Photo Essay: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in China

Twas the night before Christmas in China, which in China proved tough.

Because we’d work the following morning, without a day off.

But in a small corner of Beijing, there lived Jocelyn and Jun,

Determined to dance to a Christmas-y tune.

Dazzling lights and ornaments on the tiny tree

Made it, despite the size, a sight to see.

And while live carolers would have been fine,

WKSU streamed their favorite songs online.

But most of all was the holiday spirit within

Which burned brightly in both, and made them grin.

Holidays abroad don’t equal a lump of coal

As long as you keep the spirit in your heart and soul.

So wherever you are, hope your holidays delight.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

The 6 Pluses (and Minuses) of Christmas in China

Christmas is coming, and once again, I’ll be celebrating the holiday in China, the sixth consecutive year since moving here in 2013. Over the years, I’ve vacillated between loving the holidays here and longing for a Christmas just like those I used to know back in America.

So as I began pondering the forthcoming holidays, I began thinking of some of the positives and negatives of spending Christmas in China, a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday. And inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, I actually came up with a total 12 of them (six pluses, six minuses). So here goes!

The Pluses:

#1: You can celebrate the holiday on your own terms, and not feel as if you have to conform to the expectations of your family, friends or neighbors. That means having the freedom to create new traditions and expectations (including creating a Christmas with Chinese characteristics), and also being inspired by how people in China celebrate the holiday.

#2: You are spared the onslaught of Christmas ads urging you to buy, buy, buy — sometimes even in late October — which can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

#3: You can often find great joy in sharing Christmas with those new to the holiday, introducing your family or country’s unique traditions to them. (See 3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It)

#4: You can score inexpensive, yet charming, Christmas decorations on Taobao to deck out your place, as China remains a major producer of Christmas decorations for the entire world. (I once snapped up a cute Christmas tree on the platform for the RMB equivalent of around $3, complete with a star, ornaments and even twinkling lights.)

#5: You’re liberated from the usual crazy Christmas calendar, brimming with events, parties and activities every single week and/or weekend, since most of your friends, family and workplaces don’t celebrate the season. That means you can enjoy a more chill holiday season at your own pace.

#6: Since Christmas isn’t a holiday in China, the shops are always open and services available on Dec 25, which potentially opens up all sorts of great possibilities for celebrating (and getting that last-minute gift).

The Minuses:

#1: You may miss family, friends and neighbors and get a case of the “Christmas blues” being far away from loved ones. If you’re like me, you might just discover the true meaning of the song “White Christmas”.

#2: You generally won’t get Christmas off if you work or go to school, forcing you to be in the classroom or office on a day when you’d rather be home.

#3: It may never “look a lot like Christmas” if you don’t live in a large urban area in China, as you won’t likely encounter many decorations or Christmas trees around the neighborhood.

#4: Celebrating Christmas just like back home can get expensive. If you do live in a large urban area in China that includes foreigners, but you’re on a limited budget, you might feel chagrined to find you cannot afford to attend the “expat Christmas dinners” and other parties that come with a hefty price or entrance fee. You might also balk at the pricing for hard-to-find foods or ingredients only sold at select upscale markets or online stores.

#5: You might not like how locals choose to interpret Christmas or celebrate it, compared to your cultural or national traditions (such as giving out Christmas Eve Apples, or taking the holiday as an opportunity for romance).

#6: You may struggle to find the same style of Christmas decorations that you remember from back home, despite the enormous amount of offerings on Taobao. Your favorite decorations might be made in China, but not sold to people here.

If you’ve ever spent Christmas in China (or another country that doesn’t celebrate) or know someone who has, what do you think are the pluses and minuses of that?

Here’s hoping you have a very happy holiday season, wherever you are in the world!

P.S.: If you liked this, check out my earlier post The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It).

3 Chinese Foods That Put Me in a Holiday Mood

What do the holidays taste like to you? Growing up, I would have said things like cranberry, gingerbread and all of the chocolates in my Advent calendar. But ever since I married a Chinese man, I’ve come to also associate many of his foods with the most wonderful time of the year.

