Christmas in China II

JISHIU, HUNAN — My pictures on Facebook and Picasaweb may give you some idea of what my Christmas holiday was like, but here is the text version.
Our college had planned to have a big Christmas party/performance like we did last year, but fears of spreading H1N1 scotched that idea. Instead, each class (we have nine groups of 27-40 students each that we call classes) was to arrange for its own Christmas party. While disappointing, the lack of a college-wide Christmas event freed up a lot of time for all of us planning on performing.

Last year, the preparations for the big gala pretty sucked away any free time I had, so I was not able to plan any Christmas event of my own device. This year, though, I decided to invite people to my home for a dinner. A few friends had already offered to cook for us, so all I needed to do was to clean up the apartment and get people there.

But first, there were some Christmas Eve events. One of our classes, Sophomore Business English G2, held their party in the morning. They had four hotplates going at the same time, cooking up 火锅 huoguo (hotpot). Previously, they had decorated their classroom with three Christmas trees, snowflakes on the windows, balloons and Christmas lights (spelling out “Merry Christmas”). All the students wore Santa hats. I am not sure whether David, their oral English teacher, was supplied a hat. If he was, he opted not to wear it. All the faculty were invited, so between my classes I visited the four hotpots to sample their wares.

This class should write a cookbook. It could sell, I think.

At lunch, the university held a luncheon for the foreign teachers and postgraduate students, all seven of us. Besides David and I, there were Matt and Jamey, postgrads from Oklahoma, Grisha and Anya, piano teachers from Ukraine, and their son, Nik. Joining us were a few faculty from our college, the deans of the music and international exchange college, and some university officials. We ate at the Qinzhao Hotel, which is on campus and serves traditional local dishes. Naturally, baijiu was supplied and drunk, making teaching my afternoon classes particularly challenging.

The enormous meal at lunch meant I had no appetite for dinner, so after a light snack, I went to Christmas party #2, organized by the sophomore English Education class Z2. Instead of cooking, they put on their own show, with dancers, singers, a magician and karaoke. Here, I sang, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which some students had no idea was an American song.

Friday was Christmas Day, and I am entitled to a day off, but I chose to meet some of my oral English students to give them their final exams in the morning. At 10, I repaired to my home to clean up for the afternoon’s party. Three students (Helen, Gina and Ailsa) offered to help me, so we four made the place presentable in pretty short order.

Now, my “head cook” called me in the morning and told me (I swear she did, honest!) that she would bring both the meat and an extra cookpan, but could not arrive until after 2:30. No problem. I asked two other guests to bring the vegetables, and they arrived around 3 with veggies and a bottle of rice wine (baijiu) from Guilin. I neglected to go to the supermarket, because I had assumed earlier that morning that some people would bring lunch food, and others dinner food. Nope. Never assume anything, they say.

The head cook finally arrived around 4, because she had had a PE exam that afternoon. But, she came with no meat or cookpan. She swears she had told me she couldn’t possibly have brought either, because she had no time, and she had told me that in the morning.

This, boys and girls, is why foreigners need to learn Chinese, and Chinese need to learn English.

So, we had lots of veggies and no meat, and no hotpot is complete without meat. (Sort of like, “How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”) So, four of the guests volunteered to run to the market to buy meat and some ready-to-eat snacks, while the rest of us prepared the veggies and watched TV.

To make a long story short, all 15 of us worked it all out and had a great meal together, washed down with Coke, OJ, red wine and/or baijiu.

After this party broke up around 6:30, a few of us were invited to another dinner party downtown. This arrangement goes sort of like this: one of my friends is Shelldy, a music college senior; her guzheng and English student is Li, a sales rep for a local tobacco company; Li is friends with Miss Xiang, the manager of the Dolphin Coffee Bar and Western Restaurant; Miss Xiang invited me, Shelldy and some of our friends to dinner that night.

Got it? Good.

Anyway, I had a second dinner, a passably good steak (though Houcaller in Changsha does a better job of it) and some reasonably good coffee brewed with a fascinating contraption heated with an alcohol burner.

Li, Shelldy and the coffee contraption

Li, Shelldy and the coffee contraption

Then, we went to the Dolphin karaoke club to sing some Chinese and American tunes until about 10:30.

So, it is now Dec. 26th. I was invited to the wedding luncheon for Anna Zhang, who works in the Foreign Affairs Office. I improved my local street creds by arriving with 红包 hong bao (lucky money) in the appropriate red envelope enblazoned with the double-lucky character 富富 (fu-fu)for marriages.

