So far, we have not encountered too many holidays. Thanksgiving was nice, but because Kelsey and I were the only two Americans in our Team Lidu family, we did not cancel classes or do anything particularly special. I made taro root sweet potatoes with marshmallows, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Matt and Michael brought over some vegetable dishes and Molly brought over some wine. We also purchased a small chicken. It was all rather cozy and peaceful. The holiday passed and we moved on towards the next major holiday, Christmas. We immediately started gathering Christmas decorations and thinking about presents for each other.
Now, Christmas is a big deal to most Westerners. Even though it is predominantly thought of as a Christian celebration it is also a time for people to be with their families, give each other things and generally feel warm and fuzzy. This year Christmas fell on a Tuesday. Realizing this, Kelsey and I decided that we would hold one giant cultural experience class in lieu of classes for the week. All of our students would be given Secret Santa partners, listen to English Christmas songs, and practice their English conversation skills. We spent the preceding weeks talking about Christmas, planning the “party,” and assigning tasks to the students. Everyone was all very excited. About a week and a half before the party I went into the department office and asked the secretary about getting a room. I explained that we were having a party for Christmas and that we needed a classroom that could hold about 180 students. The secretary thought that this was an excellent idea and proceeded to find me a room. However, the original date that we had wanted was not possible because it was during the week and we are not allowed to hold functions during the week in the evenings, only class. I explained that it was class and that it was a cultural experience class, but she only smiled and nodded and told me the new date, time, and location. I then relayed this information to my students and went on preparing for Christmas as happy as can be.
The week of the party came and on Tuesday of that week the foreign affairs department dropped some things off at our apartment and happened to mention that we would be going on a trip that weekend, that we would be leaving Thursday afternoon and then, that we would be having dinner with them that Monday, on Christmas Eve. Shocked, and a little frustrated, we explained that we had a very important party with our students that Sunday and that Kelsey taught classes all day Thursday. They said that they could not guarantee that we would be back in time on Sunday and that it was okay, they would cancel Kelsey’s classes for her. Now, this has happened a few times before. We are always told at the last minute that something is happening and they are frequently canceling our classes. We have simply been left to reschedule our classes whenever and wherever we could. This has created a lot of stress.
When, at the beginning of the semester, I asked how to reschedule missed classes, the secretary explained to me that we were to do it on our own. I now know that we had an error in communication and that by “on your own” she really meant that I, on my own, go to one office and talk to someone. That someone gives me paperwork. I then take that paperwork to another person. That person then processes that paperwork and talks to another group of people. That group of people gets back to that person and then that person gets back to me. I then reserve a room and relay this information to the secretary who takes note of it. However, this process is incredibly complicated and full of bureaucratic nonsense and no one uses this method to reschedule classes. All of the other teachers simply tell their class monitors to reserve a classroom at a time that is convenient for both the teacher and the students. This is the method that we had been using so far and this is the method that we thought was the right method. Oh, were we wrong.
Originally, we were told that we were leaving on a Thursday and that we were going to be on a boat cruise down the Yangtze River. We were also told that we would be picking fruit on Sunday morning. However, plans changed, and we ended up leaving Friday morning so Kelsey did not need to cancel classes and she avoided unknown wrong doing. Over the course of the weekend it was also decided that we would not pick fruit in the morning on Saturday because we were all cold, Kelsey was really sick, most of us had climbed a mountain (literally) the day before, and we were all too tired. We got home in plenty of time to have our Christmas class and we were incredibly happy and ready to celebrate Christmas with our students. The Christmas party went off without a hitch. Everyone brought their Secret Santa gifts and all of the students showed up. There was food, everyone was talking in English, laughing and having a great time. The evening ended early, Kelsey and I gathered our things and headed home. Now, you will recall that we had cancelled classes that week and instead had this one large class, which, ironically, is very much like a smaller version of the school’s sanctioned weekly event called English Corner.
Monday came and it went by fairly smooth. I woke up, and not having to go to class, went into Fuling with Kelsey to do our last minute Christmas shopping for the rest of Team Lidu. We came home, wrapped presents, and saw or heard nothing from anyone until our special Christmas Eve dinner with the department. It was really very kind of them to take us out on Christmas Eve. I truly appreciate the attempt to make us feel like we were at home. However, this was like Christmas dinner the Fear Factor edition. We walked into the banquet hall of a hotel and everything was filled with bright, flashing lights. There were speakers playing Christmas music loudly. Directly across from the entrance was a stage. The stage was huge and had a catwalk that extended almost all the way through the room. Eventually, everyone arrived and a Christmas show started that was put on by the staff members of the hotel. It was a lot of dancing and singing, all in Chinese. There was a raffle to win money and other prizes that continued throughout the night. Then, the food started to arrive. Now, I love food and I will eat almost anything, but much of this dinner was questionable. It was multiple courses, each one a little bit more disgusting than the previous one. None of it was Chinese food, which is wonderful and would have been welcome. It was an attempt at some other cuisine, but I am not sure which. The worst and most hideous thing that found its way in front of us was a sea cucumber. It looked like a slug, jiggled like a slug, and was covered in slimy gravy. I took one, tiny bite and almost spit it out. It was disgusting. This was followed by desert, which was an onion-paste filled pastry. Then, the real reason that we were invited to dinner became apparent. They wanted us, the foreigners, to get up on stage and sing and draw raffle tickets. We were, again, being exploited. Every time our school “takes us on a trip” or does something for us, there are cameras or there is an audience present. I get it, it’s good publicity for the school, but sometimes I really just want someone to do something nice just to be nice, especially on Christmas Eve. Kelsey took one for the team though and went on up. She did a lovely job.
