Christmas in China

China is an odd one. Communist, yet absurdly Capitalist – much more so than my home country of America. Perhaps at no point in the year is this more exemplified than the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

To set the stage, I work at a shopping center. One of the many, many, many shopping centers in Shenzhen - this city runs on mall culture. The metro stations seem to all be attached to a giant, well-maintained, fancy mall. Whenever people are not at work, school, or home, they are at the mall. It’s all very 1990s. And thus, it is not remotely as weird or trashy as it might seem that an English school is at a mall. In fact, my mall has four English centers! Yes, four.

Starting in mid-November, I began to see small Christmas decorations in stores. Soon, the little snowflakes turned into trees. And as soon as it hit December, the exteriors and rotundas of the various shopping centers were covered in Christmas decorations as gaudy as any you’d see in the West (now, I love me some Christmas decorations, so I use the term “gaudy” with adoration). Giant trees, lights, the works. This being China, many of the malls had a bit of a cutesy, pink Christmas theme. My mall also installed a giant walkable keyboard in one of the outdoor courtyards, which isn’t exactly Christmas-y but it sure was fun! (I guess the pink trees made it Christmasy?).

Another thing that my mall did that - which our supervisors swore up and down was common but mysteriously none of the other English teachers at other malls had to do it - was perform a mall-wide Christmas talent show. Or, more specifically, force our kids to do so.

Now, to give you a bit of an…um, idea as to the chaos and disorganization that is the company I work for: we were told about this about a month before it was to happen. Or, in class terms, four classes beforehand. I have ten classes, and I decided to talk to one of my groups of seven-year olds, mainly because there are two kids in that class who have quite the dramatic flair. However, they didn’t look pleased when I told them, so I decided to go with one of my oldest classes instead (10-year olds). So that was a week gone from practicing, because I hadn’t expected to switch classes.

Next came song selection. I thought for the briefest of seconds about having the kids do a play, but that was too complicated (it’s hard enough to even get them to do simple back-and-forth dialogue out of the textbook, I wasn’t about to try and get them to do an actual skit). I then went through Christmas songs in my head. And you know what? They’re all kind of hard! They’re not for us, but imagine being an ESL kid. Even simple ones like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” would be hard. They don’t know the word reindeer, much less something like “you would even say it glows.” The only one that seemed like it would be easy was “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” because of its repetition, but a different teacher snapped that one up.

It took me a couple of days of brain-storming, but I finally came up with the solution: “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” There were only three or four words that the kids wouldn’t know, and it’s a simple enough melody. I printed the lyrics and handed them out to my bewildered class.

The next challenge was a very “China” problem to have - the issue with having chosen a somewhat obscure song meant that I could. not. find. it. Not on a single platform that the Chinese government allows did this song exist! I needed to send a file of the song to the kids’ parents, so that they could practice at home, but I had no idea how. So there was another week wasted. At one point, my supervisor told me to use a certain conversion website to get the song off of YouTube. I had to use my laptop to do this, in order to access the YouTube link via a VPN to convert it. In keeping with the theme of this whole show, it didn’t work and now my laptop gets multiple porn pop-ups every day because of whatever crap that website put onto my computer. Woo.

With two weeks/classes to go, I was finally able to send the song and send it to the parents. We practiced the song in class each week, and that was that. Or so I thought. I knew they weren’t really ready, but they could have the lyrics with them on stage and I planned on plugging in the song and blasting them out so no one would hear their mistakes anyways. It seemed like the best case scenario considering the situation.

The day before the show, I awoke to a message from school telling me that my kids had all mutinied - all but one of their parents had contacted them to say they were not going to participate. While annoyed that my laptop now gets porn pop-ups for no justification, at least that meant that I was also off the hook! I settled back into my pillows. But a few minutes later, I got another message – the one kid who hadn’t risen up was sad that it had been canceled. My boss asked if he wanted to perform alone, and he said that he didn’t want to sing alone but that he’d love to perform a song on the guitar. So I had to quickly write-up an introduction in English for him to practice, in order to introduce himself tomorrow. I sent his mother the intro, she sent me back a long thank you about how excited he was, and I spent the rest of the day somewhat guilt-riddled that I had been happy the performance had been canceled.

