Christmas has come and gone now, and what a Christmas it’s been. Some fun stories here I’d better write down.
So first there were two Christmas “parties” at the school on the 23rd and 24th. Now, when New Standard says “party” they mean something more like a English performance talent show, and they REALLY mean a thin veneer of entertainment in order to attract parents of potential students to sign up for classes. We already had two teachers (and two of my good friends) leave the country in secret to teach in Thailand just because this school treats us like walking billboards, and Sarah and I are already looking to leave in a way that gets us somewhere else in China… so obviously what’s important is getting even more students at this point in time.
I was of course Santa Claus, because — as they helpfully mentioned when I pointedly asked why — I am fat. I always have to remind myself that that blunt description is a cultural difference. Buy hey it worked out, I donned the jolly old man’s garb (using the strap of my laptop bag as a makeshift belt) and gave my best ho ho ho’s. Took a little practice to make the laughter jolly instead of villainous; there is a fine line.
I will say that this party seemed to go smoother than Halloween and Thanksgiving, just because China knows a little (little!) more about Christmas than the other holidays. Not that that stopped the school from making it more complicated. They had the idea that a mere series of Christmas-related performances wasn’t enough, that it wouldn’t hold enough interest. So they came up with an idea that Santa was going to appear on stage and be just about to hand out presents when… the “Sadness Lord” (played by William, New Standard’s resident sociopathic, verbally abusive old expat teacher) comes up and kidnaps him, and won’t give him back to deliver presents to the children until he is pleased by the Christmas performances the children do. Apparently having the children perform plays to a demonic figure to appease him enough to release Santa Claus makes sense and would be interesting. At least in the end I was able to change some lines so it was more like putting on some performances to convince a Grinch-like character to have a Christmas-style change of heart.
Needless to say it was utterly baffling to the audience and was scrapped for the second night.
Other than that it was all pretty laid-back for us foreign teachers, unlike Halloween where we thought getting really involved would be rewarding and went overboard with decorations — or Thanksgiving where everything was a big musical performance. This job really encourages us to be mediocre and not care, it seems. I had a performance in a skit as a “random traveling English speaker” the kids are unable to communicate with because they hadn’t been studying properly; it’s actually a pretty funny skit, so to no surprise it was not original in the slightest. And I was Santa for a skit about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… where all the lines were in English, Rudolph didn’t have a visibly red nose and none of the reindeer had horns or anything identifying… which probably made it confusing for the Chinese-speaking audience why Santa is apparently traditionally pulled around in a sleigh by random Chinese girls. Sarah and I sang a single song; after debating what Christmas songs we both kind of knew but also disliked enough to have it associated with this party, we settled on a shaky rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
And of course at the end, while William taught a demo class (by taught I mean yelled random English phrases at children for them to mindlessly repeat back) and the staff gave a marketing pitch to their parents, “Santa Claus” gave all the other children some Christmas gifts, which consisted of unsigned, still plastic-wrapped greeting cards hastily purchased from the stationary store across the street. The fact that the cards displayed no Christmas imagery (instead featuring hearts, “I love you” text, and in some cases “Happy Birthday”) was promptly ignored by all recipients, who eagerly snatched up their gift in a frenzied zombie-like mob.
But of course this wasn’t all thankless work. Sensing our displeasure at working here (by “sensing” I mean them listening to us officially give our thirty days notice in a meeting last week, videotaped by us for evidence for the local government’s labor dispute office’s investigation), the school has been attempting to convince us to stay with… drumroll please… an “honorary credential” with a little certificate recognizing our “significant contribution” to the school. I get the sense these are a big deal in China, considering that Sarah and I got one from that performance we did in Nanning, and I guess in a country with so many people, any little distinction you can stick on a resume, the better.
