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December 2005

Before I get on to important matters such as our Chinese Christmas, I want to tell you about my Outer Space Cup.  As you know, here in China we cannot drink the tap water.  So everywhere I go, I take a plastic bottle, which I can often fill up at bottled water dispensers in the schools.  Since it’s gotten so cold, I’ve developed the habit of drinking hot water to stay warm.  Filling my disposable plastic bottles with nearly-boiling hot water tended to cause a melt down.  So I finally went out and bought one of the hard plastic Nalgene rip-offs that are so popular here (because everyone else is drinking hot water too).  Enter my Zeazi Outer Space Cup 650ml.  This is the best water container I have ever owned.  It has a wide mouth for easy filling and washing, and on top of that lid it has a narrow mouth so I don’t dump water all over myself if I try drinking on a lurching bus.  Plus, and this is the true Chinese bonus, it has a built-in filter so I can put loose tea leaves in the bottle and not worry about swallowing them.  All this for little more than a U.S. dollar.  China is great.

 On to Christmas.  Despite all the preliminary snow and cold cloudiness, Christmas weekend was bright and sunny and barely freezing.  By this time, all the snow had been carted away by the diligent street cleaners, so our city was returned to its normal concrete winter bleakness.  Christmas Eve was a normal working day, but after school we went to a spring roll restaurant with several of the Chinese teachers from our school.  The waiters and waitresses all wore Santa Claus hats and had glittery stickers decorating their faces.  Our Chinese friends ordered a lot of seafood dishes, which I don’t really like, so I mostly ate the roastpork slices which you put with raw scallions and some sauce and wrap in a thin pancake (the “spring roll”).  It was quite delicious.

 I asked our Chinese colleagues what they normally do for Christmas.  It seems that Christmas celebrations here take quite a different form than in the U.S.  The best way to summarize Christmas in China is to say that it is more like Valentines Day.  Friends will go out for dinner, couples will go to the movies and give each other chocolates, and everyone goes shopping.  It is not really celebrated in the home at all.  They said they don’t decorate their homes or do anything at home. No family dinners, Christmas tree, stockings, presents, Santa Claus, or Christmas Morning here.  And definitely no church.

 After the restaurant, we took a bus downtown where Zac and I took advantage of the not-freezing-to-death weather to walk around Victory square and take pictures of the giant Christmas tree made of red lights.  We then walked a few blocks to the Zhongshan square branch of our school which was hosting the Future School staff Christmas party this year.  The school was very decorated with tinsel, lights, beaming glittery Santa Claus posters, and an overly-decorated Christmas tree.  The party consisted mostly of everyone standing around drinking, interrupted only by a few rounds of musical chairs and an attempt at some complicated dating game that fell apart halfway through.  We also had a random gift exchange. Zac and I contributed two Zeazi Outer Space Cups, and in return received a pair of gloves and a little martial arts figurine that looks like a psycho baby wearing spectacles and wielding a sword.  I enjoyed the party because I got to visit with some of the friends I’d made during my observation rounds to the schools.  For some reason I always make more Chinese friends than foreign friends. Hmm….

 On Christmas morning we made apple cinnamon pancakes for breakfast and had the pleasure of talking to our families who were still back in Christmas Eve.  It’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to time travel.  Zac and I haven’t bought each other anything for Christmas for the past three years, so this year we decided to buy each other half of an iPod.  I wanted an mp3 player because I’m a bit bored at work these days, and we’d been thinking about buying an external hard drive to store all our photos on our post-China travels around southeast Asia.  So, just as Steve Jobs hoped, we came to the conclusion that we should combine the two and splurge for an iPod.  Although iPods are assembled in China, they’re actually quite a bit more expensive here, so we used a little of our guanxi (relationships) and asked our friend Charlie to help us.  Charlie’s nephew was coming to visit from Japan (where iPods are much cheaper), so together they played the Santa Claus role and delivered our iPod on none other than Christmas day. Charlie even wrapped it for us.

 After lunch, we began our great cooking expedition.  Since we normally work every weekend, having a Sunday off was a great luxury.  We had decided to take advantage of the rare coincidence of having the same day off as normal people, so I had invited 10 of my Chinese friends (mostly former students from my adult classes) over to try some American food.  I had a selfish purpose for doing this of course. I was tired of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut being the sole representatives of western food, giving the Chinese a good reason to look down upon American cuisine.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t make a true Christmas dinner due to the lack of an oven and several key ingredients. So instead, we cooked what we could.  Our menu consisted of the rather odd combination of beef stew, chicken noodle soup, potato and sausage casserole, pasta salad, fruit salad, fried apples with cinnamon (resembles apple pie filling), and chocolate no-bake cookies.

 The problem with Chinese people is that they are overly generous.  Everyone who came to the party brought some fruit, snacks, chocolate and a small gift for us.  I was hoping to get rid of some of the snacks we’d accumulated in our continuing experimentation of Chinese junk food, but instead we ended up with far more than we could ever consume.  Some of our friends came early to help with the cooking, and they even helped with the washing-up afterwards. I could not hope for better guests or better friends to share Christmas with.

 Our Christmas feast was interesting because the Chinese people were confused by the western food in the same ways Zac and I are often confused by Chinese food.  Somehow the different presentation of common foods can really throw you off.  For example, one girl thought that the no-bake cookies were ribs.  They all thought the apples were potatoes.  For the pasta salad, I used bow-tie noodles I bought at a foreign-foods store, and one girl asked what they were (she didn’t realize it was simply a noodle in a different shape).  But, thankfully, they all really liked the food and seemed to figure out what it was once they tasted it.  Now hopefully they will spread the word about the real western food they ate, and my mission will be successful.

 After the meal, we retired to the living room and played some games I had prepared.  I am an English teacher at heart, so even my party games tend to have an educational agenda.  For the first game, I had written out some Christmas words like mistletoe, sleigh, reindeer, etc. on pieces of paper, along with the definition.  For whatever word they were given, they had to write two fake definitions, then they read all three definitions and everyone had to guess which one was the correct definition.  They were actually really good at this game and their fake definitions were impressive.  The second game was a team game to see who could make the most words using the letters from “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”  The last game was a simplified version of charades, where they had to act out nouns like book, train, giraffe, rice, snow, etc.  This game was hilarious, although I had clearly underestimated their acting ability, because most words were guessed within 10 seconds.  Just as American children began waking up and tearing open presents, our Chinese friends went home and Zac and I retired for the evening, exhausted but content.  All in all, our Christmas in China was successful and immensely enjoyable.

 We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and we wish you the best for the New Year!

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