From this side of the holiday season, everything seems…well, exhausting. And cold. I have a hot water bottle under my feet under two blankets, two sheets, three shirts, and fuzzy socks, while my fingers, exposed to the air, struggle to type. It’s not Michigan-cold, but it’s about all the cold Shenzhen-me wants to handle. The thing about being a Michigander is that I know how to prepare for the cold. I’ve got a very warm winter coat, boots, gloves, scarves, and hats–at home. In Michigan. Where they can’t do me a lick of good.

In any case, the colder temps (OKAY, let’s be honest, it’s still in the mid-forties) make it a perfect time to announce my Chinese New Year vacation plans: three weeks beginning January 17, 2011 in the balmy, exotic, sometimes-dangerous, historically- and politically- rich countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Spending the American holidays in China was honestly kind of a bummer. I think I made the best of it, and had a lovely group of people who were also making the best of it, but there’s not much that can be done when you really, really wish you were physically somewhere else. Here’s how I spent the holidays:

Thanksgiving Dinner

We had Thanksgiving dinner at Becca’s place in Longgang. She used a toaster oven and two gas stove burners to make a feast the likes of which I’ve never seen before:

The next day Jess and I had the Yunnan “fam” over: Andrew, Ben, Carrie, Cliff, and Greg, as well as Becca, for a second home-cooked meal, this time of chili, tacos, corn on the cob, and no-bake cookies.The following morning we spent cooking yet more for the big CTLC dinner in Futian at one of our coordinators’ schools. We had our third huge meal in the same number of days, but we played Frisbee afterward to work off the calories. For the record, I am so bad at Frisbee. Sometimes I can catch it, but I never throw it correctly.Christmas was next in the holiday chain. Some of the Chinese teachers at my school are impossibly warm-hearted and empathetic. Many of them will say, “Christmas is very important for you, isn’t it? You must miss your family.” All I can do is agree. But sometimes there are distinct “lost in translation” moments when their empathy derails into misguided kindness, like when the teachers at my friend Eliza’s school asked her if she’d like to have dinner and go to a karaoke bar on Christmas day. I know their intentions were good, but we laughed later by ourselves, agreeing that nothing sounds

The Fam at Thanksgiving

more depressing than being in a karaoke bar on Christmas day.

The week before Christmas, the “Longgang 7”–Jess, Jon, Becca, Heidi, Jen, and Mike, and I–all met for dinner at an amazing sushi restaurant and had a 5 kuai ($0.75) white elephant gift exchange. That same weekend, Jess threw a small Christmas party for the teachers in her office, making a quick and delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres (I just spelled that wrong about fifteen times, but that’s okay because I teach English, not French), read the Christmas story from the New Testament while one of the teachers, Melody, read the Chinese translation after each paragraph, and successfully pulled off a 10 kuai white elephant gift exchange in a culture where we didn’t know if the concept existed or not. It was a great time. Her teachers were so friendly and kind, and were sincerely excited to be at a Christmas party, even if it was quite different from any Christmas party Jess or I had ever attended.

Jessica reading the Christmas story

Thanks to Jess’s decorations, the tiny Christmas tree that was already in our apartment when we arrived in August, and the wonderful packages I received from home, our house felt very Christmas-y.Christmas Eve was spent at a hotel in Luohu, the Shenzhen Guesthouse, where the Education Bureau of Shenzhen hosted a banquet and put us up for the night. The food was a little odd (it included, among the tasty Chinese dishes, that classic Chinese attempt at Western cuisine, sweet-sauced spaghetti and slightly soggy french fries, as well as a fruit salad with a straight up mayonnaise sauce) but the company was great and it felt festive to stay at a hotel.

Christmas day, however, I was very glad to leave the hotel early and head back to Longgang with Ben, Andrew, and Cliff, while Carrie

and Jess finished up some shopping for our supper of spaghetti, eggplant Parmesan, real salad (almost impossible to come by in a country with endless misleading (and often bitter) types of lettuce and no way to distinguish between them), fruit salad, and garlic bread. We had a cozy fam plan of eating together and watching Christmas movies all day in between Skyping with our families. That atmosphere did a lot more for me than that of the banquet the night before, and I was grateful. It was odd, however, to listen as each of my friends went into the bedrooms and saw and spoke with their families–as if their true joy had been hiding a little, and then became so evident in their voices and laughter with their families on the other end.After dinner, we dragged a mattress out from the guest bedroom, put it on the floor in the living room, and all piled on to watch Home

Melanie, Rainbow, and Lefty posing with our Christmas “props”

Alone 2, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Christmas Story.

Fast forward a week to the next event. On the last day of school before our six weeks of vacation, Mike and I had to give a performance

at Ping Gang’s annual New Year’s party. We were under-prepared and had not expected the caliber of the performances, the excitement of the students, or the sheer numbers of the audience. The number being around 3600. Which is way too many students by any count, but especially if you’re standing in front of them reciting English and Chinese poetry. I felt like an idiot, but enjoyed the performances of everyone else, and at least I learned a Chinese poem from the deal! The English, very fittingly, I thought, goes something like this:

Thoughts on a Still Night

Before my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think that it is frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.

For New Year’s the fam had decided long ago to go to Hong Kong. Planning in advance is necessary, since Hong Kong is a prime destination for New Year’s crowds, and as it’s an island, there’s only so much room for everyone who wants to attend. We made a day of it, arriving early to hit up the Vietnam embassy for visas, and then checking into our hotel, which was on Hong Kong island right in the middle of the action. We booked a room for two people with every intention of sleeping seven people there. As it turned out, we only had to sleep six, since we met up with Jess’s friend from college, Connie, a native Hong Konger, who took Jess back to her place for the night. We ate at an Irish pub, Delaney’s, for supper–amazing–bought convenience store wine and beer, and headed out to find the best vantage point for the fireworks. We ended up sneaking onto the terrace of a bar and had a pretty decent view for the midnight countdown to 2011. White lights shot at ninety degree angles from every five to ten floors of the second tallest building in Hong Kong,

Hong Kong 2011

the International Finance Centre Two, or what Ben affectionately calls “the Batman building” because it played a starring role in The

Dark Knight. We even managed to avoid most of the crowds after midnight, although doing so meant we had to sacrifice meeting up with fellow CTLCers.The following morning we ventured out for an amazing breakfast at a place called The Flying Pan, then I called it a day and headed back to Shenzhen to begin letting the holidays drain out of me.Happy Holidays, everyone. My New Year’s goals include learning five new Mandarin words a day. To make it fun I allowed myself to learn the word “hovercraft,” 气垫船 or qìdiànchuán. As Cliff said, learning that word was an investment in the future. Going to be a good year.

As ever, or more than ever, actually, my heart’s in Michigan. Thinking of you all the time and wishing I could be there. Lots of love from this side of the world.