Christmas day started with a phone call at 11am. The head teacher at my school called and said that all the teachers needed to meet in the teacher’s office in 45 minutes… the “School Leadership” wanted to take us to lunch. Up until that point I had planned on spending Christmas just taking it easy, sleeping in, and making some skype calls back home. I had just woken up and my plans had already changed! And so, disregarding my Christmas plans I quickly showered, dressed, and headed into the office.
Such is life in China… last minute planning, unpredictability, and plans that change on a daily basis. It takes some getting used to at first, but after 4 months in China I am starting to get used to going with the flow. After all, I have never had to drop my plans in China, without looking back and thinking, “That was definitely worth it.” The Chinese do not always give much warning, but when they invite you somewhere it is always a good time!
3 out of the 4 teachers from my school made it to the office by 11:45am. There was a private driver waiting for us outside and we were led to the front of the school. We still didn’t have a clue where we were going or what we would be doing. I have had many experiences like this in China so far, and keeping the “guests” in the dark about plans seems to be a cultural trait. Sometimes these surprises lead to 12 hour adventures in other cities, while others have led to restaurants, bars, massages, and KTVs (Chinese karaoke).
And so we were off! Our driver zig zagged through the city and we ended up going down a small alley off one of the main roads. When the van stopped, we all jumped out and looked around. We were standing at the entrance of an unassuming restaurant buried deep inside the city … we all walked inside wondering what kind of meal it would be.
Inside the restaurant we met up with our headmaster, and the owner of the school’s brother. His wife and kid were there, along with some other important leaders from the city, which made for a comfortable, yet stay-on-your-toes, kind of environment. Most of the men at the table were influential members of the community, the city, and the school that we worked at. To be eating lunch with them was quite an honor.
Most meals in China involve drinking, and drinking frequently. This meal would be no exception. It was just past noon and we were there with our bosses’ bosses. Back home I would be very hesitant to drink with a crowd of such influential people, but in China it is customary and we would be expected to keep up.
The lunch was an impressive and humbling experience. The fact that they spent so much time and effort to show us that they appreciate what we do, was an extremely generous gesture. I am fortunate to have ended up at such a great school for my first year as an ESL teacher. Most people do not have as good of a relationship between their school and the foreign teachers. Everyone has shown an abnormal amount of appreciation during the Christmas season and all the foreign teachers have received gifts, been to Christmas parties, and got invited to hang out with the city’s leadership.
The meal took the course that many Chinese meals tend to follow. It was filled with fascinating customs, lots of drinking, cigarettes being passed around, and frequent toasts and speeches. We had duck, meats that resembled ham, mutton, and pork; dumplings, bread, and meat covered our massive lazy-susan style table and there was never a shortage of food spinning by. Glasses were never left empty long and many honorary toasts were made by everyone at the table (including myself and the other teachers). By the time we left, our bellies were full and the the world was moving just a bit slower than when we went in.
While inside the restaurant, one of our hosts invited us to go to Pingdingshan, a larger city nearby, later that night. We were having a great time and continually appreciative of everything they had done for us… and we accepted the invitation earnestly. The driver dropped us off at our apartments, and I made a quick Skype call, took a 20 minute nap, and then headed back out to meet the driver again. All the teachers met up and glanced at each other with curiosity as to what the evening would bring. They had already outdone themselves with gifts and lunch earlier.
The first stop was at one of our host’s home. His place was massive, ornately decorated, and a spectacular representation of Chinese prosperity. Inside they had grapes and snacks on the table … and of course, plenty of cigarettes to pass around. We stayed for 10-15 minutes until everyone was ready, and then got back into the van and headed to Pingdingshan; about half an hour away from us.
As a quick side note: Status and influence are a very large aspect of Chinese culture … so the fact that these guys were doing so much to ensure that we were happy and enjoying our Christmas was humbling and exciting. I don’t know how much they spent on us during the Christmas season, but it was significant and they always went to great lengths to make us feel comfortable during “our” holiday.
Once we got to Pingdingshan, we ended up at a really nice coffee house/western restaurant. I had the first steak I’ve had in China, along with some awesome coffee, whisky, wine, beer, water, soup, bread, salad, and…. cigarettes. It was the best meal I have had in 4 months. One of our chinese friends came along with us too, in order to translate, so we always felt comfortable and able to communicate. Everyone had a lot of laughs, ate a ton of food, and shared good alcohol, cigarettes, and stories for the entire evening.
By the end of the meal we were stuffed! They drove us back to our apartments and we said farewell around 9pm. It had been a unique and spectacular way to spend Christmas in China! When I got into my apartment I made some Skype calls, said Merry Christmas to my parents, then went to bed around midnight; and at 8am the next day I would have 50 third-graders staring back at me, ready for another class. I fell asleep thinking that China never ceases to surprise me through their hospitality and generosity.