Here are three Chinese foods guaranteed to put me in a holiday mood:

By 我乃野云鹤 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58911328

#1: Dumplings (Jiaozi)

For years, when my husband and I spent Christmas together in the US, it just wasn’t the holidays without having a dumpling-making party. Whether it was with several friends or just the two of us, we would spend a long evening, sometimes even Christmas Eve, folding up mountains of handmade dumplings, also known as jiaozi. My favorite filling is still tofu and pickled vegetables (including kimchi — yum!).

So if you put a stack of jiaozi dumpling wrappers before me, along with a heaping bowl of filling, it immediately puts me in a holiday mood. Especially when you’re able to share the experience with friends.

Why not try it yourself? A dumpling-making party could become one of your favorite holiday traditions. To get started, here’s one recipe for vegetarian jiaozi dumplings (http://thewoksoflife.com/2015/09/vegetable-dumplings/) and one for meat jiaozi dumplings (http://rasamalaysia.com/recipe-chinese-jiaozi-leeks-and-pork/)

sesame balls#2: Sesame balls (Maqiu)

On the winter solstice, my husband’s family always has a huge family dinner, along with a huge helping of homemade sesame balls or maqiu. It was years before I actually tried one. But once I did, I found these treats, made of sticky rice dough coated in fragrant roasted black sesame seeds and sugar, a delicious and simple holiday treat.

They’re one of the easiest things to make — you just need glutinous rice flour, sesame seeds and sugar. If you’re intrigued, check out this recipe I have for sesame balls, along with the story about how I used to confuse them with tangyuan for years! (https://www.speakingofchina.com/china-articles/mistaken-winter-solstice-family-recipe-tangyuan/)

laba porridge

#3: Laba porridge

During last month of the lunar year, it’s tradition in many parts of China (including where my husband’s family lives) to have a bowl of this colorful porridge. I first tried it in early 2014 and immediately fell in love with the sweet, rich flavors of all the “treasures” within the porridge — which could include everything from dates and goji berries to peanuts and lotus seeds. With all the eye-catching fruits and nuts hidden within this porridge, it kind of reminds me of fruitcake, another holiday food back in the West. Except, unlike fruitcake, you don’t have all of that dread or the associated jokes.

If you’re tired of fruitcake and looking for a festive new dish to serve during the holidays, consider laba porridge. Here’s one recipe: http://www.healthy-chinese-recipe.com/laba-porridge-recipe.html

What are your favorite holiday foods?

Last Minute Holiday Ideas with Chinese Characteristics

img_20161217_202428I can’t believe it’s already December 20. As I write this post, I’m still knee deep in preparations for two Christmas parties this week — and, of course, have yet to do a single Christmas card. (At least I can send them out by e-mail – thank you, Hallmark eCards.)

Welcome to my busy December!

Of course, I’m busy in part because I moved a little over a week ago. (We’re still kind of living out of bags!)

But a lot of us get busy this time of year just because of the holidays. Believe me, I’ve been there.

You know – weekends packed with holiday get-togethers or shopping for presents or even just decorating your place. Then comes the big day and you’re schlepping yourself across town to visit all the family. Or you’re at home most of the day preparing dinner for the guests.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

But if you need some last minute holiday ideas, I’m here to help.

Are you struggling to decorate your place with a little Chinese flair? How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas is chock-full of ideas, including a bunch of easy DIY decoration tips.

If you’re still pulling together your holiday menu, sometimes all it takes is a dish to bring a little something Chinese to the table. My husband and I always loved making sesame balls, one of his mom’s signature dishes for the Winter Solstice. Turns out, they’re super easy to prepare and very delicious. Check out the recipe here.

For those of you in desperate need of last-minute gift ideas for your Chinese family and friends, look no further than my Huffington Post article, The Top 6 Gifts Sure to Please Your Chinese Family. (If you want the short version, when in doubt go with a fruit basket!)

Wishing you all a wonderful week – and here’s hoping you get a little rest too. 🙂

Your 2016 Holiday Gift & Survival Guide

Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting -- but sometimes it's not as fun as it seems

The holiday season is just around the corner. Whether you’re filled with delightful anticipation or dread, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered with this 2016 holiday gift and survival guide.

