“It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you . . . yes, it is Christmas every time you smile at your brother and offer him your hand.”
Always Winter but Never Christmas?
It may have seemed that way. Icy winds blew from the Gobi Desert, snow covered the ground and I was in China, where Christmas is not a holiday. It was December 2004. I was living and working in the northern city of Harbin, known throughout China as being zhēn lěng 真冷, really cold in winter. Always winter but never Christmas? Hmm…much of what I saw and heard could have fooled me—what with stores and restaurants gleaming with Christmas lights, staff dressed in Santa suits and “Jingle Bells” played over sound systems. In the outer business world all appeared glitz. In the inner world of my classes, there was also glitz, but it was accompanied by a wonderful something else too—a tender warmth my students shared with each other and with me.
One morning in mid-December I walked into a festive atmosphere in one of my classes at HUST, the Harbin University of Science and Technology, and almost gasped with astonishment. It was so beautiful! A girl named Vanilla (yes, that’s the English name she chose for herself) had organized a decoration party before class. Pink and purple balloons were taped around the circumference of the blackboards; sparkly stars, snowflakes and snowmen hung from the walls and ceiling, and over our heads flashed tiny Christmas lights, a kind I’d never seen before. A Christmas tree was fully decorated and from someone’s mp3 player “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was followed by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Merry was certainly the right word for the students in that class.
I asked them about Christmas in China. They told me their parents didn’t celebrate it but they did. “How do you celebrate?” I asked.
“It’s a day of friendship. We spend time with friends, go out for dinner and exchange little gifts and Christmas apples.”
“Christmas apples? What are those?”
“Don’t you do that in Canada?”
They told me that apple in Mandarin is píngguǒ (苹果)—apple fruit. Sounds something like “ping-g’wo,” which rhymes somewhat with sing slow. The first part of the word is like another píng (平)—exactly the same sound but a different character and meaning, “calm, quiet, peaceful.” Christmas Eve in China is called Píng’ān yè 平安 夜—quiet, safe evening. So, by sound association, Christmas apples make total sense!
My students were thoughtful, fun and unpretentious 18 and 19 year olds in their first year of a Canadian business program. I was part of a team of foreign teachers, several of us teaching English. In teaching the language, we taught Western culture too. Christmas, of course, was a big thing to share with them, and university personnel were most supportive. Shortly before December 25th, they planned a big party for both teachers and students in the program.
In preparation, I was teaching each of my classes different Christmas songs. To my surprise, I found it difficult. Until that time I didn’t know that Christmas songs that I’d heard all my life could have me crying. It was missing my kids, many 1000’s of miles away and not much older than my students, that did it. It was also the singing of one class in particular, and the song was “Silent Night.”
They were supposedly my “weakest” students, but how could that possibly matter when they started to sing? This may sound cliché-ish, but I felt like I was listening to angels. They radiated an innocent and earnest quality that made me want to hug them all! They were singing from their souls and they were singing love.
A Lesson in Love: Seeing with the Heart
When I showed them the photo my son Dan had sent, they could see me struggling to hold in tears. The picture showed him holding up a sign: “Dan loves Mom, Christmas 2004.” My students got quiet in the presence of my, their teacher’s, emotions. Then one spoke for all.
“We can see you really love your children.”
“We thought parents in the West didn’t really love their children. We can see that’s not true now.”
“Oh, why would you think that?” I was intrigued.
“Because you give them so much freedom.”
That made me think. Their view of Western parents came from Western media. (Where else could it come from?) In Hollywood sitcoms it often looks like parents let their kids do whatever they want. Translation to young Chinese, or at least these young Chinese: Western parents don’t really love their kids. In a simple interchange, my students and I experienced a moment of truth, one that revealed the love between parents and children irrespective of nation or culture.
I’d heard before about perception creating reality. Or the way we see creates what’s real for us. (Then, oh my… people hurt each other due to their version of reality.) In that moment with a group of youthful Chinese, I could feel my heart expand and I realized more than ever before that: Seeing and relating with our hearts has the power to change the world.