Matt, Michael, Molly, Kelsey, and I all ended up staying in Fuling that night. We went to a nice, quiet, empty bar and had a beer or two. Then we ended up at this really crazy club where we were given Santa hats and counted down to Christmas. Really, there was a count down. It was a great deal of fun and then we all went home. The next day we planned to reconvene for Christmas dinner.
Imagine my surprise, after hearing nothing on Monday about any of those cancelled classes, upon receiving a text from Michael about the secretary giving him an angry call about cancelling his classes for Tuesday. We had all canceled classes before either because we were sick or because the school forced us to so that they could take us somewhere. So we were very confused as to why Christmas Day of all days was suddenly a concern. Also, why were they checking to make sure we were there? We had never been checked on before. Sure enough, about an hour later I got a call from the secretary asking me why I was not in my classroom. I explained to her that it was Christmas, that my contract said that I got Christmas off, and that I had already had a makeup lesson for this day on Sunday. She told me that I did not get Christmas off unless I already did not have class on Christmas, that my makeup lesson only counted as a class activity, and that it was forbidden. I am certain she does not understand Western culture very well, because otherwise I do not think she would have used the words, “It is forbidden.” I am far too stubborn and it was Christmas Day. I was not coming into work, neither were the others, and she could talk to me about this later. Grumpy, but awake, I proceeded to get up and get ready for Christmas. I desperately tried not to be a Grinch and go about my day. However, she called a second time. I am a kind and patient person, but I am also very stubborn. Once I am annoyed and once you give me a reason to be stubborn about something you had better not argue with me or give me any more reason to be annoyed. That poor woman. All I can say is that she did not try to call me again after that conversation as she realized that I was most displeased with her. Thoroughly Grinched, I tried my best to recover. I later commiserated with the others at dinner over their Christmas wakeup calls.
Christmas dinner was lovely. We brought all of our presents over to the boys’ apartment and put them under the fabulous Christmas tree that they had found. We had another potluck dinner. Michael made a lovely roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, and broccoli; Molly made a salad; and I made a green bean dish and donuts. Everything was warm and merry and we drank mulled wine, listened to music, ate dinner exchanged gifts and chatted. Later that evening, we went out for a quiet drink and then came home. It was a lovely and quiet evening full of warmth and fuzziness, just what Christmas should be. Although we were well aware that we had staged a Christmas Coup and that we were going to get into trouble for this. China does not take too kindly to groups of people forming together and resisting authority.
Sure enough, the administration called a meeting for Friday about the “misunderstanding.” We were then instructed: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We were also told the appropriate procedure for rescheduling class and to be more careful in the future. We took this opportunity to talk about the level of communication between the administration and us. We explained that we would appreciate it if we were told things more than a few days in advance and that if one of us was told something that does not mean that all of us know about it. It was actually a very good meeting and we talked about a lot of important things that we had previously all been confused about. The meeting also allowed the administration to save face and reestablish their authority, which is important in China. I understand where they were coming from and respect their right to authority. I just do not agree that being upset with us over Christmas Day is how they should choose to show it. Funny enough, they did not care about the fact that Kelsey had cancelled all of her Thursday classes or that I had cancelled all of my Monday class, just the Tuesday ones.
We then had a dinner Sunday night with all of our administrators at a local restaurant. It was a great deal of fun and all of our superiors got quite drunk. It is a rule that they must toast to everyone in the room and the poor gentlemen were drinking bai jiu[i]. As a woman, I do not have to drink bai jiu, but as a Western woman I am expected to drink beer. Luckily, I can sip and I don’t have to ganbei (bottoms up). The men frequently do and they are obligated to drink. We all quickly made amends and got to know and respect each other more. I have to say, I am rather fond of our department and I hope that I can witness many more dinners. I will certainly work harder to communicate better with them in the future and discuss my cancellation plans with them well in advance. However, I hope that they have learned something about us too and I certainly hope that they have learned to leave Christmas alone.
[i] Bai jiu is a terrible invention. At first, I thought that it was like a Chinese version of vodka, but no, even the cheapest vodka in a plastic bottle from sketchy gas station is better than bai jiu. It is really strong. It ranges from 60-100 proof and I am fairly certain parts of the United States, especially during the era of prohibition, would recognize it as moon shine. Be forewarned, even the British boys from New Castle -who drink quite a lot and quite often-can’t drink too much bai jiu.