Okay, so let’s start with the biggest thing on everyone’s mind – the gifts.

Need some ideas on what to buy your Chinese loved ones? Begin with my 2016 piece for the Huffington Post, The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family. (It was actually inspired by a classic post on my site, which is currently the number one most popular post, Giving Gifts to your Chinese family – A Modest Guide.)

But if you’re doing your shopping outside of China, I recommend reading Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives.

Do you have a loved one who happens to be a Rooster in the Chinese zodiac? Have a look at Great Gifts For Your Chinese Zodiac Year (Ben Ming Nian).

Stumped on what to buy? Repeat after me – fruit basket! It’s the perfect present for your Chinese loved ones when you have absolutely no clue what to get. Check out my 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

Would you like to “deck the halls” with a little Chinese flair? How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas will show you how.

What do you do if you’re stuck in China during Christmas and missing the holiday spirit? Well I say, if they can’t bring the holidays to you, you can always bring the holidays to them. Here’s How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family.

Don’t forget, sometimes it can actually be fun to spend the holidays with someone new to the experience. If that’s you, you’ll enjoy 3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It.

But sometimes, no matter what you do, you’ll still face those holiday blues, especially if you’re spending the holidays in China. You’ll find comfort in my post On Having the Christmas Blues in China.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who has been shopping Amazon to help support my husband’s case! If you’d like to join them and support the blog (and my husband) while you shop for the holidays, at NO additional cost to you, here’s how:

Wishing you all a great start to your holiday season!

3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It

Ask my husband John about Christmas and he lights up with wonder in his eyes. You’d think he spent his entire life anticipating that one magical day of the year, when everything seems possible.

But in fact, Christmas wasn’t even a part of his life until the two of us started dating years ago. People in China don’t traditionally observe the holiday.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed 12 Christmases together. And I have to say, there’s something joyful about celebrating it with a total newcomer to the holiday – a person who brings a fresh perspective on that silent night.

Here are three things I love about spending Christmas with someone who didn’t grow up with Christmas:

1. Playing Santa Claus all over again

My husband John loved how "Santa" brought him an inflatable globe for Christmas one year.
My husband John loved how “Santa” brought him an inflatable globe for Christmas one year.

When I was a kid, Santa Claus was the real deal. We used to sit on his lap in “Santaland” at the local mall and tell him what we wanted, write him letters asking how the reindeer were able to land on our roof, and leave out milk and cookies. It brought a sense of anticipation and magic to the holiday season – one that can easily slip away from you as you grow up into the “there’s no such thing as Santa Claus” reality of adulthood.

Or does it have to slip away? Not if you’re married to someone who loves the idea of Santa Claus – enough to will him into existence into your life all over again. As I’ve written before in my post titled My Husband and His Childlike Christmas Cheer:

The other day, I caught John pouring over his inflatable globe — and couldn’t help but remind him of its origins.

“Remember when ‘Santa Claus’ gave that to you last year?” I said with a wink.

He giggled in response. “‘Santa Claus’ really knows what I like.”

It’s the sort of thing you’d hear a parent ask their child — instead of a wife asking her husband. Yet, even though we both know who “Santa Claus” really is, any talk of the jolly old man never fails to bring a smile to his face.

I have to admit, it makes me smile to see John loving the idea of Santa Claus. He reminds me that you’re never too old to appreciate Santa.

2. Creating new and unique Christmas traditions together

My husband inspired me to hang all sorts of non-traditional -- but fun -- Chinese ornaments on our tree, including one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics!
My husband inspired me to hang all sorts of non-traditional — but fun — Chinese ornaments on our tree, including one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics!

In my Midwestern Catholic family back in America, it’s not traditional to have a Christmas stocking with Chinese characters on it. Or hang one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics on your tree. Or even worship your ancestors on the holiday.

But since marrying my husband John, Christmas has taken on some decidedly Chinese characteristics – all because he never grew up with the typical traditions I did. (See my post titled How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas.)

