The following excerpt is taken from my book, Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China.
When I moved to China I figured I’d miss out on celebrating my usual holidays. So as was the case when seeing Halloween decor the weeks before, I was pleasantly surprised one evening to see this sign of Christmas outside a grocery store in Zhuhai.
At a neighborhood stationery store, I also found a Santa hat for 3RMB (less than fifty cents). Wearing it to class was a hit with my young English students. It was a hit with my adult ones, too. The night I walked into our evening class with my pointy red hat with white fuzz ball atop, my second quarter adults asked me about it.
“It’s…uh…a Santa hat,” I said getting stumped about my own culture. (A similar thing would happen occasionally when teaching my own language. “Gosh,” I thought to myself after a student’s question. “I don’t know why we use articles [a, an, the] in the English language. I thought everyone did.” Chinese doesn’t.)
It was an education in something I never learned, because I just grew up with it. The same thing happened with Santa Claus. This class of eight adults went on to ask about the legend. And as I spoke about him living in the North Pole with his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, I realized how odd the story sounded.
In turn, I asked my class how they celebrate Christmas. Most said they do buy a gift for someone. However, this was an older class than my first quarter, and about six of them thirty years and older shared that this holiday was a new tradition for them. None of them as children recognized or even knew about Christmas. But as the new millennium approached, they gradually began to recognize the holiday in their own way. And now, at least in urban centers, Christmas has quite a presence.
Regardless of any recognition, I had to teach that Christmas Day—a Saturday in 2010. I arrived the morning of the 25th trying to ignore this fact. It wasn’t too hard, because here it wasn’t considered an odd day to work. My first class of six-year-olds came and went like any other Saturday. My second class, though, rekindled my Christmas spirit when two seven-year-old girls walked up to me before class began to give me their handmade Christmas cards.
This being my first teaching job, my heart warmed with the first-time reception of a student’s gift. This was especially so, because I was far from home during my favorite holiday, while reminded by these cards the reason this holiday is my favorite.
It was a pleasantly surprising Merry, er, I mean Happy Christmas.
Next week, we’ll cap off this series of holidays in China with the grand finale: the New Year–Western and Chinese New Years, which is their biggest holiday of the year.