This post could be subtitled: A Lesson in Cross-cultural Differences. This year, I decided to host a Christmas party for local friends. People celebrate Christmas here by shopping, going out to eat with friends, going to a bar, or maybe going to a church program. I wanted to share American traditions, because they are different, I knew my friends would find them interesting and I wanted to follow them. In an ideal world, I would probably hold an annual Christmas open house. An open house is an unknown concept here—events have starting and ending times that the majority of people follow; some might have to arrive late or leave early, but people would feel really awkward with a party where you come and go as you please, without paying attention to what everyone else was doing (and everyone would probably still come and go at the same time). A “cocktail party mixer” with little structure can also be quite awkward. So I planned a party with start and end times and various activities. Some of them worked better than others, as you’ll see. I actually held it on 2 consecutive nights, because there were too many people for one night.
I put my slipper collection in a basket by the door for convenience. People don’t usually wear shoes in the house and usually change into slippers. I’ve collected slippers for guests, even though I usually go bare foot (or wear socks) myself. Interestingly, there was one person who took his slippers off before walking on my area rug and another person who asked if they could wear the slippers on the rug. Most people just have tile floors at home without rugs.
For the “gathering time” as we were waiting for everyone to arrive, I prepared sugar cookies to decorate and I thought people could help themselves to snacks. This was the most awkward time of the party. Each night, just a couple of people actually did any cookie decorating. Those that did enjoyed it, but most people didn’t seem to have any interest. Especially the first night, people didn’t dare touch the food, even though I encouraged them multiple times. Finally when we were sitting down to watch our TV program, they started to help themselves.
Overall, I think people were more impressed with the fact that I took the time to prepare food than the actual food itself. I made rosemary and olive oil flavored popcorn (for an easy and cheap salty snack) and hardly any of it got eaten either night. Also, I was excited to have found Christmas napkins on Taobao; I’m sure they were intended for export but some of the printing isn’t quite right. People didn’t want to use them because they thought they were too pretty.
I also made spiced apple cider (well, technically spiced apple juice). I wasn’t sure if people would like it, but they loved it. But it turns out it includes a number of ingredients that are appropriate for winter in Chinese culture, especially brown sugar and ginger. Several people thought it was lemon black tea—it must resemble that. I was lauded to taking care of their health and being very healthy. That didn’t actually cross my mind, but I’m glad that it was enjoyed. Notes for the future: keep the apple cider, skip the popcorn.
My Christmas tree and other decorations also got a lot of attention. Lots of people took pictures with the tree. Some of them also included me. At one point, as people were taking turns taking photos with me and the tree, someone asked if I felt like a prop. I sort of did, but I also expected it to happen.
We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas together, which nicely includes lots of Christmas traditions.
And then we did a gift exchange. I asked everyone to bring a wrapped gift lots of people would like, under 30RMB (about $5USD). We did a fairly classic version where everyone has a number and you can choose to open a gift or steal someone else’s gift. The first night, people were very polite, so there was very little stealing. The second night, people knew each other a little better and got into it more. The most stolen gift was a gift bag full of smaller bags of candy and snacks. People were also very excited about Bible verse plaques, scarves, and stuffed animals.
She was the last person to have a turn, and looked around for a long time while she gathered the courage to steal this monkey from an adult. In the end, I think they were both happy. Overall, the parties were fun and successful. Lots of photos and description were posted on WeChat. And I learned more about hosting cross-culturally and some things I’d do and not do again.