To me, the Christmas hymn “Silent Night” speaks with the heart. Here is a version of “Píng’ān yè” (Silent Night) sung in Mandarin by the beautiful Teresa Teng in 1968, when she was only 15 years old. “HKships4TeresaTeng2” who created this video has done a beautiful job of providing the Mandarin lyrics in characters, pinyin and English translation. Enjoy!
Silent Night (Píng’ān yè 平安 夜) by Teresa Teng (Dèng Lìjūn 邓丽君), 1968
HUST Christmas Party
The HUST party was held on a chilly night at a restaurant on Xuéfǔ lù 学府路, University Road. (Half a dozen or more universities were in this area of the city.) That night it was a modest -20 celsius with no wind blowing. Little snow but much ice covered the ground. The party was fun with skits, singing, dancing and games, including balloon volleyball. Here are some pictures.
Luckily, Christmas was on a Saturday in 2004, so we HUST teachers weren’t expected to work! I did have a Saturday afternoon job, however, teaching conversational English to master’s students at HIT (the Harbin Institute of Technology) Study Abroad Centre. I simply announced I’d not be coming in, which my boss said was no problem.
Christmas Day or the “Wài Jiào Ticket”
The highlight of my Christmas day was dinner with Chinese friends at a gigantic 3-storey restaurant called Jīnhànsī píjiǔ kǎoròu 金汉斯啤酒烤肉, Hans Beer BBQ. The place could seat several hundred people. We arrived to find a huge line-up to get in the door. One of my friends decided to pull out the “wài jiào ticket” (my term), much to my embarrassment. What do I mean by this? She told the maitre’d that she and her family were in the company of a VIP—a wài jiào 外师, “foreign teacher,” and “Can’t you try to seat us sooner?” I of course was the VIP. The cleverness, or audacity, of a Chinese friend had us seated in 20 minutes rather than the 2-3 hours we would otherwise have to wait. I didn’t complain.
The food was an all-you-can-eat buffet of mostly meat dishes (no turkey) for 38 rmb, about $6 per person. I’m not much of a meat eater and made sure to eat plenty of the vegetables offered. At my request my friends taught me how to say a new word: Mǎ mǎ hū hū 马马乎乎.It means—“so so.” That was my view on the excessive amount of meat. What a fun word to learn! Literally it means “horse horse tiger tiger.” Oh what could its etymology be!
After leaving the restaurant we walked along Guǒ gē lǐ dàjiē 果戈里大街 Gogol Street! Anybody who is familiar with the Russian literary great Nikolai Gogol may appreciate this. Gogol in Chinese sounds like G’wo (rhymes with grow)-ghe (like the beginning sound of guest)-lee. This area of the city has a classical Russian flavour. I wanted share this photo simply because I like it.
Christmas in China
I have just shared my 9-years-ago Christmas in a “non-Christian” land. Many may decry the Chinese taking to Christmas in a secular way. I consider the wide-spread secularism of Christmas in Canada, where the holiday is our most prominent. Likely most people in Canada have heard of the birth of Jesus story, many people holding the religious/spiritual significance close to their hearts. Many others, whether they know the Christian story or not, see Christmas as a special time to connect with family and friends whom they might not communicate with otherwise.
The extreme commercialism of Christmas is a turn-off for me but I try not to let that consume my attention. What I value is the spirit of the season bringing people together in a friendly and loving way, as it did with my students in Harbin. When that happens for people in Canada, China or anywhere else, then I am glad. The world needs “reasons” (heart reasons) to be a kinder and softer place.
Here are a few links about China’s adaptation of a holiday associated with the West. The info presented would indicate a growing trend for Christmas in the PRC. My hunch is this is more apparent in commercial centres. Rural areas are likely a very different matter. I’m not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with the info presented.
“Christmas In China”
China Sees New Surge in Christmas Tradition – CBN.com
In closing, I wish to say:
Zhù nǐ shèngdàn kuàilè 祝你圣诞快乐, I Wish you a Merry Christmas!
Xià cì zàijiàn下次 再见,
Until next time,