Sometimes, it’s just fun to be able to ignore the usual “Christmas rulebook” and create your own new and unique traditions for the holidays as a couple.

3. Discovering that Christmas doesn’t mean the same thing around the world

Christmas in China
For my husband, romance and Christmas go hand in hand.

Is this Christmas or Valentine’s Day? That’s something I’ve wondered after celebrating a few Christmases here in China with my husband. As I wrote before in my post China and Its Oh So Romantic Christmas:

Christmas is oh so romantic. At least, that’s what my Chinese husband thinks of the holiday — and I know he’s not alone.

I’ll never forget one Christmas Eve when I stepped out onto Huaihai Road, Shanghai’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue, and right into a sea of twentysomething and thirtysomething couples, strolling hand-in-hand under strings of soft white led Christmas lights up and down the street. There were so many young people in love all around me, I almost felt like I walked onto a set-in-China romantic holiday movie.

My husband gets all starry-eyed when I ask about what we’re going to do on Christmas. To him, the entire holiday is candy-coated with lots of love and romance, thanks to all of the romantic Hollywood and TV movies about Christmas that have come over to China.

Granted, the Christmas I grew up with was more about family than falling in love (or falling in love all over again). But on the other hand, there’s something lovely about having a husband who gets all excited about all the romantic things we might do together this year on Christmas – like sharing coffee and Christmas cookies for two at Starbucks, or holding hands as we stroll around the West Lake all bundled up in our winter best.

Sigh.

Have you celebrated Christmas with someone who didn’t grow up with Christmas? What joys have you experienced, thanks to their unique perspective on the holiday?

How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family

A Very Chinese Christmas Stocking

What do you do when no one else notices Christmas is coming? That’s what it’s like here in China’s countryside as I spend December with my husband’s family — a family that never had the tradition to celebrate this holiday.

Well, I say — if they can’t bring the holiday to you, you bring the holiday to them. So this year, I’m giving my Chinese family a taste of Christmas…with some inevitable Chinese characteristics.

1. Pull out the old Christmas tree. There’s nothing that says Christmas quite like a tree — and fortunately, they’re easy enough to find in larger cities in China. Back when I first lived in China, I bought a fake Christmas tree from a local supermarket and it followed me through the years…until I left, and it was left at my inlaws’ home. Well, turns out they stored it all these years and it’s still lovely enough to bring me some holiday cheer. I plan to decorate it with the supply of Chinese-style ornaments I’ve acquired over the years, and can’t wait to see it shining brightly on Christmas Eve.

2. Stream holiday music online. One of the best gifts anyone living in China can have is a fully functional Internet connection. Find your favorite online station and stream holiday music, if available (I’m impartial to Folk Alley’s holiday stream myself). And if you’re really ambitious, use it to teach your family a few favorite Christmas carols.

3. Serve your family a Christmas dinner. Isn’t eating half the pleasure of the holidays? And everyone has to eat — so your family in China surely won’t protest if you suggest doing dinner for Christmas or Christmas Eve.

Of course, I can’t make exactly the same dinner my mom or grandma used to make. Here in China, I have a toaster oven and a cupboard full of ingredients completely different from those I used in the US. But I can always improvise. For example, Chinese haw fruit makes a wonderful substitute for cranberries and they’re widely available in China during the winter. Instead of the chocolate cake I hoped to make (sorry, no cocoa powder in the supermarket), I’ll flavor it with the mandarin oranges that are so plentiful nearly everyone in the village gives me a few when I visit. Ham is a traditional Christmas roast not commonly found in China, but I can make something else from pork (my husband insists on ribs, who can blame him?).

But if, say, you can’t live without cranberries at the table, then head to one of China’s online stores. Yes, Virginia, you can buy dried cranberries in China…though it will cost much, much more.

4. Spread some generosity. The Christmas season is all about giving…so why not give a little something back to your family in the form of some gift? It doesn’t have to be expensive either, just something to show your generosity and love. I’m planning on setting up some “Christmas hats” (using the plethora of knitted hats around the house in place of Christmas stockings) and stuffing them with some candies from the local supermarket.

