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Cheer up, Christmas is a blast
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For some, Christmas brings memories of cinnamon, mulled wine and extended family get-togethers. For others, it is roasted pig and paella. But one experience China expats have in common is spending Christmas away from home. Many miss the traditions.

"For sure I will feel it," says Shanghai restaurant manager Allan Chan about spending Christmas in China as an expat. "Maybe I am a soft person, but honestly, the first year it made me cry."

The Filipino has not spent a Christmas in his home country since 1999, because this

time of the year is high season for professionals in his trade. He is simply too busy to go home.

Chan has lived in China for the last eight years, half of this time in Shanghai.

"One of the things I miss the most when working in China is spending Christmas with my family in the Philippines."

Hard-to-come-by Philippine dishes like coconut and butter cake, baked in charcoal, and paella made Philippine-style are what Chan would like most these days.

"Of course I can make the Philippine cake here, but it is just not the same," explains the restaurant manager.

Someone else who finds Christmas here to be different is German Helgard Gengnagel, who lives in Shanghai because of her husband's job.

She jokes about Christmas in Shanghai: "Christmas is a silent time, with the scent of traditional Christmas cookies and gluhwein, a mix of hot wine, orange juice, cinnamon, sugar and spices. But outside my apartment silent time cannot really be found, so I ask myself where the meaning of Christmas has gone."

Aside from not finding Christmas celebrated around the city, except in a commercial sense, Gengnagel has found pleasure in giving gifts to her relatives.

One of the more critical voices, when it comes to Christmas in China, is that of Tobias Fuhrmann. He moved to Shanghai in September and as a newcomer has no experience with spending the holiday season in the metropolis, nor does he feel inclined to try.

"It is necessary for me to stay at home in Germany on Christmas," he says when explaining he had not even considered not spending the holiday with his family. "I can't imagine not being at home with them to enjoy our traditional roasted goose."

Fuhrmann, who works for a German bank in Shanghai, does point out that his countrymen could opt for traditional cuisine at a Christmas market in the courtyard of one of the city's beer gardens. "But it is just not the same," he says.

Canadian Ross McKinnon feels a little strange wearing just board shorts and a T-shirt in the lead-up to Christmas. The recent, sunny, 25 C December days in Hainan are a big change from the below zero temperatures in his far northern hemisphere homeland.

McKinnon, 64, has spent the past two years teaching at Yangpu, which is about a two-hour bus ride away from Haikou, capital of Hainan Province, on the north of the island.

He says the locals are curious about the world's most celebrated religious festival.

The retired lawyer loves sharing the season's spirit with his Chinese students and says there is a real Christmas buzz, despite the fact there are only two expats in all of Yangpu.

"All the students are getting presents and we have been singing Christmas carols," he says.

"I'm also putting on a traditional Christmas dinner on Saturday night for about 15 teachers. I'm importing a big turkey from the United States. The one I got locally last year didn't have much meat on it."

On Christmas Day, McKinnon will ride the bus to Haikou and meet about 30 other expats at an Aussie Bar for an outdoor BBQ and drinks.

Australian Ian Munro, on the other hand, who lived on the New South Wales Central Coast, is swapping the sand and surf for snow. Now he's dreaming of a white Christmas.

"I really hope it snows on Christmas Day. My wife and I plan to have a totally relaxing day and take a walk in the snow. We will need a good rest because it will be a hectic week," he says.

Munro teaches at Weifang Medical College, in Hebei Province, where a Christmas concert will be held on Saturday night. On Sunday night a private college is holding a party and the local Walmart is also hosting a major celebration. Munro will be one of the star performers.

"I'll probably make a fool of myself, but it's all good fun," he says. "I'm singing Give Me A Home Among the Gumtrees, which is a famous song in Australia.

"I've got the students singing the song, and there are lots of actions, which will be fun for the audience."

American Ryan Dutcher says he will be a little relieved when the Christmas-New Year period is over. Thanksgiving, the Jewish holidays, Christmas, New Year's Eve and Chinese New Year combine to make a hectic schedule.

"I'm not really into Christmas. I'll get on Skype on Christmas Day and talk to family and friends. I will also probably have dinner with friends."

Russian Yury Ilyakin first came to Beijing in 1984 as a journalist for the Soviet Information agency. He returned to China in 1999 to start a business and has seen seven Christmases come and go. Like many people from around the world, he does not really celebrate Christmas on December 25.

"We don't have Christmas, we are from a socialist society, but I will probably go to one of the many concerts on Christmas Eve," he says.

"We have our big event on January 7, where people from the Russian community get together."

Shanghai-based American Johanna Pan-Carr, who will spend Christmas in New York with her husband, says:

"Christmas means family sitting around the dinner table and having a wonderful meal together. On Christmas Day, gathering around the Christmas tree and opening presents."

Their family tradition is to attend a midnight church service on Christmas Eve.

"Christmas is a great time when friends and family come together. In the US, before going home for Christmas, friends normally host Christmas parties and play secret Santa games."

Following her American-Caribbean husband, the couple also found time for some Christmas spirit in Shanghai before leaving for New York.

"We recently went to a Caribbean Association Christmas potluck dinner in Shanghai, where friends from the Caribbean brought food to share."

Pan-Carr points out that in Shanghai she has been unable to track down some traditional US Christmas treats, such as eggnog and a real Christmas tree.

"The Christmas trees in Shanghai are all made of plastic. My husband and I did not spend our Christmas here last year. From what we've heard, everyone eats out in Shanghai during Christmas. For those expats who would like to eat out on Christmas Day, make sure to make reservations in advance."

People around the world are in the Christmas spirit, including expats such as American Johanna Pan-Carr (left), Filipino Allan Chan (middle) and German Helgard Gengnagel. (photo: agencies via China Daily)

(China Daily December 21, 2007)

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