Ally Mona is what you would consider a “cool mom”: an ex-pat who has called Shanghai home for over ten years, Ally currently has her own podcast called Limitless Laowai… you can find episodes ranging from an interview with an executive for a high-end hotelier to tips on moving back home from China to a series on devoted to expat finance. Currently in its second year of production, Ally’s podcast is insightful, funny, and provides diverse perspectives on life in China.
Since Ally has lived in Shanghai for over ten years, we thought she would be a great person to interview about celebrating the holidays in China. Read the following post about how she makes the holidays spirited, the traditions her and her family follow… and of course, what she does for the ‘tree’.
How many holiday seasons have you celebrated in China?
Let’s see… it’s somewhat hard to count that far back… ten I think all together. Let’s just say we’ve not been home to celebrate any holidays since 2004. We generally take one home leave a year and the turn around time at Christmas or any other western holiday for that matter is just too quick to make it worthwhile (and enjoyable) with two little girls and, well, myself, who don’t handle Jetlag super well! We save our trip to the US for the longer summer break. That being said, we have taken a couple of trips to the Philippines to serve in rural areas over Spring Break which has been fantastic as a family!
What has been the hardest part about celebrating the holidays abroad? (besides the family aspect!)
To be honest, I love, love, love spending holidays in China. While most people have their next vacation outside of China planned months in advance, we’re looking at our schedules and carving out down time locally. I think the main reason we love spending holidays here is because life actually slows down, we get to breathe a bit and really spend some quality time both as a family and with our extended Shanghai family. Schedules are a little looser all around and everyone is just a little more relaxed. We’ve even spent the long summer holiday in Shanghai a couple of times and love that, too! We heat up the grill for a community BBQ once a week and meet loads of new people who typically aren’t super thrilled about being ‘holed up’ in hot Shanghai for the summer. It’s nice to act as an unofficial Welcoming Committee and provide a base camp for new arrivals who are struggling to envision what the active expat community will actually look like when everyone comes back to town.
What is the most interesting way you have seen the “Western” notion of the holidays represented in China?
Over the years Shanghai has grown pretty much spot on in terms of hopping on the ‘shop-til-you-drop’ bandwagon. The streets are decked out nicely and there are sales everywhere. In terms of the restaurant scene you’ll find some fancier Chinese places advertise set meals that include none of the Western favorites. Fish head, whiskey shrimp, and assorted offal just don’t scream Christmas to me, ya know? But it gives locals without those traditions the excuse for a nice meal out!
What do you do for your holiday dinner?
Which one?? For Thanksgiving we had four all out feasts with different sets of friends and colleagues. For Christmas, we actually haven’t nailed down our meal schedule yet, but I do know anything goes! Loads of larger hotels offer the whole Christmas meal basket for a couple hundred US dollars; that’s always a solid option if you’re like me and can’t fit a turkey or ham in your teeny oven. We did that last year with good friends. This year, my husband’s colleagues are putting on a taco bar on the 23rd. Traditional? Nah, but loads of fun and like I said, anything goes as long as your flexible enough to receive it! For the past couple of Christmas Eves, a British/Colombian couple has put on a special meal, inviting us into their own unique traditions, complete with Spanish Christmas carol karaoke! I think perhaps that’s one of the best things about staying over the holidays in China—we get to experience so many different traditions and then pick and choose which we want to adapt into our own family.
What are some new traditions you have adopted over the years? Have you maintained any of your old traditions? If so, how have you adopted them to China life?
Well, Ron and I have had the privilege of starting and raising our family abroad. Both of our girls (and soon our third!) were born in China and—much to my dismay—scoffed at the heap of Thanksgiving delights served to them this year (all four times!). My little one actually asked for rice! I’ll tease her about that one day, but my point is, we’ve had the chance to start from scratch in terms of how we want to celebrate holidays and the traditions we want to pass onto our kids. In a lot of ways, there’s complete freedom in that—not having the pressure to cookie cutter the way we grew up and celebrated holidays into their lives which are so radically different than ours were. Some things that we have chosen to do as a family each year at Christmas:
Church: Yep, even abroad in China. If you’re looking for it, it totally exists! Ours puts on incredible performances each week leading up to Christmas that we all love.
