Festivals Across Borders

In this week's article, Jennifer Yang, a member our events team, reflects upon her experience as an international student in the UK, looking at how we celebrate festivals of religious, cultural and international importance.

I have always wondered what festivals meant.

The first image that pops up in my head is of the Chinese New Year, a distant, formless memory heightened by childish indulgence in pocket money, presents, firecrackers and the bustling noise of adults.

These memories remain vague, as I have rarely celebrated the Chinese Spring Festival in China. When I was young, my family and I would go travelling abroad during the holidays, due to their limited holiday from work. So, the various Chinese festivals for me meant trips to exotic islands and European castles. As I grew older, major Chinese cities banned fireworks and firecrackers, so the only festival that I had a vague idea of – the Spring Festival – had lost its real essence.

After I left Shanghai for boarding school, although I was spoiled by the long period of relaxation from Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, the same question arose. Indeed, as much as I enjoyed (and still very much do) the daily saccharine delight of chocolates, those advent calendars never really counted down to anything, as my Chinese family never really grasped why they needed to celebrate the birth of a foreign child. Then, when the Chinese New Year arrived – which is usually in the middle of term – I would find myself pouring over pieces of European literature on those British evenings that darken too soon, or repeatedly explaining to my British friends that I have never actually seen fortune cookies in China.

Therefore, I have always wavered in a sort of limbo between these two major festivals. When my British friends ask me what Christmas is like in China, I tell them that it’s a combination of middle-class pretensions in Shanghai (which seems to anger a lot of patriots who think that Chinese people should not celebrate Christmas due to historical conflicts) and an excuse for over-commercialising kitsch, like pink Christmas trees for example. What I really mean is that it’s inauthentic, for its lack of turkey, brussels sprouts, Christmas crackers, and carol services highlights an eastern misinterpretation of this western holiday.

The western version of the Chinese Spring Festival is similarly humorous. Due to my frequent travels as an international student, the essence of the festival – namely, uniting with family – is never achieved, because the absence of holidays means that I am constantly away from my Chinese family and perpetually busy with schoolwork. Over time, I came to appreciate the effort of school chefs, however, the highly predictable custom of having prawn crackers as an appetiser, sweet and sour pork as the main course, and fortune cookies for dessert meant that my Chinese New Years were perhaps a little too British.

Gradually, I adopted an aloof and indifferent attitude towards festivals, composed of wry smiles, profound irony, and heartfelt loneliness. With their essence being reunion, they sardonically remind me of how solitary I was, with my in-between identity uncomfortably straddling two different cultures. Once, out of absurd boldness, I said to the British boy next to me in class, ‘Happy Chinese New Year!’. ‘Why would I celebrate it?’ he replied, squinting his eyes in disbelief, as if I had just poured some burning chemicals on him in the middle of class.

(Nevertheless, those Christmas greetings still come flooding in every winter and I simply respond cordially…)

From then on, I stopped wishing anyone a ‘Happy New Year’ or a ‘Merry Christmas’. I simply sat back and used these festivals to gauge my friends’ sincerity as I carefully distinguished between the generic and the genuine, personalised greetings over text. I felt as if I was constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time, desperately searching for the ‘right’ way to celebrate festivals.

I felt like a 21st century Scrooge…

It wasn’t until this Christmas, as I wandered along the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai on my way to the Christmas market, that I realised that the city I call home, with its towering skyscrapers, Neoclassical architecture, glimmering waterways and crowded longtangs (meaning neighbourhoods), has reconciled its brief colonial past with a confident present. And as I looked at all the people around me chatting and laughing in the jovial haze of festivities, I thought to myself, they are just trying to have some fun! Perhaps there is never one way of doing things, because reality is composed of multitudinous moments, and my oddly displaced cultural experiences could be my version of celebrating a hybrid identity.

At the same time, these Christmas greetings from the other side of the world come flooding in on Instagram, alongside the handwritten cards that I bring home on my transatlantic flights. For the first time, I was truly happy, for this is my way of celebrating festivals – celebrating time differences, cultural conventions, and the occasionally awkward turn of phrase. As the Chinese New Year draws closer and with essays gradually piling up, I sit and wonder what an Oxford festival might look like… 

Jennifer Yang, Events Team

Recommended Readings…

Annie Ernaux, The years

Published by Anabelle Zaris