Christmas was usually a pain for teachers. Rather than having the western holiday off, we were often required to perform at some school event, hold Christmas classes, or dress up as Santa at some school party.
One year, the foreign teachers booked a restaurant for Christmas dinner. One of the teacher's wives had a brother who managed a restaurant that could put together roasted turkey and other holiday favorites. The dinner was booked for either Friday or Saturday. The Tuesday of Christmas week, the school invited the foreign teachers to attend a school performance across the river at some random school. We were all angry that we would not be back in time for our dinner. We considered declining the school's masked requirement. In the end, I alone declined the invitation. This greatly insulted the school. They never got over the slight. When the others arrived, they talked about how terrible it was and how cold it was as they sat outside watching a boring variety show that mismatched communist songs with kitsch Chrismas schlock. After the required attendance, they were warmly welcomed to a big Christmas dinner. At that point, the foreigners had to put a foot down and remind the myopic foreign liaison that they had already made plans. Friends were waiting at one of their wife's brother's restaurant. Despite the valid excuse, the school couldn't handle being slighted on such an important day.
Christmas often had some strange drama because the Chinese school saw Christmas as an opportunity to use us instead of respecting that Christmas as a special time for westerners.
Working for two schools, there were multiple events and multiple classes that needed a celebration. In order to make the process bearable, I made sure to do something that I enjoyed. In the. Lasseoomm I would use the two last weeks of the year to teach my favorite Christmas songs. I took photos in front of a Christmas tree that I drew on the blackboard. I filled the classroom with the jazzy tunes of, "A Charlie Brown's Christmas," as the class drew decorations. I treated myself to some end-of-the-year downtime. It took many years of living abroad to get used to a Non-existent Christmas season that one finds in China.
I am amazed how every year brought on a different challenge or event. In 2011, the school wanted us to create a show for a school-wide stage performance. There were five foreigners. We made the new guy dress up as Santa Claus, as that was a role that required the most energy. Requiring the new guy to don the Santa suit was the only form of coercion I could hope for. The others were adamant about not singing a song. So I suggested that we all make a sort of Christmas toast. Rather than holding up glasses and sharing a Christmas drink, we would hold up an ornament and lift it up as we said our Christmas wish before placing it on a tree. Each of us would do with, saying only one or two sentences. We then could have two or three students join us on the stage and they can say their Christmas wishes too. It was short, simple, used English, and involved some students. What could be more perfect? I explained this plan to the group of foreigners who agreed with no protest. It required no preparation. No singing. And no pressure. That is when Tom got the brilliant idea of reciting " ''Twas the night before Christmas," to the school. Immediately eyes rolled. But rather than laboriously explaining to Tom that no one at the school could understand the poem, that it would be an exhausting waste of time for everyone, the other teachers acquiesced so we could move onto other topics while eating lunch. I goaded Brian by telling the group that he would perform an interpretive dance beside Tom so students and teachers better understand the poem better. Everyone laughed except for Brian of course who was often humorless.
That night, as I was falling asleep, I lay in bed thinking about the plan and Brian's interpretive dance kept springing into my mind. Tom was really going to read 'Twas the night before Christmas and it certainly would be a disaster. Then I thought about the stage and how it would sit in front of the facade of the building. The windows would be hidden from the stage. Maybe I could stand in one of the windows like the Pope and...yes, I know. I could give the audience of teachers and students hand signals to tells them how to react at certain parts of Tom's recitation.
The backdrop of the stage would obscure me, the kids could see me, and this would lead Tom to believe that the kids understood him.
The next morning, with renewed energy, imprinted a copy of the play and penciled through it to see when I would like to add dramatic oohs and ahh, applause cues, and cheers.
I kept my plans secret from the other foreigners but told my assistant at the school. I needed to know when they would he holding the rehearsal for the show and that I would need 15 minutes to teach the school children to follow my cues. I instructed the teachers to keep this a secret and tell their classes to follow me but to not draw attention to me. The joke is on Tom.
Rather than feeling bitter about working on Christmas, I was looking forward to the prank. The event was going smoothly. We were seated in the front and enjoyed the absurd show where one performance had students dancing to a song by one-hit songstress, Lenka, "Trouble is a Friend," while waving cardboard pictures of Santa Claus. Yes, the capitalist undertones of Christmas and Santa are a source of trouble and the inappropriateness of the song during Christmas is totally appropriate in China where everything seems backward anyway.
When it was the foreign teachers' turn to take the stage, I did my best to stay to the side so that when Tom took his seat I was able to escape to the third-floor window. He took the microphone and was shocked by the roars of applause when he told the audience of primary aged children that he would be reading the classic poem.
The oohs and ahhs filled him with energy as he read while the other foreign teachers stood behind him wondering what the fuck was going on. Later while we were reliving all of this over coffee, they told me that the all started looking at each other wondering at the same time, " where is David?
I was above them, in the open window, out of view. Later, my assistant even told me that the headmaster, who was not present at the rehearsal, was also puzzled. On two occasions he stood up to look around. He, himself, could not understand a word of English, could only see a school of Chinese students totally engrossed in this English poem. He was beaming with pride that his teachers were amazing. This was the result of his amazing teachers.
They added just enough reaction to be believable but not over the top. I was enjoying the joke so much while it was happening. Just a couple weeks prior, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il had died. The news of his death could have led to instability that could have had an impact on China. It didn't but at the time I thought that I was filled with the type of admiration that a dear leader must feel when he is bathed in the adulation of his followers when he graced them with his presence from a window.
No sooner than the poem ended, I returned to the stage, unbeknownst to Tom. But the other teachers looked at me and wanted to know what the hell I had just pulled off.
We were invited to lunch with the headmaster and lead teachers. The headmaster sat at a corner of the large circular table with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bai jiu. None of us indulged as we had to teach classes in the afternoon. But Tom couldn't help himself. He was so proud of his poem and we let him talk about it.
I remember the Chinese English teachers speaking Chinese. The idea of including foreigners in a conversation was still too foreign of an idea. I could interpret and for all of the wonder about what they could have been talking about, they were just talking about the weather.
After lunch, we went to coffee, where we invited our Chinese counterparts. It was there that I let Tom off of the hook. He was a little drunk from the lunch and, at first, he thought I was just joking. I still had the copy of the poem in my pocket with my penciled in notes. We all watched as his face turned every color of embarrassment that it possibly could. He was a good sport about it. That is why he is a legend. Few others could be such good sports.
That spring would mark the end of my tenure with the primary school. I had worked as their teacher for four years. Tom would take over as the main foreign teacher. They only kept one, sometimes, two at the school.