(Not) Home for the Holidays

(Not) Home for the Holidays

Thanksgiving arrived soon after what was the third wedding I’d ever been to. However, Thursday passed unmarked by occasion. So I decided, since I had Friday afternoon off, and given the time difference, I would celebrate Thanksgiving in solidarity with America.

My Thanksgiving feast.

My Thanksgiving feast.

My Thanksgiving meal came courtesy of Dicos, a Chinese chicken chain. Now before you feel bad for me, all that food only cost me 11 dollars. Plus, I just sat in my apartment and watched Forrest Gump. Thus, the beginning of a new holiday tradition for me… Hanksgiving – where one eats fast food alone on what is technically Black Friday while enjoying perhaps our greatest national treasure, Tom Hanks.

Now that Thanksgiving was over, much as it occurs here in America, China began to ramp up for Christmas. I started seeing Christmas lights and plastic Santas, wreaths and holly, sleigh bells and reindeer… even in my lesson plans! The school apparently wanted me to integrate Christmas-themed vocabulary into my lessons: Santa Claus, Christmas tree, Christmas card, sleigh, reindeer, to name a few. My sing-along songs became Christmas carols and classic holiday anthems telling the stories of beloved holiday figures like Frosty and Rudolph and Bing Crosby.

In early December, I received word that some government representatives from the Ministry of Education would be stopping by to assess our school. Similar to America’s critically acclaimed “No Child Left Behind Act,” if we didn’t meet certain benchmarks, the government could pull funding or even shut down the entire school. Needless to say, we made it look good. Our tiny main office was somehow transformed into a luxurious conference room. Fresh fruit, exotic nuts, and trays of meat were laid out. The school was mopped from pillar to post. Bulletin boards displaying progress and comprehension materialized out of thin air. And despite pulling out all the stops, we didn’t consider, I don’t know… maybe a temporary ban on playground urination?

On a Saturday afternoon in early December, I volunteered to be one of the judges of an English final exam at a local elementary school. Students from grades 4 through 6 would come in one at a time and deliver an oral presentation and then respond to questions about a given topic from the other judges and myself and were then scored. I’ve gotta say, the way it was structured made it feel a little bit like American Idol and I was Simon Cowell… only nicer. I am tough but fair!


The set dressing budget for their final exam was considerably less than for American Idol.



Thinking of gift ideas when you’re half a world away is tough. And with shipping costs what they are and the postal delivery system what it is, I decided to go with, shall we say, handmade gifts. I decided to use what I had at my disposal: adorable children with adorable broken English. So, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I would set some time apart at the end of each class to record a message of me and the kids saying Merry Christmas for one of my family members. Now you might think, four classes a day, you can knock that out in two days. But that would be foolish. The mere act of getting a group of kids to sit still for 30 seconds is taxing. Even when they’ve been practicing the phrase “Merry Christmas” for weeks, having them be able to recite it on cue is asking a lot. And even though iPhones are universally popular and ubiquitous, having a Chinese teacher work the video on an iPhone requires several takes. I felt like I was directing a feature-length motion picture. But eventually, after two weeks and dozens of takes, I had a short, five-second video message for each of my family members and some other relatives.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been commissioned to contribute to an art mural proposed by the school’s art teacher. I am happy to report that I finally finished my section of the mural… just in time for Christmas. And of course the best work I have ever done would be in China when I’m not being graded where none of my former teachers would ever see it.


In all seriousness though, being able to leave something lasting and artful, something that cements my experience and presence in China, the culmination of months of focused work, was a wonderful souvenir, just not the kind you bring home.

Christmas Eve had finally arrived. And if you don’t count the dozen or so Christmas pageants I had previously starred in, this would mark the first time I would be working on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As our favorite holiday wet blanket Charlie Brown might say, “Rats.” You see, in China, similar to the U.S., the academic semester begins in late August or early September but instead of breaking before Christmas, they instead run through Christmas up until New Year’s Eve and then their holiday starts and goes until after Chinese New Year, often towards the end of January.

However, some festive cheer arrived in the Saint Nick of time in the form of a night out with some of the teachers singing karaoke. We had a holly jolly time and it was an incredible bookend to my experience with these teachers. Christmas had come but tragically, it was also my last day of classes. The stipulations of my visa were such that I needed to exit and re-enter the country every three months. And because of the timing of my visit to Hong Kong, I was required to leave China by January 1st. However, I did receive a nice consolation prize: I was going to be spending 11 days on a warm, gorgeous island in the Philippines. And after a month of freezing cold temperatures and dreary gray skies, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. More on that later. It was still Christmas, after all.

I learned that giving your teacher a small gift on Christmas was custom. I was hence the recipient of almost a bushel of apples and oranges, all individually wrapped in tissue paper or cute little boxes.


For my lessons, since it was my last day, I knew that I should probably do a review of all the vocabulary we had learned. But it’s Christmas, so I wrapped it up in a nice bow. I would pretend to sneak in the classroom as Santa Claus and deliver each student a card with a picture on it. I would then ask the student to say the word corresponding to the picture. Cap it off with a jolly “Ho ho ho,” a goodbye song to end the class, and we were all set. Then, around 5, I prepared for my last concert with the kids and their parents. I led the kids in Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Little Snowflake, and despite not adhering to the theme, All Together Now… just for old time’s sake. I tried to say one last goodbye to as many of the students and teachers as I could, hopped on my bike, and rode off.

But that was not the end. As you know, I had been teaching every Friday at another school, Quanbei Shiyan Xiaoxue. The students had put together this holiday showcase of songs, dancing, and skits. And being the local rockstar that I was, I was asked to lead two songs: S-A-N-T-A (a variation on B-I-N-G-O) and Little Snowflake. The other performances were of course adorable and even when they fell apart, still totally adorable. It was nice for once to have the pressure off me and just get to watch and enjoy. At the end, the school’s art teacher presented me with a traditional Chinese scroll with the school’s name immaculately handwritten in Hanzi (characters). Even the box it came in was ornately beautiful.

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But that was still not the end. One more holiday showcase to go, this one organized by my contact Tina for her son’s elementary school. My role was again slightly different this time: I was the host, the emcee, the Jerry Lewis. To top it off, I gave ‘em four songs, my longest concert yet. And these weren’t nursery rhymes or children’s songs, these were full-length holiday anthems. Again, besides my hosting and singing duties, the pressure was essentially off and I just got to watch as it devolved into an adorable train wreck. Afterward, I took a taxi over to Tianyi Cheng, just to walk around one last time, visit with the people, and do a little holiday shopping for my contacts.


The jokes I had written didn’t exactly land.

The final few days were a blur as I tried to pack up everything in my apartment, make all my preparations for my train ride and flight, close out my bank account, and get around to doing everything on my Xingtai list. So many local restaurants I hadn’t tried! So many things I had yet to take a picture of!

So much money I hadn't spent!

So much money I hadn’t spent! You can bet I made it rain.

But tonight, I ride the midnight train to Beijing. And tomorrow, I embark on my own Forgetting Sarah Marshall: two weeks by myself at a resort in the glorious Philippines. It’s “Forgetting Xingtai China.” Zaijian!

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