BJC’s An Expat Christmas series will roll on through the week. In a place where Christmas is an “event” and not part of the culture, it can be cancelled as easily as it is arranged, as Chris Clayman recently found out at his school in Lincang, Yunnan province.
By Chris Clayman
For religious folk, shut-ins, and fans of Home Alone, a one-man Christmas sounds nice enough. It’s really touching how Kevin McAllister takes the time to set up a Christmas tree when no one is around to see his work. But the rest of us likely need others to validate these strange traditions. Does Christmas have meaning when you are the only one celebrating?
My fellow teachers in our isolated Yunnan school are not true holiday comrades; “Christmas” in Ximu means shaokao and overpriced apples. I obviously welcome any Yuletide wishes! But it works only as formality, like saying “good show!” to the violin virtuoso after his performance: one sees the product and the other sees the process, the endless hours of repetition in practice. My co-teachers can’t recall the Christmas mornings of their childhood, their sleepwalk through years of awkward family dinners, the mistletoe in the dorm hallway waiting for a willing couple. In this town, the holiday only exists because I exist.
The sort of material fascination with holiday culture found in China’s cities never made its way to the countryside. I guess I could walk outside drunkenly screaming shengdan kuaile, but most people would take my ramblings only as a reminder that yes, that weird Western holiday happens to be today. So that special festive feeling is confined to my teacher’s dorm: a Santa poster and a Charlie Brown-sized Christmas tree, covered in student-made ornaments. When Skyping with friends and family back home, I’ve made sure to place these things within view, giving off the illusion of globe-spanning Christmas cheer.
Early on I realized that one of my roles as teacher is as the Official Envoy for Western Culture. It’s the only way to keep the Yule log burning, so to speak. So began the month-long challenge of teaching my first- and second-graders a few Christmas songs. Yesterday afternoon, with the rest of the school looking on, the students put on their cardboard Santa hats and gave their interpretations of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” Between songs, two students took out the Charlie Brown tree, stepped in front of the choir, and hung stockings on the branches. In teaching traditions to six- and seven-year olds, sometimes you have to cut a few corners.
The kids held hands and sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” maybe the only song they could fully understand. I’m no slouch in Chinese, but I’d like to see you try and explain the lines “boughs of holly” and “bells on bobtails ring” to your EFL students. Actually, I’d like to see you explain them to any adult. Their pageant was moving in the way most children’s choirs move. The kids screamed each syllable, attracting the attention of some of the elderly who were wandering around the school. To me, the spirit of Christmas continues in the busted vocal chords of my students.
When Anthony asked me to write about my Christmas experience in rural Yunnan, I made an ill-advised crack about BJ Cream’s exhaustive car accident coverage. But someone died today, and Christmas is to blame.
I’ll be brief. My principal was suspiciously absent during the pageant. At dinner, a car pulled up in front of the cafeteria. Everyone who stepped out of the car — our current principal and a few teachers — looked like they had aged a few years. Then I heard the story: while gathering food for the Christmas shaokao, Mr. Li, our school groundskeeper, hit and ran over our school’s former principal, a retired man from the nearest village. Under these circumstances, we effectively cancelled Christmas.
The shaokao planned for last night will have to wait until another day. My principal came to my door, shook my hand, and told me Merry Christmas. It’s just that sometimes there are more pressing concerns.
Chris teaches at Ximu Elementary near Lincang, Yunnan province. He keeps a sometimes-active Tumblr, My Own Private China, and tweets @chrisclayman.
Excellent piece and very moving. I speak pathetic Chinese and was especially taken with your description of trying to translate carols.
Just a question, though. Car accidents, fatalties, etc. What were the circumstances behind the one that wrecked your Christmas? Just bad fate or something like unpaid wages?
Hey Peter, thanks. The car accident was just that; no personal vendettas involved. Our school is trying to pick up the pieces, especially given the victim’s connection to the community. Happy holidays.
This was great—probably the best of the series (although the Beijing bodybuilder dispatch runs a very close second). You’ve got a real knack for words. Keep writing.
I hope you write more!