The happy couple pose with David and me

The happy couple pose with David and me


Chinese wedding customs are different from American ones. Here, couples get married by applying at the government offices and signing a few forms. They may, depending on their families’ traditions and desires, have a ceremony for family and close friends to attend. Some have two ceremonies, if bride and groom hail from different places. Then, there will be a luncheon or dinner for colleagues and not-so-close friends to attend. Everyone is expected to bring hong bao, and not gifts. (In the bigger cities, there are now wedding registries at the malls, but this custom has not yet caught on in the interior.)

Practically speaking, hong bao is to offset the costs of holding the banquets and other ceremonies. At Anna’s shinding, we handed our hong bao to a table of friends, who recorded the givers’ names and counted the money given. (Some couples may not have enough money beforehand to pay the caterer, so knowing how much “loot” they have taken in alleviates worry and despair.)

I asked three people how much money I should give, and checked online as well. One friend from Jishou said 200, a Shanghai website said 500 and another friend said use my own judgment. I opted for 300, so I wouldn’t seem too cheap but also not too extravagant. I don’t know neither bride nor groom very well.

My friend Nora wanted to cook that afternoon, so I invited a smaller group of student friends over for dinner, including two of my cleanup crew who could not stay for dinner the day before. There were eight of us this time. After dinner, Nora wanted to visit a girl she knows who lives at the Xiangxi Welfare Home — the local orphanage/old folks home — because it was the girl’s 14th birthday.

Yong Fu has cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair most of her life. She has no parents, either because they died or because they gave her up, I am not sure. Originally from Zhangjiajie, she knows Nora and Jack, one of my students, pretty well. Yong Fu was apparently adopted by an American couple for a while, but her needs exceeded their ability to meet them, so she came back to China to the Xiangxi Welfare Home. Jack had bought a birthday cake, and Nora was going to visit Yong Fu, too.

Six of us decided to join them,and we were met by three other students, Grace, Lily and Cindy, freshmen from my college. (The College of International Exchange has basically adopted the welfare home as a “sister institution.” Several of our students visit there regularly.)

Although it was well past 8 pm, the staff at the welfare home allowed to us to quietly visit (since the other kids were asleep) Yong Fu in her room. It is spare, but roomy, with two wardrobes and a private bathroom. She has a bed by a double window, a desk and a dresser, and a few educational posters on the walls to learn Chinese characters (I could use a few myself). The facility itself is spotlessly clean, and Yong Fu at least seems very happy, all things considered.

After some greetings — with a dozen people they take a while — we unboxed the cake, sang the birthday song, and asked Yong Fu what size piece she wanted. To our surprise, she said she only wanted a tiny bit, because she wanted to share the cake with the other children in the orphanage. (Looking at some photos in the lobby, I reckoned that Yong Fu is the oldest child there.) Nora wanted Yong Fu to call Nora’s mom in Zhangjiajie — her mom also knows Yong Fu — so we waited for the two to talk for awhile.

We all pose with Xiao Fu

We all pose with Xiao Fu


Then after the call, we chatted some more, posed for photos, and let Yong Fu go to bed. Although it is difficult for her to leave her wheelchair to get into bed, she refused all help. Her struggle to crawl into bed moved Grace to tears, and she moved aside to hide them.

[Grace has a depth that I didn’t suspect. At lunch the next day, I learned from Grace that she chose not to sit for the college entrance exam as a high school student, thinking she could make her way without a college education. She succeeded to some extent, becoming the manager of a floral shop for three years in her hometown of Huaihua, but at the relatively advanced age of 21 decided to take the college entrance exam. Grace said she realized finally that she needed a college degree, especially as a young woman; otherwise, people meeting her might think she is not very smart.]

At this point, we left, hailed three cabs and headed home. I was pretty exhausted physically at this point, and my living room and kitchen were a mess. We had left in a hurry to visit Yong Fu. Gloria and Gina, both freshmen, sent me messages apologizing for leaving my home in such a state, but I told both that Yong Fu’s situation was far worse than mine. So, a little mess left for me to straighten up was no big deal. 没问题 meiwenti — It doesn’t matter.

So, that was how my second Christmas in China went. I hope yours (assuming you celebrate it) was as fun, exciting and fulfilling. If not, there’s always next year.

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