If you’re in China, how are you planning to celebrate Christmas? Or if you’ve spent Christmas in China, what did you do? Share your experiences or ideas in the comments!

From Chinese New Year To Christmas in July?

A Chinese style Christmas stockingJohn never looked more upset the moment I lifted our artificial Christmas tree — up and out of the living room.

“What are you doing? Don’t move that,” he said.

“But it’s embarrassing,” I said, not glancing back at him as I carried it into our bedroom. “Just think if our guest saw it.”

“Nobody cares, just leave it out.”

“Look, this isn’t just another Chinese New Year decoration you just hang up all year long.” I glared at him as I said it, the kind of glare that says, “Don’t even try winning this argument.”

Outside, the sun’s rays turned the field across from our place into a shimmering green, where the crack of baseball bats and the barking of dogs trailed by owners in shorts and T-shirts reminded me the holidays had long gone. But you wouldn’t know it by the Christmas tree, stockings and string of holiday lights in our home — decorations that, to my Chinese husband, deserved a place in our home the entire year, just like the red couplets or “Good Fortune” characters decorating the homes of most Chinese. Continue reading “From Chinese New Year To Christmas in July?”

The Friday Valentine’s Day Roundup

A heart-shaped box filled with chocolate-shaped hearts
(photo by Tijs Gerritsen)

Valentine’s Day arrives this Tuesday, February 14. In honor of the day To give this deadline-weary writer a break from a long week, I’m pulling out some of my favorite Valentine-related content from the archives.

Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Husband Forgot Valentine’s Day. “Basically, as Valentine’s Day passed without a hint of romance…I’ve been pouring over whether or not my western conditioning has been detrimental to my marriage.”

Mandarin Love: Chinese Phrases on Love and Destiny. I share some of my favorite Chinese idioms that invoke love and destiny. Might just come in handy on Tuesday. 😉

Ask the Yangxifu: Gifts for Chinese Valentine’s Day. For those of you who don’t know, China also has its own Valentine’s Day called Qixi, which lands on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar year. I discuss the holiday and possible gift ideas for your boyfriend or husband.

China and Its Oh So Romantic Christmas. Okay, you’re probably thinking, Jocelyn has really lost it because she’s pulling out a Christmas entry in the middle of February. But, Christmas in China feels a lot like Valentine’s Day — read for yourself and decide.

The Double Happiness Archives. Enjoy one of the real-life stories of Western women and Chinese men in love from the archives. (And for more stories, also see my lists of books and movies that feature couples of Chinese men and Western women.)

Happy Valentine’s Day — or as they say in China, qíngrénjié kuàilè (情人节快乐)!

China and Its Oh So Romantic Christmas

A Chinese couple poses before a Christmas tree
Christmas is oh so romantic. At least, that’s what my Chinese husband thinks of the holiday -- and I know he’s not alone. (image from efu.com.cn)

Christmas is oh so romantic. At least, that’s what my Chinese husband thinks of the holiday — and I know he’s not alone.

I’ll never forget one Christmas Eve when I stepped out onto Huaihai Road, Shanghai’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue, and right into a sea of twentysomething and thirtysomething couples, strolling hand-in-hand under strings of soft white led Christmas lights up and down the street. There were so many young people in love all around me, I almost felt like I walked onto a set-in-China romantic holiday movie.

It’s not as if Christmas isn’t romantic in the US, where I grew up. After all, Christmas remains the most popular time for wedding proposals, and often a season when many will surprise their loved ones with “a little sparkle” of jewelry under the tree. Plus, there’s at least one romantic holiday movie every year that squeezes in among all of the Santa Claus and elves at the movies (and often far more made-for-TV romantic movies — yes, Lifetime, I’m thinking of you).

But perhaps all that Christmas romance gets lost behind the Santa Claus and the Christmas story and Christmas Eve at your grandma’s and all of your other holiday and family traditions. I don’t know about you, but in my mind, I still think of family when I think of Christmas, and no amount of romantic movies and “buy your engagement ring” commercials could ever change that.

In China, the story changes. Continue reading “China and Its Oh So Romantic Christmas”