I was used to spending Christmas as a holiday, away from school and the strain that accompanied it. Christmas was a special holiday, I had grown up knowing this. It was not something that needed to be explained to any child, even a five-year-old knew how important Christmas was. It was there in the laughter that accompanied arrangements for the holidays. Some traveled to the village, the backs of their cars weighed down with gifts and provisions. The frying of small chops in preparation for visitors during the festivities. Chin-chin had always been my favorite. I would often sneak into my mother’s room to steal a few handfuls of the light brown cubes, pocketing them in a jacket I selected especially for the task. I enjoyed sneaking them into my mouth when I thought no one was watching. The red, white, and green decorations that hung around our room also reinforced the celebratory mood. My father would play carols that echoed outside our house. I never got tired of hearing the repeated songs. No song could compare to the sound of Boney M that my ears had grown up listening to. Whether we traveled to the village, Christmas was Christmas. A time to wear Christmas clothes (something I never got too old for). A time my parents bundled us in the car and drove to the orphanage. As far back as I could remember, the visit to the orphanage was always a part of our Christmas traditions, usually the Sunday before Christmas. My brothers and I never really enjoyed the visits, but with age came understanding. I never questioned why we had to visit the orphanage, it was difficult to question something you grew up doing. As I grew older, my mother told me how important it was to share the joy of Christmas with the children who had no family to celebrate it with them. Christmas was a time we got visits from relatives and friends who were too busy during the year. If you were lucky, you got gifts from them. Christmas was also a time when we attended a lot of weddings and celebrations, often eating to our fill.
This was the Christmas I grew up knowing and celebrating. Not once had I thought that one day, I would have to spend Christmas any other way. Well, that was until last year when I arrived in this strange land. Christmas was not celebrated in China, the other Nigerians told me when I asked how they celebrated in China. There would be no special holiday that permitted students and workers to rest on the twenty-fifth of December. There would be no carols bursting out of speakers in stores or from houses. Christmas was not a special day in China. It was just like every other normal day.
At first, I didn’t believe this. Who didn’t celebrate Christmas, I thought. I remembered foreign movies with snowy Christmases and brightly decorated shops. I had not watched a movie about China during Christmastide, but I expected that they also celebrated Christmas.
The first shocker when our timetable showed that we had a class on Christmas day. A class on Christmas! I didn’t want to believe this. I looked forward to a message from the school office notifying us that classes for that day had been canceled. But as it approached, there was no such notification. As a matter of fact, I had to spend the days leading up to Christmas preparing for an exam I would take on the twenty-seventh. For the first time since I came to China, I felt a real culture shock. It was not because of the cold, or the use of chopsticks that I had not managed to grasp, or that Christianity was not something openly talked about.
“This is Christmas,” I explained to my roommate, a Rwandan who unlike me had been in China for close to four years. “Not just any time of the year. It is Christmas?” I was sitting in front of my laptop, staring at the jumble of Chinese characters that I had to study for my exam.
“You will get used to it,” she had said with a small laugh. She too, had an exam that day.
The fact that I would be spending a Christmas day in a classroom, not in the church dressed in new clothes, wearing a new hairstyle, or in the company of family feasting on fried rice and chicken, didn’t dawn on me until I saw myself listening to the teacher ramble about non-material culture and its impacts on the society. It was then that it hit me that it was the twenty-fifth of December and I was not celebrating Christmas. I received a lot of messages on my WhatsApp and my phone wishing me a Merry Christmas. All had the same unenthusiastic reply “Same to you(smiley face)”. The pictures I saw on social media, pictures of food, people as they went to church, as they spoke about how they celebrated their day made me more aware of my plight.
Classes ended in the evening, leaving me drained, sleepy, and melancholic. I couldn’t recall what had been taught. I only wanted to return to my hostel and sleep away the loneliness that was tugging at me.
However, on my way back to the hostel, I met a group of international students also returning from their classes. They invited me for a little get-together they were having later in the evening. Hope sprung in my heart as I heard the invitation and I quickly replied in the affirmative. Maybe my Christmas wasn’t going to be so lonely.
It was a small gathering of about nine to eleven people. We gathered in the one of the students’ room. It had been arranged to make space for the small group of students. As soon as I entered the cramped room, my eyes were drawn to the table in the middle of the room. It was filled with assorted meals and snacks. I had turned to one of the students and asked if we were supposed to bring meals. She shook her head and said it was by choice.
The meals on the table were as diverse as the internationals in the room. There were the Mongolian dumplings made with meat and noodles, the Indian lemon chicken, Korean rice cakes, and Chinese fried rice. There were snacks as well, cupcakes and sweets surrounding the dishes along with some beverages. These were all prepared by the students.
The gathering did not go as I thought it would. There was no prayer to begin the celebration. For many of these internationals, especially the ones from other Asian countries, Christmas was just like any other holiday. It didn’t carry as much religious weight as it did back home. But I didn’t complain. I was simply happy that I had people to celebrate Christmas with. Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus but among these people, it was a chance to get together in this foreign land, share stories of home, and get to make new friends.
I joined in the conversation. I tasted new dishes. I made new friends from other countries. But most importantly, I didn’t have a lonely Christmas. As soon I returned to my room that day, I uploaded pictures and videos of the get-together on my status, and when I posted ‘Happy Christmas’ on my status, it was not with melancholy.
My first Christmas in China indeed did not turn out as bad as I had imagined it would. This year’s Christmas didn’t leave much to the imagination. There would be no class on that day to keep me from indulging in the celebration, but there was the Covid-19 that had led to a drastic reduction in the number of foreigners in the school and the strict measures placed on movement in the school. My hostel was empty with a few Ph.D. students, whose schedules left them little time to celebrate. Even if it did, I was certain they had other plans to attend to. There were still a few days left till Christmas. To reinforce the spirit of the season, I had bought some decorations online and hung them around my room. This time, I wouldn’t wallow in my loneliness as it approached. I would host a Christmas get-together, I had decided. It didn’t matter if there were just two or three attendees, what mattered was that I was sharing the joy of the season with other people despite where I was.
Cynthia Chukwuma is a master’s student at Tianjin University, studying Chinese International Education. She owns a blog—cynthiaspen.wordpress.com—where she writes stories and poems. She also provides translating services. She lives in Tianjin, China.