New York to Beijing – An Expat Holiday (Pandas, Yak Burgers, and Spray Paint)

An Expat Holiday

Yak Burgers, Pandas, and Spray Paint

(We are traveling around China for the holidays, so this is a longer blog – I had to put a few together because I was not sure when I would get to post online. Read at your leisure and forgive typos!)

I don’t particularly consider myself a diehard holiday cheer-spreader or partygoer. However, because I have four children, for the last 24 years I have, in one way or another, been responsible for setting up our family holiday celebrations mostly around American Christian traditions. This included preparing big feasts for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter at least. Also included in the responsibilities was Santa duty. I was happy to have meals with close friends and family and it was sweet to build memories seeing wide-eyed toddlers opening presents from St. Nick under the Christmas tree. And, as many of you know, Soren and I both love hosting house parties!

I began changing some of my Christmas traditions when I moved to New York from the Midwest over 20 years ago, I became more knowledgeable and interested in learning about holidays from other cultures and faiths, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. My older daughters went to an Episcopal school on the Upper West Side that melded traditions nicely and we celebrated the “Season of Light” from then on, recognizing how much our winter festivals have in common in the dreary long, cold, days of December and January. In the spring, we would go to Seders with Jewish friends, learning the Hagaddah and the wonderful stories of faith. In winter, we would put up a Menorah next to our Christmas tree and wish everyone Happy Holidays! Not because we weren’t celebrating Christmas in our family, but because many of the friends and people we saw on the street or around New York, were celebrating other special religious holy days at the same time of year. I always get so frustrated when people say that wishing Happy Holidays is taking away from Christmas! What a bunch of hooey! It is absolutely the opposite. Happy Holidays is the big umbrella term that all the winter holidays fall under, it includes Christmas! Being inclusive of other people’s faith does not diminish one’s own. I can still practice my beliefs and my traditions as I see fit and wish people Merry Christmas too, but not everyone celebrates Christmas. That is the beauty of our nation. By recognizing that my religion is not the only religion I am helping spread peace in the world. And, isn’t that the “reason for the season”?

So, when I found out we were moving to China, I was curious about traditions in this great country and how we as a family would adapt our celebrations. Recognizing that we were working on a Chinese school calendar was the first place to start. When would we get time off for breaks? Every teacher around the world wants to know the answer to this question!!

While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, many other cultures around the world have harvest festivals too. Each honoring the bounty of the crops that saw our ancestors though long winters. In China, there is a Mid-Autumn Festival that correlates to our Thanksgiving. It is earlier in the year, falling somewhere in September or October, depending on the moon cycle — because the lunar calendar determines exactly when it is celebrated. As a teacher, this mid-autumn break is lovely! It is week-long. Moon cakes are a popular treat during this because it occurs during a full moon.

As expected, there was no break during the U.S. Thanksgiving week. We had regular classes. Our children at the British school were off to the bus in the morning – Thanksgiving is not part of the U.K. either. I wanted to have a holiday meal at some point though. We were able to find all the key ingredients at our local Western market and celebrated Thanksgiving together, inviting Munyiva’s family and other expats, on the Saturday afterwards. We replaced the turkey with lamb because the only turkey left when we went to the market was over 35 pounds and even if we could have eaten it, it wouldn’t fit in our oven. I was able to make a peanut butter pie and the green bean casserole in China!

So, we figured out Thanksgiving our own way on our own time and it was a success. It was also less stressful having it on a Saturday honestly!

Next up, Christmas! Well, as I am sure you know, Christmas and Hanukkah are not national holidays in Beijing and there is no correlating time off. The only comparison is for the Chinese New Year in February. They take off 2-3 weeks during this time. It is a HUGE travel time in China with almost everyone going back to their hometowns to see family. We will be getting two weeks off in February and hopefully traveling back to NY to see our family.

It was strange to see how much “Christmas” has been adopted in Beijing though. Lights everywhere, Christmas trees, wreaths, music, etc. And, no “Happy Holiday” wishes either. It is strictly a “Merry-Christmas-To-You” type of wish. A lot of the expats are from Germany and other European cultures where Christmas is celebrated nationally like in the U.S, so it is a more commonly known world holiday here. Sadly, along with Christmas, consumerism has definitely made its way to China.

We were lucky that the school Soren works at has any winter break at all. They have two weeks off, just like we did back home in the U.S. Most of the international schools take this time off too. Not all Chinese schools do. I assume this is the case because of the large number of expats teaching there. Lars and Nona had three weeks off in December! So… no Thanksgiving, but a longer winter break. I like it!

Since we were planning on going back the U.S. during February, we decided to travel around China over our winter holiday break. This year, Soren planned our whole Christmas holiday adventure!!

First we flew three hours to Chengdu to see the largest group of pandas in captivity in the world. The Wenjun Hotel we stayed at was adorable and authentically Chinese. This deserves its own future blog I think. (Link here for great info about pandas)


Cutest Little Baby Panda!


Hungry Giant Pandas Eating Bamboo!


Here is the Red Panda (About the size of a really big raccoon)


Then we traveled 18 hours overnight by train to Kunming to see the Stone Forest. Link to Stone Forest Info Interesting and so, so old! We also stayed at a Air bnb apartment that rocked.


Stone Forest!



It was tight, but cozy on the trains!

Then, a day later, another five-hour train ride to Dali, a village town situated beneath a mountain range with really Chinese and really old, cool architecture. Here is where we had the absolutely most bizarre experience for Christmas ever. They love Christmas Eve in Dali. We had no idea. Except their way of celebrating is like none other. Let’s just say nothing I have ever done holds a candle to this experience!

