I teach English at a private school in Communist China. To my surprise, there are Christmas parties given to the young students of the school. These parties are something I’m glad to experience once in my lifetime, but I’m not sure I could learn to love them. China takes the cake for commercializing Christmas. It’s superficial; not substantial. Too much disco; not enough deity. And balloons everywhere. Balloons and Christmas?! Here’s an example of one of the parties that was given for a class of 6 to 9 year old students.
The class is 2 hours long, not including the 15-minute break, and the first hour is supposed to be normal class lesson, with the second hour reserved for a party. To beat the rush and prepare the classroom for the party, I get to the classroom about 10 minutes early, but there are students already there and from their more-frantic-than-normal behavior, I can see that this lesson is going to be fun for the children only. The kids are all wearing their little red Santa hats that were given to them by the Chinese-speaking Santa that greeted them at the school’s front door. As I set my small basket of materials down on the small desk placed in the small classroom, the children swarm around me and reach for whatever brightly colored object rests inside the basket. The uninflated balloons vanish, the colored paper, crayons and markers disappear, and the small bag of cheap gifts intended to be used as presents for the kids gets torn and out falls all of the small contents. Someone grabs the Santa hat I’m wearing and spills the tea in my other hand.
I feel guilty for walking into class so vulnerable and exposed but I try my best to pretend that this is all very cute and funny, giving my best high-browed smile while chuckling and singing in my cutest high-pitched voice “Meeeerrrrrry Christmas.” Then I leave the classroom for some other supplies and a few more minutes of quiet mental preparation. When I return, I sip my tea down to a safe level in the glass and notice that the teacher assistant is in class and the students are sitting down and quiet. The teacher assistant greets me and then apologizes that she has to leave the classroom momentarily.
The teacher assistant is a Chinese woman and a native speaker of Mandarin—the language of authority, the language of parents—so she is respected and maybe even feared. If she has to leave the classroom, for whatever reason, it is usually done at the expense of my good health. The teacher assistant leaving the classroom means that the teacher is alone with the students. A pang of fear, a sweating brow and a sudden tightness in my chest are typical symptoms of me in my classroom with a teacher assistant who had to leave the class momentarily.
When the teacher assistant leaves the classroom for whatever reason, the dutiful and obedient students immediately transform into little more than poorly trained monkeys. Tonight’s no exception. Some of the boys take the crayons we are using to draw our favorite foods and throw them across the room at each other. One of the crayons goes flying through the air and pegs me right in the face, just about my left eye. Some of the girls run to each other to speak together and share things. Two boys are wrestling on the floor. One of them is truly mean (he knows and speaks impressive yet vulgar profanities) so I have to make sure it doesn’t come to blows. Another boy is quietly staring into space and has both of his hands in his pants. Another is singing a Chinese song and coloring a completely different page of his textbook. Someone is crawling on the floor trying to color the other students’ shoes. Someone else has run outside the classroom without my permission. The manic depressive little girl who has crying fits has decided to have another fit and will continue to cry for the entire duration of class. The lone quiet student is simply staring silently at me and at this time I find that a little creepy. Someone has spilled her orange drink, another is complaining about his classmate taking his red marker, and my single rational thought is that the volume of noise produced by such small people is a wonder. All of them are speaking Chinese and the balloons are everywhere. If I’m lucky, no one will cough or sneeze on me directly (we don’t cover our mouths in China). I try my best to pretend that this is all very cute and funny, giving my best high-browed smile while chuckling and singing in my cutest high-pitched voice “Meeeerrrrrry Christmas.”
When the classroom door opens the kids scurry as the teacher assistant walks back into the classroom and sits down among the group of monkeys transformed back into a class of dutiful and obedient students.
After the first hour and the 15-minute break comes the party. My teacher assistant knows which games the other teachers are playing and volunteers that information to me, but I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do with that so I stick to my initial plan of playing something I call “the great equalizer.” The name comes from the students’ normal ability to exhaust their teacher and my holiday attempt to return that favor. This game involves getting the students into 2 groups, each group facing each other across a row of chairs placed in the center of the classroom. With about 1 balloon per student, the object is to tap or hit all the balloons on your side of the classroom into the other side of the classroom. The winning team is the one who gets all the balloons on the other side of the classroom. Time limits are optional.
I love this game because the kids are actually so competitive and energetic that they will play until they exhaust themselves. I have played this game a couple of times already this week and I’ve seen kids voluntarily sit down from exhaustion or dizziness. They tap, punch and hit the balloons for maybe 20 minutes or more to get the balloons into the other side. Their efforts are futile; the game is beautiful.
It also gets very warm in the room. It’s obvious that the kids have burned off lots of calories so we turn off the classroom heater just before a sweaty teacher assistant intervenes and stops the game. To prevent hurt feelings, I tell the students that the chairs in the middle of the classroom are neutral ground and to put the balloons there will not penalize either team. The balloons are quickly placed on all of the chairs and the tiny tired students fall back into their desks.
The remaining party games are intended to be as much fun but less exhausting. I play what most other teachers are playing this year, something a colleague called “a relay of stupid balloon games.” Like our bounty of pink and purple balloons, the students’ moods are light and buoyant and they go home after class feeling the true Christmas spirit—Chinese style.