mumble mumble.. mumble mumbleFA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA!”

– The students at #80 high school, who were learning to sing traditional Christmas songs for the first time.

Dr. Bob Loren posted a small, handmade flyer on a bulletin board at Number 80 High School, which read: “There will be a Christmas Concert held this December.  All those wishing to participate please sign your name below.”  That was last September.  If this had been an American school, perhaps a dozen people might have volunteered.  Here, eight hundred students (90% of the Senior class) signed up the first week.

Welcome to Christmas in Beijing!

The strange thing is, twenty years ago few people in China even knew what Christmas was (and those who did know associated it with the heresy committed by those capitalist pigs and imperialist dogs).  Yet today it seems everyone has now enthusiastically embraced this happy Western tradition.  Signs of Christmas are everywhere – all store clerks and restaurant workers are wearing Santa hats, there are Nordic-looking Santa Claus images in all storefront windows, hotel lobbies are filled with carolers, lights and trees are everywhere, windows have icons emblazoned upon them with temporary spray-paint, and everyone (EVERYONE!) is wishing me a Merry Christmas in English.  

Does this mean the Christian missionaries have finally achieved their goal they’ve been steadfastly pursuing since the early 7th century A.D.?  Alas, no; it seems that Christmas is viewed not as a religious holiday, but rather as a wonderful western cultural (and economic!) tradition.  (Hmmm… upon reflection that’s how most Americans see it too. 🙂 ).  But there are a few twists.  For example, in China, one must eat an apple on Christmas Eve to ensure good luck for the coming year.  

So what does a nice Jewish boy like me do in the midst of all this goyisha mishagas?  Why, give in, of course!  At each holiday concert I attended (there were four in all), I was asked if I would play some traditional Christmas songs on my Xaphoon, and of course I obliged.   (At one they wanted to include a token Jewish song.  I played Hava Nagila on the Xaphoon and taught about 20 students how to do the Hora.)  This is the first time I ever performed without a backup band, which is kind of scary because from a showmanship point of view, just standing there and playing The Twelve Days of Christmas in its entirety doesn’t cut it for entertainment.  (Anyone who’s ever been to a Gordon Lightfoot concert will know what I’m talking about.)  A good show is engaging; it must involve the audience, reach them through either a multitude of senses or by shared experience; hopefully both.   

What to do?  I used every trick I knew.  First I opened with an a cappella version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, played as if I were a jazz alto sax player in a subway.  That showed off the instrument’s range of expression quite nicely.  Then I had half the audience clap their hands and the other half drone in “C” while I did The Little Drummer Boy and then O Come All Ye Faithful.  I changed keys a lot.  Finally I brought my class onstage and we all led the audience singing two verses of Jingle Bells (which everyone here knows, barely).  That ate up 5 minutes, and since the average length of the Christmas party/performance was about 4 1/2 hours, that was plenty.

Because Christmas is not a national holiday (businesses and schools are still open), my schools were kind enough to give me two days of holiday on the 24th and 25th.  But then they insisted that I teach two additional days to make up for the time off.  Welcome to China! 

Mini-Gallery of Christmas images

One of many Christmas dance numbers at one of many Christmas presentations.

A student plays the Geen Whoo (a traditional Chinese 1-string bowed instrument)

Gary plays a Chinese Pop tune while his student Raymond sings along.

A command performance at yet another show.

Tibetan Dancers.

Ummm…. ahhh…  Negga negga…

Every window and door had one of these.

So How Religious Are They, Anyway?

We have all heard about China’s rich history of philosophy and thought – from Confucianism to Taoism, which was later “replaced” (judging by the populations of adherents) by Buddhism and Christianity.  And then nothing for several decades after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, since religion represented an opportunity to organize and conspire, and what insecure ruling party would allow that?  Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I have found very few religious people here.  (This is similar to the shocking revelation I had during my first trip to Israel in 1978, when I learned that the vast majority of its residents were not religious at all!)  “So what keeps people going?”, I naively asked several Chinese friends.  “We are like flowers” came the explanation.  “We’re here, and then we’re gone.”  

Still wanting to learn more, I went to the web to see what I could find about the current state of religious practice, and as is typical of this kind of research, the numbers and dates I found were all over the map.  Here’s an average of the numbers I found, which at least gives an idea of the relative proportions:


Religion Est’d Number Practicing
Buddhism 16M 
Catholicism 4M
Protestantism 10M
Islam 4M – 18M (!)
Jews (Ha!)
Falun Gong 100K – 15M (?)


One thing that all the sites agreed upon: In a country with more than 1.2 Billion people, only about 8-10% are being labeled as “practicing” religious followers.  

Meet the Students

East, West cultures together: “Ni Hao are you?” 

