my (first?) Christmas in China

This is what it's all about, you guys.
This is what it’s all about, you guys.

About 3 weeks ago, my students started telling me, “Christmas will be coming soon.” Oh, really? It does seem a little strange, since the grass is still green. And it’s cold, but a different kind of cold than back home (partly because many buildings are indifferently heated–my home is OK, but the classrooms are like meat lockers with less ambience). And it stays light a little bit later than back home. So it feels like mid-October, not Christmassy at all.

Then around December 15, the Christmas decorations came out everywhere. Mostly just pictures of Santa’s face plastered everywhere. The library coffeeshop had two Christmas trees, one of the Charlie Brown variety. Decorations tend toward the garish; I bought myself a little wreath made entirely of tinsel. (I showed a photo to one of my students but I forgot to explain irony to him first. He thought it was a little strange, and he wasn’t wrong.)

So we have Christmas here. But we still have to work. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day in most of the US, I suppose–it’s just a fun thing to do with your friends. Also worth noting that 圣诞节快乐 translates as “happy gift-giving festival” and 圣诞老人 is “gift-giving old man.” What’s the reason for the season?

It’s apples. I don’t totally understand, but I guess the word for apple rhymes with the word for good luck, so it’s traditional to eat an apple on Christmas Eve. (So maybe we should eat wood duck?) One of my students bought me an apple in a little cardboard gift box, which is apparently a fashionable thing among students. So I ate that after work, and answered a butt-ton of “Merry Christmas” texts from students.

Then Thursday I had my normal office hours. I could have cancelled them, but my Friday students had their final on Saturday, and I wanted to help them if they had questions. A few students brought me candy and the cards in the photo (I DIE), and I brought some candy with Santa on the package that was kind of nasty. (Side note: I’ve barely had chocolate since I’ve been here, and I don’t really miss it. No wonder my jeans fit like a gang-banger’s.) A few teachers had a little Christmas party that afternoon, but I didn’t want to drink before work.

And that was it. I had a little trouble expressing to my students that I don’t really care about Christmas. I told them that the important thing about Christmas for me is being with my family, and since I can’t do that, it’s not that important. And I explained that Christmas is most fun with little kids around. And I tried to explain that not all Americans celebrate Christmas (they were tickled by the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food). I told them that I’m not a typical American. (Who is?) But you know, it’s sweet of them to care.

cultural explorations

We made these!
We made these!

I’m trying not to be the kind of expat who only speaks my native language and hangs out with other expats. So far I’ve achieved about a B-minus in this area. This is mostly due to language barriers. Chinese is fairly impenetrable to me. I have a tutor who is helping me, but it’s slow going. She and I are both trying new things to help me, but I can’t exactly make a lot of sentences yet.

I did learn how to make Chinese dumplings! I eat them a few times a week. There is a restaurant near me that makes amazing dumplings. And they have a menu I can point to, which is key (I only recognize a few characters, but most of them are food-related by design). I’m going to miss those dumplings when I return home, so when Emily, my Chinese tutor, offered to show me how to make them myself, I cheerfully agreed.

One Sunday morning, Emily came to my apartment and took inventory. I had very little stuff in my kitchen. “In China,” she explained, “we cut our vegetables on a board.” Yeah, I’m familiar. I just haven’t bought one yet. So we walked to the supermarket and bought all the ingredients and tools.

Food shopping is a much more active process here than in the US. I usually just skulk into the meat department and grab what I need out of the cooler. If I do need to approach the meat counter, I wait to catch the eye of the counter worker and say something like, “Excuse me, terribly sorry to trouble you, but could I have a pound of sliced turkey? Please oh please?” But Emily seemed to be straight up negotiating with the guy to get a decent cut of meat. I don’t know a lot about meat, not because I’m American, but because I’m a bonehead. So I’m not sure if I can go back and recreate these dumplings, even though I mostly know what to say to the butcher.

After we had everything, we came back home and started working. Emily knows her way around food and the kitchen. She kept sniffing the cabbage and saying, “So fresh!” It really was, but I don’t know if I would have noted it the way she did. When my students did presentations on cultural differences, I got a little offended when they said that Chinese culture values delicious food more than Western culture does. But maybe they aren’t entirely off base. (And to be fair, many of my students have never met a foreigner before meeting me; they don’t mean to offend, they just copy-pasted from the wrong source.)

Dumplings are less of a recipe and more of a technique. I had trouble pinching the outsides so that they’d stay together. A few of my early ones fell apart, but Emily said that stirring the pot in the same direction would keep things together, so we could eat least eat the insides and outsides separately. I got better, and the end results were pretty good. I will likely change the insides to suit my tastes (we used pork, cabbage, ginger, and garlic) next time.

Emily also taught me Chinese paper-cut art. I thought this was going to be an unusual technique, but it’s essentially making paper snowflakes. Paper snowflakes are one of my favorite things to do to unwind. We used lightweight red paper and little scissors, and they turned out really well. Truthfully, mine looked as good as or better than Emily’s. I’m planning to look for more paper at the shops near the Sichuan Art Institute and go to town on them. My place could use some decoration.

Also, I’m making a Chinese friend, I guess? Truthfully, I was looking to date, but I met this guy and he sort of declared it a friendship before I had a chance to declare otherwise. Honestly, I am having a little trouble getting my head around dating here. Most of my students have very little dating experience. They were too busy studying so they could get into college. So maybe they’ll start now, maybe they’ll wait until they’re done with school. But they want to be married by age 27 (especially women) because anything older is “left over.” So nobody has any experience and wants to meet the love of their life right away so they can be saved from being single. Getting experience does not seem to be valued. I suppose the closest analogy would be Mormons.

But this guy seems cool, and I could certainly use a friend here. We had lunch today. It kind of felt like a date, but maybe because it was a little awkward due to the language barrier (his English is not so great, but much better than my Chinese). And he ordered and paid, but that’s a normal Chinese thing. And we talked about going out next time. But his keychain has a heart-shaped photo on it (not that he mentioned a lady friend). So, I’m thinking not a date. Oh, well, maybe he knows someone. Shit’s kind of overwhelming enough without getting too into dating, maybe?