Silent Night in China —by Jinny Batterson
The Thanksgiving I spent in Ala’er, Xinjiang, China as a foreign English teacher at a desert reclamation college was one of my most memorable (please see post from November 24, 2014 for more detail). Buoyed by the good feelings that holiday celebration generated, I started making plans for Christmas. I checked with the school administration and got permission to rehearse and conduct a student winter holiday chorus as part of a larger program by the school’s English department near the end of the solar calendar year. As December advanced, many shops on campus and in town put up Western-style Christmas decorations. (You’ve probably noticed that most holiday decor these days is manufactured in China.) Because American friends with experience in China had cautioned my husband and me to avoid any appearance of religious proselytizing, I picked out three more or less neutral holiday songs for our chorus numbers: “White Christmas” (on honor of a light snow which fell in late November and lingered in shady areas for weeks), the Latin round “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace),” and as a finale, a rousing version of “Deck the Halls.” I tried scheduling four weekend chorus rehearsals—I think two actually took place, with a different set of student singers at each.
The English program, coincidentally held on Christmas Eve, found our chorus of about 60 singers, rehearsed or not, standing in uneven rows on three sets of steps at the front of the school auditorium. Most of the students owned or had borrowed red or green clothes to wear. I had a red elf’s cap from a local shop, and wielded a long chopstick as my baton. Our singing was lusty, mainly on key, and well received. Other acts by some of the Chinese teachers of English got great reviews, especially one by a half dozen young women skimpily clad in black who did a jazzy dance to a hit English-language song in China that year, “God is a Girl.” As a program finale, “Santa Alex,” one of the school’s best English students, explained a little of the secular part of the legend of Santa Claus. Alex was dressed in an improvised Santa costume, scrounged and adapted from one of the local shops. We’d supplied him with a sack filled with the red envelopes most Chinese children get at Chinese New Year, each containing a few hard candies and a small-denomination Chinese coin. Everyone got a small gift. No one, not even the laziest student, got a lump of coal.
Christmas Day was not a holiday in Ala’er. In fact, most students were extra busy studying for end-of-term exams, which would start soon. However, the older brother of one of our students, who lived in town, invited us out to dinner. Asajean, whose name roughly translates as “Jesus,” was ethnically Uyghur, member of a largely Moslem group that had lived in this arid area for centuries. He ran a small private English tutoring business, and had often phoned us with questions about English vocabulary or grammar. We joined him for a “big plate spicy chicken” evening meal at a local restaurant. Afterwards, Asajean walked us back to our campus apartment. It was a cold, clear, starlit night, with the stillness that only comes when most people are indoors and motorized traffic is non-existent. As we neared our apartment block, some unexpected music started playing over the campus loudspeakers—“Silent Night,” complete with four-part harmony and English lyrics. For one brief moment, this juxtaposition of a Chinese-administered university, a Moslem dinner host, and a Western religious Christmas carol seemed the most natural thing in the world. Happy holidays, all!