Before I explain it, I have to set the stage. On the 23rd of December expats in China were sent messages from the US Embassy warning Westerners of potential threats against them in Beijing on Christmas Eve or Christmas. We read this and were a little weirded out. Then on Christmas Eve morning, while ordering some street pancakes at a vendor’s stall, we were warned to be careful on Christmas Eve in Dali. He said that people will have spray paint and will be spraying people. He said a girl got so much paint in her hair last year she had to cut her hair off. We saw boxes and boxes of spray cans up and down the street for sale that day. Hanna and Mel went out shopping and said they saw creepy men in pig masks and raincoats selling what looked like spray paint. We were worried we would be targeted! But, we were hungry for dinner and it was Christmas Eve after all. Soren asked some locals about this event and came back from town with six disposable raincoats in pastel colors. He said we would need them. We all donned hoodies and set out to see what this was all about. We were cautious and prepared for anything, including that we would come home with multi-colored clothes and hair.

It turns out it was not scary or creepy at all. It was the ultimate street party!

On Christmas Eve, I would say that a good portion of the residents of Dali, (about the size of Austin, TX) come out to the old section of town and make it “snow”. What the vendor called spray paint, was actually spray snow. We joined in.

First rule, buy a raincoat or wear clothes you don’t are about. Second rule, cover your head. We had on hoodies and bought some cheap Santa caps that lit up. Third, cover your face with a mask. This could be a surgical mask, or like what we bought, Mardi Gras type masks. Then you need one last thing – a can of spray foam, like shaving cream and silly string combined, pastel colors optional – NOT spray paint. They sold all of these items by the tons the evening of this Christmas Eve extravaganza.

Before all the hubbub began, we went out for a Christmas Eve meal, looking for a Western-type of restaurant. We found a cute combination-food place called Yunnan Coffee, where Soren had a yak steak and I had a yak burger. (Delicious by the way!) Others were less adventurous in our party, settling for cheese pizza and plain spaghetti noodles.


My Yak Burger

After eating, we geared up and covered up. We headed out into the raucous, crowded streets. They were packed with people of all ages, many in these disposable raincoats like ours. As we walked along the street, it started. Have you ever played paint ball? Or, have you ever been to a birthday party for 12 –year-old kids with silly string involved? If you have, picture this mayhem on a scale of thousands of people, in small street-ways, like the West Village in NY. Everyone was telling us Merry Christmas, and then spraying us in the face! We sprayed back! Lars took a special liking to this assault-type play. He did just turn 11 so the activity was perfectly suited for him. I don’t think I can describe this accurately enough. I have an accompanying very short video to get the real sense of the chaos, but am having trouble uploading because we are traveling. I will at a later date, when we are back near Beijing.The photo at the top of the blog might capture some of the feeling for you.

It was crazy, wonderful, other-worldly Eve! We were laughing so hard and all the other revelers were too. It was all in good fun. And, it did seem like it was snowing! It was everywhere. The streets were soaked, we were soaked, thousands of people of all ages were soaked.

We all decided that we want to do this again! Add this to our holiday tradition please.

On Christmas morning, we woke up around 9am. There were no worries about gifts or presents. Our gift was our travel and time together. All the kids were given about 400RMB ($70ish)to spend on cheap trinkets as they saw fit as we were on vacation. We walked in the old town of Dali again, which was miraculously cleaned up from the evening festivities.

As we meandered around, we heard the singing of hymns. We popped into a little Christian church and sang along with them “O’ Come All Ye Faithful”, us in English, them in Chinese. Very sweet and friendly people who were happy to see us there.

We then found an American diner and had the absolute best pancakes, eggs, sausage, and coffee. There was Christmas music playing and the atmosphere warm and comforting. It rivaled the best homemade breakfast anywhere in the States. If you come to Dali, you must eat at the Serendipity Café, or at least come for the coffee.

I didn’t even get to tell you about the wonderful Air bnb place we stayed at in Dali……. So much to tell!

“If you love a boy, bring him to Dali, for it is heaven.

If you hate a boy, bring him to Dali, for it is hell.”

Miss Tea Egg (Air bnb hostess original)


View from Rooftop of Airbnb in Dali

Then, after sightseeing some really cool, old Buddhist pagodas,

we loaded into a mini-van and headed a few hours to Lijiang, a town nestled beneath Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in Yunnan province, southwestern China. The range elevation is 18, 360’ feet. On Christmas night we stayed in this absolutely beautiful village, more like Park Slope or the East Village – very nice boutique shops selling authentic Chinese cloth, jade, jewelry, drums, etc. Winding, cobbled streets with no cars allowed. Low pagoda rooftops with corners pointed to the sky. We arrived around 6pm to our lodging, Huifeng Resort and Inn, and were enthusiastically greeted by our hosts with a BBQ around a fire pit. We ate, drank, and danced with the other guests, a TV crew from Hunan shooting a documentary and a group of women from the one of the oldest indigenous ethnic-minority groups called Naxi/Nakhi . (Again, deserves its own blog later.) They had Christmas music playing throughout the night and fake Christmas trees all around.


Dancing with Noxi Women On Christmas


This is Jade Dragon Snow Mountain


This is Our Hotel


Parts of Old Town in Lijiang

So, across the world, in our own way, we celebrated. Soren planned a marvelous, power-packed trip. We saw pandas, ate yak, participated in what must be the world’s largest silly spray event, danced around a fire with one of the oldest native tribes left on the planet, and most of all, we spent time together and created wonderful new memories in places far off and fantastic.

From Dali and Lijiang, China – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.


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