I Heard Christmas Bells, The Chinese Heard Otherwise

The first Christmas present I received in China was happiness, which I deliberately threw away. It was my first year in Nancheng, China, where I was teaching English at Jiangxi Normal University. I was new to the country and eager to share my Christmas traditions with my adult students, many of whom had never come in contact with a foreigner's strange customs.

For an introductory lesson on the holiday season, I invited groups of students to my two-room apartment to help decorate my windows with a colorful Christmas display. The windows stretched across the entire ground floor of the foreigners' guest house, which was strategically located. The windows could easily be seen and admired by all. With the aid of my students, I was determined to make an impression upon the campus community with a memorable exhibit of American Christmas glitz.

The first group of students arrived. My visitors excitedly crowded through the door and set to work littering the carpet with bits of colored construction paper. Trees, stars, snowflakes, and angels quickly appeared from the patterns I had made available. I noticed two of my students were especially preoccupied with a large piece of red construction paper that they had folded neatly and were cutting into interesting designs. They presented me with the finished product.

"This is a gift to you," said Ms. Ouyang, one of the creators. She smiled shyly. "It is a Chinese 'double happiness' character. It means we wish you happiness for Christmas."

I marveled at the workmanship of the two women.

"What an appropriate gift for the holidays!" I exclaimed. "It will look very nice in the window. May I put it up?"

The two women nodded enthusiastically. I carefully taped the character to the center window amid the green Christmas trees and yellow stars. We all agreed it looked striking. Soon, other students began searching for red paper to create more "double happiness" characters.

By the evening's end, a harmonious balance of Chinese happiness and Christmas artwork filled the window panels, which we then illuminated with hundreds of sparkling lights. The sight was impressive beyond my expectations.

Night after night, university students congregated outside the guest house to marvel at this spectacular display. They pointed! They clapped! They cheered! I was thrilled by their reactions and at times opened a window to wave at them. This continued for more than a week before a Chinese friend finally explained the reason behind their enthusiasm.

In China, it is the custom to place red "double happiness" characters in the windows and doorways of newlyweds' homes. My students were innocently hoping their gifts would bring me whatever happiness I desired. The university students, however, were celebrating my marriage, ostentatiously advertised in what many assumed was the American way of announcing a wedding.

I immediately disposed of all the double happiness wishes in my windows, but it took months before the talk of my marriage withered from the campus grapevine.

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