I opened my door to find a smiling school official holding a lifeless chicken by the neck. “Hello, Barbara. As you know, we’re having a dinner this week for your holiday. Please cook this chicken in the American way. Oh, and when I was abroad I enjoyed Jell-O, could you bring some?” I don’t remember my response but I know I accepted his offering as I have a strong memory of a neighbor cutting off the bird’s extremities in my kitchen.
It was November and the holiday was Thanksgiving. American Thanksgiving. The Canadian celebration had come and gone. No leader at our school had been to Canada but someone had been to the US and knew a bit about the sharing of food and the football game. The meal was held in the school’s restaurant and included the usual Chinese banquet dishes—plus a baked chicken and a bowl of red Jell-O. My first Thanksgiving in China.
But certainly not my last. Some years November has included not one but several special meals—each as different as the people who hosted and attended them. Curious students and colleagues, lonely expats and neighbors, teammates and travelers passing through. I’ve been the hostess and the guest. There have been groups of 50+ at a hotel, 15 crammed into my apartment sitting on the arms of stuffed chairs, and a handful of students in a dorm room feeding me so “you won’t be sad and miss your family.” Presentations have been made on the historical account and English corners have had cooking extravaganzas, plays, and discussions on gratitude. There are so many sides to celebrating a holiday outside of your country. My time in China has made it clear that there is no one way.
The classroom Thanksgiving “lesson” itself is full of options. English textbooks are continually choosing different holidays to represent the west. Sometimes Thanksgiving doesn’t make the cut and the teacher must decide to add it or stick with the text. Students have had endless opportunities to watch TV and movie celebrations. My presentations on several holidays have been met with “that’s not how they do it on Friends.” Returning Chinese teachers share their holiday experiences abroad. Students are also increasingly aware of historical controversies and can challenge a traditional Pilgrims and Indians account. The motivation of religious freedom can be a potential minefield or an amazing opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. There are choices to be made as a teacher and wisdom is needed.
Expat only celebrations or include Chinese friends? Does it really have to be either or? One memorable gathering was held in our Canadian neighbor’s apartment. She pointed out the irony of her hosting such an event but she did have the biggest place! Lonely expats, Chinese colleagues, and teammates held heaping plates of food in their laps. One teacher initiated the “what are you thankful for” activity. As we went around the circle gratitude was expressed for mothers, familiar food, good health, the love of Jesus, and the fact that it was Saturday.
For ten years I attended a huge provincial-wide celebration for foreign teachers and their families. Attendees came by train and bus and taxi. No one had a home big enough so classrooms or guesthouse banquet rooms were used. So much had to be brought in. I still smile when I think of local teachers getting out of cars carrying pots, dishes, tablecloths, and even small ovens. There was turkey one year—discovered at a foreign food store. But it arrived in pieces as no one had access to an oven its size. Yes, the food was delicious and plentiful but the singing, praying, and catching up rivaled the enjoyment of any of the pumpkin pies.
One year a group from my teachers class decided to give a classmate a housewarming party—on Thanksgiving. We had briefly talked about the holiday and I was pretty certain the host hadn’t caught the fourth Thursday in November information. But he had! There were turkey legs (where is the body?) and a dish from everyone—except me. “We all brought something—like in your country. Now should we all say thank you?” What better moment for sharing about all those we are thankful for—generous students, loving parents, and a never-changing God.
Times of conversation practice hardly need a holiday to focus on being grateful. But with a special day that includes the word “thanks” why not use it? Textbooks teach greetings, expressing opinion, disagreeing, and describing but little on truly giving thanks. So many of the usual “free talk” questions turn inward—what do you think, what would you do if? Even “what do you believe in” so often gets the standard—“I believe in myself.” What and for whom am I thankful? Now our thoughts are turned away from ourselves. The student who volunteers at an orphanage realizes that his poor childhood was full of love and safety. Another tells me privately—“my classmates are mostly only-children. I’m so thankful I grew up with a sister.”
Like so many festivals throughout the world, Thanksgiving includes the sharing of a meal; a Biblical picture of fellowship. The added emphasis on giving thanks hands a powerful opportunity to Christian teachers. “We’re supposed to say thank you on this holiday?” says a puzzled student. “Whom do you thank, Teacher?”
I would love to tell you.
Image credit: Barbara Kindschi
Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom. All have been both her students and teachers. View Full Bio