Be intentional on gift giving: Each of us is gifted three gifts on Christmas (Jesus was given three, so we figure it’s a good model to follow, and it keeps us focused on creating experiences and memories as opposed to filling up the bottom of the tree with toys that’ll be destroyed in a matter of weeks). If we’re going to spend the cash, we’d rather it be on pricy ice skating tickets or a special Christmas show for the family! For us, it’s all about creating lasting memories.
A special Christmas breakfast: Cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning. I think my mom did this one time and I love having that memory! The ingredients are easy to find which is super important and it’s a great smell to wake to in the morning. Add to those eggs and bacon and we are all happy campers.
A packed schedule: We find out who is still around and intentionally set up times to meet, feast, laugh and just be together.
Photos with Santa: Man, we have the best shots from over the years. Great, great memories!
Decorate the tree: Together, as a family. We also have family ornaments from over the years and the girls love looking at them and finding their names!
Don’t freak out about traditions: Yes, this again is intentional, or we may be tempted to compare year-on-year activities. Maybe this is because our kids are still little, but Ron and I just try to keep it super low key and roll with the punches. If I don’t have my favorite ham this year, I’ll be OK (I think…)!
What about the tree?
We DEFINITELY do a Christmas tree. Although, having been raised in Rhode Island, it pains me that it’s fake and gets boxed up each year. While my mom complains about the needles that clog up her vacuum I dream of the fresh pine smell… but again, the girls know no different and my husband grew up with a fake tree so to them, it’s totally normal. I find that how successful you are at spending holidays abroad is all about attitude. If I’m pining over the old days, my kids will feel it and take on that disappointment. Conversely, if I’m communicating excitedly about what’s coming up—the friends, meals, and special day trips—then they eat up all that energy, too!
What is the most unique difference you have seen in how the holidays are celebrated amongst Chinese?
Christmas isn’t celebrated by the masses. It’s actually a standard working day. Neither is Thanksgiving or Easter (except among Chinese Christians, of course). I think the local kids at my kids school get a taste for the big Western holidays, but there’s no tree going up in the homes of locals at Christmas still. Most locals equate Christmas to their Chinese New Year festivities and I suppose there are some similarities—the focus on going home and being with family, gift giving and feasting, in particular.
Do you have any advice for foreigners celebrating their first Christmas in China?
Take deep breaths. Be open-minded and flexible. Can’t find the ingredients to make your famous such-and-such a dish? That’s totally OK. Don’t let it ruin your festive mood. Find friends who are sticking around and get together to keep yourself and your kids busy. If your kids are older, sit down and make a list of must-haves and do your best at ticking them off. Do something totally new and be intentional about creating a special tradition this year—see a show, walk downtown at night, splurge for a special brunch. Invite your Chinese neighbors or colleagues into your home to make Christmas cookies or buy a Christmas movie with subtitles and have a movie night. The ideas can go on and on; I think the main thing is just to keep tabs on your own emotions about ‘missing out’ on things back home and stay present in China.
Finally: what is your favourite aspect of celebrating the holidays in China?
I think I said this before, but my favorite part of holiday time is how the pace of life slows. I don’t know about other Chinese cities, but Shanghai is a rat race. Being a mom of two, pregnant with our third, a wife and an entrepreneur is, well, exhausting. When it comes holiday time, no matter which one, I love that we have the chance to take a break and really reconnect as a family and with our community. We intentionally seek out those who are here and fill our schedules with gatherings and meals to make sure those who aren’t loving the holidays abroad as much as we do actually feel a little bit more at home. With a bit of mindset change, everyone has the chance to do the same and while it’s not easy, conquering the challenge of staying positive and leading the way for our family is perhaps why we’ve really embraced and loved spending holidays in China.
Be sure to check out Ally on her podcast, Limitless Laowai, and if you want to read even more of her insights on living abroad in China
Latest posts by Karl Ryan (see all)
- 7 Apps That Can Score You a Date in China - July 5, 2016
- 22 Things You Can Burn for Qing Ming Festival - March 30, 2016
- Speak the 3rd Tone Like a Native: Say It Like a Kardashian - March 24, 2016