The next day, the student (McQueen. He loves the movie “Cars”) and his mother arrived about half an hour before the show was scheduled to start. I sat in the room with them while he practiced his intro (“Hello, my name is McQueen. I am 10 years old and I study English here. I love to play the guitar, and today I will play a song for you. Merry Christmas!”). He was a little shaky, but overall he was ready. His mother and I gave him lots of big grins, anyways. Confidence is key! He then grabbed his guitar (in backpack form! I’ve not seen that before. I’m sure it’s common and I’m just not tuned in to these things, but it was a handy way to carry a guitar!) and the three of us headed to the rotunda.

Several of my teaching colleagues were milling about, one of whom (Rowan) was in a suit. Surprised, I went over to him and asked about the get-up. “You didn’t know?” Rowan responded in his Scottish drawl. “I’m co-MCing.” He then showed me the index cards that our boss had given him to read. They were hilariously rigid, made all the more entertaining because Rowan is a very soft-spoken individual, not endowed with an overly enthusiastic manner. In other words, perfect for the position of MC at a random Christmas talent show in China.

I say random because, well, remember how we had been told this was common in China and that it would be mall-wide? It was definitely only our company, and definitely only our mall. The best theory I can come up with is that each store gets a different Saturday to perform, but there's also only four Saturdays before Christmas so that's only four stores in a mall of dozens. And that at all of the other malls we have friends working in, their companies opted out. That is the only explanation.

Anyways,when the show started, Rowan went onstage with one of our Chinese secretaries. She did the fast majority of the speaking (in Mandarin) while Rowan stood there like a bored board next to her. Every now and then, she would look at him, he would read his index card, and then they invited the children onstage.

McQueen was the third to go. He messed up his intro, but like a champ he didn’t let that ruin his performance! He played, and I – ever the proud teacher mama – was right in the front channeling Amy Poehler à la Mean Girls.

The next kid to go was also about 10. His intro ended with, “let us dance the hip-hop together.” The sound people hit play, and a song with…um, lyrics that 10 year olds in English speaking countries would not have been allowed to dance to began to play. The kid just bopped from one foot to the other for the first 30 seconds or so. I turned to my co-worker and said, “aww, he’s nervous!” And then the bass dropped, and shiiiiit. I actually recoiled in shock. He was so good! I watched with a huge grin on my face, despite being absolutely aware that McQueen’s hopes for gold had just been dashed.

Other acts included two kids reading a long poem (which, for ESL, was damn impressive), a tiny, tiny girl trying to recite “brown bear, brown bear” but mostly just standing there staring at her mother, one more hip-hop dancer (who they apparently cut off and he left the stage in tears because of it), and another of my own classes who had not mutinied against my co-teacher, and she had been able to wrangle them into singing Rudolph (this picture is of half of them practicing before the performance).

I tried to stay for the winner's announcement, but, well, the show really began to drag. I can’t even say I had something else to be doing, I was just really bored and didn’t want to stand there anymore. So back to the office I went, popping back over every 15 minutes to see if they had announced the winners. I, obviously, missed the actual announcement but McQueen came in third! (and the hip-hop dancer won second). Apparently they only judged solo performers, which my Rudolph kids didn’t know so they were pissed that they’d spent all that time learning the song for seemingly no reason. I just smiled at them and repeated that ole “it’s the experience that counts!” chestnut. Not sure they believed me, to be honest.

Two days later was Christmas Eve. My company gives foreign teachers Christmas Day off, but not Christmas Eve (which as a descendent of Lutheran Scandinavians is a bit annoying because we’re Christmas Eve people. But at the same time, I’ve missed Christmas at home for six years now, so whatever). I walked into the office, entirely unenthused to be working. But upon being greeted by the sight of Bob - my new, very gangly Chinese desk mate - dressed in a Santa costume, my mood brightened. It brightened even more when he handed me a hand-made note and candy. My mood only continued to get better as the evening went on, with the result that by the time I got off work at 9 I was perfectly happy to have worked on what used to be my favorite day of the year.

Now, as a quick backstory: my class at Monday at 7:30 is quite challenging. It’s 10 five-year old boys, only two of whom are really good, three more are good when I ask them to be, and the other five are, well, five-year old boys. I like the class but I also dread it. And the Christmas Eve class was on the worse side of average (as I told a co-worker during the break, “if this was America or England I would get it, we always struggled to pay attention right before Christmas. But this is just Monday night for them!”), and I was happy when 8:35 rolled around and I was able to kick them out.

One of their mothers was waiting outside the room when I opened the door. She looked up from her phone, caught my eye, and said brightly, “to you, Merry Christmas!” As soon as she did, all ten of the kids started yelling over one another, “Teacher Laura, Merry Christmas to you!!”

They may be monsters, but they're my little monsters.