Now to be fair, we did also get a nice little Christmas bonus last night, though I’ve got a theory as to how that came about. Basically, in one of Sarah’s Christmas-themed classes she was talking about A Christmas Carol and the meaning of the term “Scrooge” in everyday conversation. She mentioned offhandedly an example that “maybe, if your boss doesn’t give you a Christmas bonus, then maybe you could say he is a ‘Scrooge.’” Of course one of the Chinese teachers heard, and my guess is that it worked its way up the chain of command and the boss was convinced that to not give us a bonus would be a mortal sin offending our cultural sensibilities and that by doing so he would convince us to stay at his school forever — because after all, a school without foreign teachers is a school with angry parents and soon maybe not a school at all. So the three of us each got some yuan in little envelopes hastily acquired from the nearby stationary shop, as well as a wrapped package of what William assumed was beer but turned out to be the thermoses that newly signed-up students get as a welcoming gift. I hope I don’t sound too cynical about all this, but considering this is the boss who strictly regulates printer paper use for the Chinese teachers and wouldn’t install an air conditioner or heater in Sarah’s room because it was “too expensive,” I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking it’s more than a noble-hearted gesture of goodwill.
Christmas Day itself was a far quieter affair and I think generally more pleasant, even if we had to have a long meeting with the boss for him to actually give it to us despite him being contractually obligated to (and I think in the end we’re losing a day off next week for it; the contract says in this case we should get a paid holiday day, subject to approval, three weeks’ notice, etc etc etc, we’re not getting it). Got up, watched a video of a Dublin Christmas musical program (one of the few decent Christmas musical videos I could find on China’s YouTube knockoff) and enjoyed opening up the Christmas package from home (thanks Mom and Dad! China can do many wonderful things, but chocolate is not one of them, and getting some from America is a lifesaver). Sarah and I wandered around some new areas of the city, discovered a whole new underground mall jam-packed with wonderful New Years decorations, then got a Christmas dinner in the form of a longtime Liuzhou favorite: a bucket of chicken from KFC.
Sarah had a really fun idea for us to go to the local Christian church’s Christmas service, and I think it was probably the best part of the day. Everyone else there was Chinese, so we weren’t fully sure what to do besides sit there, but a wonderful little old Chinese lady next to us gestured for us to stand with everyone else, took our hands and eagerly encouraged us to sing along with the congregation, accompanied by guitar. We didn’t know the tunes or the words, and the PowerPoint presentation projected on the wall that displayed the lyrics was only moderately helpful; I could only pick out every few characters, and the way of showing the melody (numbers from 1 to 7 over each character) took some getting used to. But in the end I could mumble out a little bit.
It was more or less Catholic (one of the nuns asked us later if we were “Roman” or “English”), though I do know there are some political/religious issues here regarding the state not accepting the Pope’s authority. There were a few differences here and there from what I was expecting, though. Partway through, everyone was handed a blank piece of paper which we had no idea what to do with. We saw others writing on them, and the little old lady spoke only the Liuzhou dialect and wasn’t really able to communicate what we were supposed to do. Thankfully we were also sitting by a Chinese person who was an English teacher at another school in the city, who helpfully informed us that we should write our “wishes.” Alright then. “Then you burn it.” Sure enough, people were igniting their papers with a nearby candle and tossing them into a nearby brazier, intently watching it turn to ash and giving a little bow. Makes sense, sort of like a prayer candle mixed with some Chinese traditions.
At the very end, after we shook hands with what felt like half the congregation and all the clergy, the guy with the guitar sang a round of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — one of maybe two English Christmas songs we’ve actually heard sung here. I could sing that one at least!
I am not a religious man but I can’t deny how peaceful it was to be there and share that evening with the people there. Everyone looked happy and just wanted be good and go into the new year right. No one trying to recruit anyone or make a quick buck or get a picture with the Americans; it was refreshing going to a big event and having the focus not be on us in some way. The only foreigner anyone was staring at was hanging on a cross on the wall with the letters INRI above his head.
So that was our Christmas. We left the church, got some good tea from a new tea place, and took a cab home. On the way we passed two e-bikes that had crashed into each other. One of the riders was angrily yelling at and pushing the other, who then grabbed the first one’s purse and threw it into the middle of the road, where it was promptly run over by our taxi.
Sometimes this place feels like living in an asylum.