Friday, December 25, 2009
Silent night, noisy night
Merry Chinese Christmas.
I had a few things to add to the craziness of the last week in China.
Christmas parties. In China, college students are crazy about Christmas parties. Usually this means everyone from the department crams into an auditorium and different groups, who all auditioned for a chance to perform, come on-stage to the delight of their classmates. Every performance is interrupted -- or at least augmented -- by friends rushing on-stage to give the performers flowers. However, this year, apparently because some of the students who got sick with H1N1 were from the foreign language department, they were only allowed to hold small "class" Christmas parties with their 40-some classmates.
Naturally, they wanted the foreign teachers to come. Two weeks ago, I even had students ask me which day I was most free during the week before Christmas, so they could find a time when I could come (the earliest invitation I've EVER received in China). "Tuesday," I told them after some thought. "Ok," they said. "And can you prepare a performance?" It just isn't a party without performances.
The next week, they walked into class and handed me an orange-colored invitation that looked like it belonged more to Thanksgiving or Halloween than Christmas. "Please come," they pleaded. I told them I'd try to make time, figuring Tuesday wouldn't be too bad. When I got a chance to look closer at the invitation, I realized the time shifted to Christmas Eve, for which we were already making plans.
Fast forward to the morning of Christmas Eve. I gave vague non-committal responses, because I was still holding out hope that we might be able to go to a church service in town, but nobody seemed to know when it would start (or if there was a service at all).
When I finally walked into their classroom at 9 p.m. (the party began at 7:30) the students went crazy. The...loudest...applause...I've ever received for anything. Not quite Beatles-like fainting, but seriously, it was like Jay Chou or their favorite Chinese boy band had walked into the room. They went nuts for a full minute. It was surreal. Then everything stopped. They pulled up a chair in the middle of the stage they'd set up in the front of the classroom. "Will you sing a song?"
Thankfully, I came prepared with my trusty acoustic guitar and a sheet of Christmas songs I knew how to play, so I implored them to join me in "Silent Night."
Half the students pulled out their cameras and began snapping photos or shooting video. The ultimate bragging rights -- an Actual American to celebrate Christmas with.
By the end of the song, they begged for more. I went for "Angels We Have Heard on High." More? No night would be complete without "Jingle Bells"
Afterwards, several students came forward, shoving a handful of candies into my free hand, then jamming apples into my pockets because my hands were full, then they rushed me to a seat of honor while students continued with their performances.
I scanned the room, noticing the fine arrangement of pink and purple balloons selected for the occasion. The same colors seemed to adorn other rooms. Nobody seemed to think green and red and white were missing. All the desks were pushed to the sides so students could perform in the middle. Every desk was covered with a pile of sunflower seeds, banana peels, candy wrappers and all sorts of other junk food. And in the front of the room, there was a small "Christmas tree" topped with a tiny Santa ornament. Students proudly explained that they made the tree themselves from several sticks, some tinsel and colored paper. On the chalkboard, students had drawn an elaborate Santa Claus.
The first few performances pretty much summed up a typical Chinese Christmas party: two of the three boys in the class sang "I Want it That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, accompanied by the tiny speaker in their cell phone. Then, an assortment of girls did catwalk modeling performances to some sort of European music (French?). Finally, several girls acted out a scene from the Monkey King. No Chinese party is complete without an interpretation of the Monkey King -- one of the big reasons I finally read (a 600-page abridged version) of the 2,000-plus page classic.
Since I was out and had no idea how late the party would continue, I decided to see if another class that had mentioned having a party was still there. I walked in on the wrong class. These were students from another class, who I've never taught, but they eagerly welcomed me with almost as much enthusiasm as my own students.
"We are about to play a game," said a boy holding a microphone. "Can you perform a song for us after the game?"
I nodded my approval and they began stepping on balloons tied around their feet in the giant space in the middle of the classroom. After a few minutes, one student remained whose balloon hadn't been popped. A winner!
I worked my way through the same Christmas setlist, then bid them farewell.
On my way back to the apartment, I began to notice several flickering lights floating in the air. As I walked closer, I realized that several students were lighting candles in the square, filling up red balloon-lanterns with hot air, like I'd seen before in Thailand. It amazes me that even in our fourth year in China, we still see new things. I'd never seen this in China before.
As I watched a few float into the air, I took a deep breath and gazed up in wonder at the beauty of this quiet moment, juxtaposed with the laughter and noise of the classroom celebration. Many things are strange to me about how the Chinese celebrate Christmas. For many students, since it's a completely Western concept in their minds, it's just an excuse to make up their own rules and have a party with their classmates. Other students said they went out to sing karoake or to have a big dinner with classmates. Those things are fine and all, but I'd take this simple Chinese interpretation of Christmas over the other ones any day. As the lanterns rose into the cold evening sky, my mind went back to the Word who became Flesh. Even if he was the last thing on these students minds, I reflected on the meaning of the season, how the one who we are celebrating came to this earth to be a light in the darkness. Exhausted from the week's busyness, I smiled and said a prayer of thanks.
More to come... in the meantime, Merry Christmas
Posted by Kevin at 11:16 PM