Somewhere overhead, a plane drones angrily past our fourth floor apartment.
At half-past six, I wake to prepare for the day ahead of me. In the darkness, I fumble toward the bathroom to quickly wash, and then mentally steel myself against the frigid temperatures of our bedroom after leaving the steamy warmth of my shower.
I drip icy shards down my back as I rush to cover my body with as many layers as possible. I would sleep in my scarf if I was not afraid of it constricting my throat in my fitful sleep. The sun has not even made an appearance yet. I start to doubt in its coming.
The day, still in its night-velvet bedclothes, holds a daunting task before me.
We are throwing a party.
You, my dear reader, may scoff at the enormousness of this endeavor. But, it is quite an ordeal when you are creating a child’s first impressions of your national holiday. This party will determine how these children view this most joyous of celebrations for the rest of their lives. And how, you may ask, did we stumble into such a weighty situation?
One Chinese teacher caught wind that today, November 26th, 2015, is Thanksgiving Day. 感恩节。 The day when all the chubby Americans gather at a table with their chubby relatives and eat till they are blue in the face. This is, in fact, our nation’s most fitting holiday (although some may pose that the commercialism of Christmas deserves the title more).
We were throwing the students a Thanksgiving party…and it was doomed to fail.
For one thing, the students here in China do not celebrate Thanksgiving. Some of them have heard about this holiday, maybe from an American TV show or a foreign teacher who has been pressured into forcing the students to celebrate it. But, to the average Chinese fourth grader, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a vocabulary word for this week’s quiz. It is stripped of its meaning.
Similarly, because these students do not celebrate the holiday, explaining these traditions in English will be difficult for the students to understand. It would be like trying to teach someone who speaks no Swahili about Kwanzaa. This meant that I was to act as translator also, while my partner teacher did her best to explain in English.
We stand outside the auditorium, waiting for the room to be unlocked. The space is large and we use microphones so that the students can hear us clearly.
Plugging up our laptop for the Power point presentation took a while, but we eventually were set up and said our salutations.
The students responded with a robust, “Good Morning, Teacher!”
After struggling to explain the holiday in English and then in my stuttering Chinese, we decided that pictures and songs were a better route. Ashley, a music major, led the students in a song of her own creation:
MY SWEET BIRDIE
IS A TURKEY
AND HE’S FEATHERED
AND HE’S FINE
AND HE WOBBBLES
AND HE GOBBLES
AND HE’S ABSOLUTELY MINE.
HE’S THE BEST PET
THAT YOU CAN GET
BETTER THAN A DOG OR CAT
HE’S MY SWEET LITTLE TURKEY
AND I’M AWFULLY
PROUD OF THAT.
HE ONCE TOLD ME
HE’D PREFER TO BE MY PET
NOT THE MAIN COURSE
AT MY DINNER
AND I TOLD HIM
NOT TO FRET.
AND MY SWEET LITTLE TURKEY
IS SO HAPPY IN HIS BED
CUZ FOR OUR THANKSGIVING DINNER
WE HAD TOFU THEN INSTEAD.
The students, confused by some of the words, did their best to follow along. Their little faces were scrunched in concentration as they tried to move their mouths the same ways as ours while also reading the words on the screen. Sometimes, they would misjudge and make a big “O” with their mouths when we were making a “T.”
We had seen, like a prophecy, what was to be our fate. The children were confused, but, worst of all, they had expected a party. We were supposed to be the fun Americans, teaching them all the coolest dances and slang phrases, wearing the coolest clothes, all without trying. Or, at least, I was sure that was what they expected from us.
And I was painfully aware of my uncoolness. My cheeks would have grown hot with a blush, except the cold would not allow me any solace of that kind.
After a few more songs, the teachers were getting worried. They stood whispering in the back of the room, unsure of how to tell us that this party was a complete and utter disaster. One of the male teachers, a jolly man named Ma Laoshi, leaned in and asked me if we had some sort of game.
And this was the game-changer.
Last night, after spending furious hour upon hour trying to download the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for the students to watch, we decided that the students could play a game we like to call Hot Potato. This would fit in with the food words that they were learning for the Thanksgiving holiday. We were also teaching them “turkey” (an animal that many of them still call a chicken) and “cranberries” (something that they struggled with and seemed to turn their noses to) and “pumpkin pie” (this was met with blank stares. I know that they have pumpkins here. Maybe the “pie” word tripped them up).
Ashley and I had no potatoes and, it being late, had no way of acquiring potatoes before the Thanksgiving party. In short, we were utterly potato-less.
We did the next best thing.
We wrapped two rolls of toilet paper in tape to make it stay together, and then wrote “potato” on it.
When we pulled the two “potatoes” out of my purse and called them by their newly christened name, the children smiled. They knew this was not a potato. This must be some sort of American joke. Silly Americans, those aren’t potatoes.
We knew they weren’t potatoes. We were just calling them potatoes out of sheer desperation.
We explained the rules of the game, first making it a passing competition between the third and fourth graders. The students started chanting “POTATO” at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down to see how far their “potato” had travelled. The third graders, with their smaller and stealthier hands, won the first two rounds, but then the fourth graders, in their sage-like maturity, became more efficient potato passers and managed to make the score 2-1.
The students then participated in the actual Hot Potato game. We chose about thirty students to stand on the stage and pass the “potato,” going faster and faster until an unfortunate student dropped it and he/she was out.
The Hot Potato passing war raged for about twenty minutes, but the audience’s enthusiasm did not wane. They screamed for their classmates, until the 6th class of fourth grade emerged victorious. They hooped and hollered, and began chanting “POTATO” again.
We do not know how much of the Thanksgiving Day information stuck, but we do know this. Every Chinese third and fourth grader at Baoding Eastern Bilingual School knows that Thanksgiving is a holiday where we throw lukewarm vegetables at each other. I think I like this idea better than some of our more traditional festivities. I will propose to my parents that we celebrate Thanksgiving “Chinese-style” next year.
Today, on this frigid Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for rolls of toilet paper wrapped in tape and all the beautiful little smiles that they bring.