[Editor’s note: “Ni Hao” is the Chinese equivalent of “Hello”.]

By Fu Li (“Cilla”)

My topic today is the east and the west – can we live in two cultures?

Have you received a birthday cake with candles from your friends or relatives? Have you ever taken part in any parties or balls to celebrate Christmas? I’m sure the answer would be positive. But, when and how did it happen that our birthday noodles changed to birthday cakes? When did we begin to send cards for Christmas? That involves the long process of cultural interaction and cultural fusion.

Today, it is not hard to see and feel the intrusion and spread of western life-style and even western ideas that we no longer consider as foreign! Traditionally speaking, the Chinese people like to get together for family reunion to celebrate the Spring Festival.

Yet nowadays, more and more people prefer to enjoy the Festival by traveling across the country. Hard-working and plain-living have always been a fine Chinese tradition. We never exhaust our savings but to keep them in the bank. Yet as a modern consumer’s economy develops, isn’t it true that more and more people are shopping with credit cards and not a few people are buying apartments or even houses on bank loans — something our grandparents have never heard of and are still quite puzzled about? But on the other hand, Eastern culture has also left its footprint on the Western ground. More and more Westerners are studying Chinese, learning to practice shadow-boxing or qi-gong; Sun-Tzu’s The Art of Warfare and Lao Zi’s ‘Daode Jing’  have been listed as best recommended books on New York Times Sunday Literary Supplement. So, the fact is, we are living at a time when the East is meeting the West. We are living at a time when two cultures are merging into each other. In this sense, we are living in two cultures!

Cultural contact is useful and beneficial. Each culture, each nation needs constant enrichment by drawing on another culture. The famous Silk Road in history took Chinese silk, porcelain, paper-making techniques, and probably also noodles and fire crackers, to central Asia and Europe. It brought in new arts and crafts from the West and enriched our culture. Today, Western art, literature, movies, music, ballet, opera, dance have made our cultural life more colorful and more diversified. Western ideas and practices have opened new possibilities. Even the so-called “spending before earning” way of life has a certain element of validity and applicability in the current market economy in China. Well planned and carefully managed within reasonable limits, it will enable us to enjoy many things earlier and, at the same time, boost the market and promote production. We should work hard, and at the same time we deserve the material wealth we have created or we are going to create!

Work hard and enjoy life. This is part of the subtle change which has taken place in our attitude towards life and it is not, as I see it, unrelated to the recent influence of the Western concept of life.

My dear friends, as we are marching into a new millennium, what used to be a vast world is now fast becoming a global village. Mankind is marching into a new millennium and it is becoming one large family. Let us all do our best to contribute to this great historic process!


“I’ll never work this hard for a school again!” said Dr. Loren on the eve of the Christmas Concert.  Three months in the making, and just about everything had gone wrong.  The other teachers had planned conflicting extra-curricular activities which prevented many of his students from attending rehearsals.  The Headmaster for Senior 2 commanded all of her students NOT to participate in the concert; they should be spending their time studying instead.  Of the 800 students who originally signed up only about 100 or so were left to perform come December.  The students who had volunteered to accompany on the piano didn’t know the pieces well enough, so I had to pinch-hit on the piano and Xaphoon.  

In other words, it was a standard school Christmas show, complete with chaos, randomness, and a lot of entropy.  All things considered, it went pretty well.

But Bob felt that he was not being appreciated; that the school has been sabotaging every positive thing he’s tried to do for the students.  Adding insult to injury, the school also told him that they would not / could not sponsor him for his Visa to stay in China.  Then the administration cut his semester short by two weeks without telling him (a common event in China).  “That’s it!”, he said.  “This is my last semester here!”

The students were completely unaware of his decision to leave, of course, until the last few minutes of the Christmas Concert, where the school administrators got on stage and made a big to-do about how much Bob is appreciated.  After a 15-minute presentation which included flowers, chocolates, Chinese windchimes, and several spontaneous “We love you Bob!”s from the student audience, things got just a little emotional.  Both the students and Bob started crying, and all tried to hide it.  I know students are often fond of their foreign teachers, but I felt this went beyond the standard feel-good going away facade I’ve seen so many times in the past.  Everyone there truly loved him, his energy, and the spirit he brought to the school.  Bob had left an indelible impression on the school’s inaugural semester.  He will be missed.

Almost immediately after Bob started packing and moving things out of his dorm, I was approached by the school’s vice principal, asking if I wanted Bob’s job next semester.  (Hmmm… they didn’t even wait for the body to get cold! 🙂  )  I had to politely turn him down, as I’ve had to turn down about 4 other attractive offers at various other schools.  Although I could easily stay in China and make a nice life for myself, it is getting close for the time for me to return home.   

Until next time…

“Yours Truly, Gary Friedman”

December 30, 2003

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