Saturday, December 24, 2011

Business, Love, and Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

China officially calls its form of government something like "socialism with Chinese characteristics."  I've found that "with Chinese characteristics" is a helpful phrase that you can add to almost anything.  For example, you may see a word like "Christmas" and think you know what it means.  Then you live through a Christmas in China and realize it has morphed beyond recognition.  It's not Christmas: the festive, holy celebration of the birth of Christ -- it's Christmas with Chinese characteristics: the hip new holiday where young folks who have never heard of Jesus give each other apples, send "Merry Christmas" text messages, and go out with their boyfriends or girlfriends.

Let's have some fun with Chinese characteristics as I tell you about my last couple of days.

Christmas with Chinese characteristics

Lately I've been inviting my classes over for casual Christmas parties.  We bake cookies, play music, and hang out in my apartment.

Cutting out sugar cookies

Common sights in China: students huddled together over a project and boys with arms slung over each others' shoulders

Here is Leonard, who took charge of putting cookies in and out of the oven.  He did a great job.  Standing next to the spice rack with time to kill, he started experimenting.  Soon about 1/3 of the cookies that passed through his hands emerged from the oven with hot red pepper powder sprinkled on top.

Leonard the cookie master
Catherine also decided to improvise.  Rather than making a ball and rolling out the dough as I taught them, she meticulously pressed it into a flat rectangle with the palm of her hand.  Then she hand-cut the shapes with a knife rather than using cookie cutters.


Christmas Eve in China has come to be known by the Chinese translation for "silent night" (ping an ye).  "Ping an" sounds like "ping guo," the word for apple.  Therefore, using logic with Chinese characteristics, we can see that the proper way to celebrate Christmas is to buy overpriced wrapped apples and give them to our friends.  So far, I have received three boxed apples and an apple-shaped candle.
Students buying wrapped Christmas apples near my campus

Tonight we had a banquet with the foreign affairs officers of our university.  They usually give us a Christmas banquet to express their appreciation.  Nothing says "Christmas" like eating sea cucumber soup and toasting your leaders!

Me with my foreign affairs officer

Can you spot the pigs' feet?

Me with some of the foreign teachers at the Qufu campus, who were bused in for the event


The lobby of the banquet hotel had a Christmas tree and Santa -- two common sights these days

After the banquet, my team hung out for awhile in our apartments eating gingerbread cake with whipped cream.

Christmas with American characteristics

Around 9:00 p.m., these guys came to the door:

What's better than one Santa?  Two Santas!

In order to understand why they came, we need to back up for a story about business with Chinese characteristics.

A few days ago, my teammate Jason and I were in the office when two of his student friends came by.  They were freshmen business majors, looking for some help with the small apple-delivery business they were setting up for Christmas.  For the low, low price of 16 RMB, they would deliver a wrapped apple with a card and some chocolate to anyone on campus.

I sat and listened for awhile while Jason tried to figure out exactly what help they needed from him.  Did they want him to help advertise?  No.  Did they need business advice?  No.  Did they want him to tell the other foreign teachers?  No, but would he mind writing down the other foreign teachers' names and room numbers here?

Before he knew what had happened, he had signed up to purchase delivered apples for all of his teammates.

Apple deliverers.  Pay attention to the girl on the right; she becomes important later.

Apparently the service also came with a poem and a song.  Lyonne, the business major below, gave a strong reading of a Tang Dynasty poem off his cell phone.  Then he disappeared, whispering to Jason that he needed to arrange some things downstairs.

The reading of the poem.  This guy also becomes important in about a minute.

After the main guy disappeared, the other half dozen awkwardly hemmed and hawed, trying to decide which song to sing.  They apparently had not planned in advance.  It took them forever to choose a song, and when they finally did, it was terribly off-key.

Singing lyrics off the cell phone

Why did they take so long to choose a song?  Why did their main guy disappear?  It all boils down to a story about love with Chinese characteristics.

Minutes after they left, we heard a commotion outside and looked out to see this:

Yes, Lyonne had arranged a red carpet, candles in the shape of a heart, and students with sparklers to help him declare his "love" for the girl we saw above.  It has become trendy on our campus for boys to ask girls out in romantic public scenes outside their dorms, but this is the first one we've ever gotten to see from our own apartment.

He knelt in front of her for at least ten minutes, softly talking to her.  The sparklers burnt out and he was still on one knee.  We know from other students' stories that he was probably asking her to be his girlfriend, but would she say yes?  Gawking shamelessly from the window, we began to worry things might not be going as planned.

So we sat down for awhile and opened the bags they delivered.

The contents of our gift bags: an orange, an apple, a chocolate bar, a card, and a rose

Christmas card with Chinese characteristics

Soon a teammate called from the window that things seemed to be wrapping up.  We rushed over to see that Lyonne had finally stood up and had his arm around the girl.  The students all clapped and we waved from the window.  We couldn't tell, but he may have moved in for a few awkward kisses that did not seem to be reciprocated. 

Let's all send our happy thoughts and congratulations to Lyonne and the possibly reluctant girl who is possibly his new girlfriend.

I have one more Christmas party tomorrow and then I get to celebrate with my team and friends from around the city.   Merry Christmas to all of you!


  1. Love this post! The hot pepper cookies, photo of you and Bernie and Sarah, and the awesome love story at the end!

  2. We got an update on the love story from a student who was on the ground. The girl agreed to be his girlfriend. They stood up, and the boy thanked everyone for helping him declare his love for her. Then he said, even if they break up one day, it's OK because they are together now. (Classy -- talking about a break-up in the first 5 minutes of your relationships.) And he did indeed kiss her twice, as everyone stood and stared.

  3. OH MY! This is hilarious! I was reading the blog you just posted and got linked over here...seems like 'a delightful day. My mind is paralyzed.' I wish we had these awkward love stories in Laos.

    1. Awkward is definitely the word for it. We felt so privileged to watch the whole thing unfold!