely delicious and now I want one in my house in the States (and in the apartment here at the school, why not).
We finally got to meet Enkui’s daughter (on Christmas holiday from attending high school in the US at the same high school I went to in Texas) and after dinner we all piled into the car and headed to the downtown part of Baoding for a “Christmas parade”. A few blocks in between some of the giant shopping centers, the temple, the old government building, a Catholic Church, and some traditional alleyways were partitioned off against cars and were flooded with crowds of people celebrating Christmas Eve. The street vendors were out, people wore masks (kind of like a masquerade mixed with Mardi Gras and Halloween), children carried glowing light sabers and cotton candy sticks, and some rebellious few set off Chinese lanterns when they could avoid the patrolling “safety” police. We were watching one couple just get a lantern lit when three or four cops came up behind them and snatched away and put it out saying that it was forbidden because it was a potentially dangerous fire hazard. Despite this, anywhere you looked in the sky you could spot two or three lanterns people had sneakily let go. We have two lanterns we were going to set off but decided to wait until tomorrow night when we are at the school and out of city limits where they are not illegal.
As we were walking along, two guys probably in their early 20s came up to us and gave us the traditional Chinese Christmas present – apples. They were very happy to say hello and Merry Christmas to us and were thrilled when we wanted to take a picture with them and their presents to us. After a few minutes of jilted but very happy English we parted ways with an enthusiastic handshake and a “Welcome to China!”
Strange, for a culture that does not celebrate Christmas, every single person I interacted with today was infected with the Christmas-time cheer in a way I’ve never experienced before and truly wish I could experience every day of the year.
Up until today, it hasn’t really felt like Christmas to us – without the daily Nutcracker rehearsals how, indeed, could it be Christmas time? To be honest, it has hardly felt like the holiday season. Sure there are Nihao Santas bedecking store windows and miniature (Chinese-sized?) fake Christmas trees have popped up in front of every shop along the road, but without the ever-present Christmas music, yard lights, nativity set-ups, and ads for last-minute gift shopping, it has felt like a very decorated Autumn rather that the holiday season.
We ended our evening by getting dropped off at the school by Enkui and his family, with a proliferation of hugs and promises to talk again soon, only to find that the school had decorated three trees in the inner courtyard for Christmas (mainly for us, they told us, knowing that Christmas time is a big deal in the States and they have been worried about us not being with our families for the holiday).
Though we will continue to teach through Sunday, today’s festivities have given me an enthusiastic boost to life and has made me love and appreciate our life here even more (once again). It’s only Christmas Eve and I’ve already had the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas of my life.
I hope the holiday season gives you and yours as much energy, kindness, happiness, and enthusiasm as I experienced today here across the world. Thank you for reading!
Happy Merry Christmas Eve (Silent Night)!