An Expat Christmas in Shanghai Megan Shank, a senior editor of Newsweek Select talks about spending the holidays far from home.
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An Expat Christmas in Shanghai

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An Expat Christmas in Shanghai

An Expat Christmas in Shanghai

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Maybe you're listening to us live as you're driving to your family to spend the holiday or maybe you're listening to us on a podcast while you're making brunch or dinner after a frenzy of present opening. Maybe you're listening to us on a computer stream, far away in another country where Christmas isn't the all-encompassing holiday, as it is in the states.

Expats at the holidays, well, we kind of have it both ways. No listening to batty Aunt Rose(ph) at the end of the table talk about those people, but you also don't get to take part in these traditions and the inspiration of the season. Still, many who lived outside the states find ways to bring a little Americana into their lives.

Now looking at the clock, we're going to make it just in time to say Merry Christmas to Megan Shank, senior editor of Newsweek Select, the Chinese edition of Newsweek magazine. She is in Shanghai where it's about 9:10 at night, so Merry Christmas.

Ms. MEGAN SHANK (Editor, Newsweek): (Chinese spoken) Hello. Merry Christmas. Wow. Impressive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: What did you say? Merry Christmas?

Ms. SHANK: I did. I just said Merry Christmas in Chinese.

STEWART: Can you say it one more time.

Ms. SHANK: (Chinese spoken)

STEWART: What's that? Say it one more time for me.

Ms. SHANK: (Chinese spoken)

STEWART: (Chinese spoken).

Ms. SHANK: (Chinese spoken). Merry Christmas.

MARTIN: Merry Christmas.

STEWART: Megan, did it feel like Christmas today for you?

Ms. SHANK: You know it did because I had dinner with a couple of very nice friends here and also my fiance who's studying in the states actually flew in to Shanghai this afternoon. So Santa's been good to me.

STEWART: How long was his flight?

Ms. SHANK: I think it's a good 14 hours from Chicago, so…

MARTIN: That's love, man.

Ms. SHANK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That's a serious Christmas present…

Ms. SHANK: Well, he knew quite a good meals and stuff (unintelligible).

STEWART: So did you make a traditional meal?

Ms. SHANK: We did tonight. Actually, we're pretty bust here in Shanghai to have access to a lot of the things that you would have at home, so my friend who's just an amazing cook made a pork loin with the cranberry pork sauce, you know, the whole works with all the trimmings. So it was definitely a lot closer to the Christmas that I know, as opposed to when I was living, say, in northeast China a few years ago.

And we couldn't find these sorts of things and so we have our Korean, our Japanese and our Chinese friends come over and we do kind of a buffet and there was this sushi and kimchi and, you know, Chinese dumplings and just kind of this assortment of things. So this year was a little bit more traditional definitely.

STEWART: What is it like to eat kimchi, a hot spicy cabbage on Christmas?

Ms. SHANK: Well, it really gets you worked up for the James Bond twister tournament that you'll have with your Asian friends.

MARTIN: It's awesome.

Ms. SHANK: Yeah, yes. That's pretty nice.

STEWART: Now you're from Nebraska originally, right?

Ms. SHANK: That's right I'm from Omaha, Nebraska.

STEWART: Now have you, were you able to recreate any of your Nebraskan traditions in your home? Did you want it? Did you have a tree, a wreath, decorations?

Ms. SHANK: This year, we didn't really do much of that. In the past, I've done some things like I'll buy some bamboo and I'll hang little ornaments on it. You know, I have my Christmas music that I might listen to. But I think, moreover, Christmas doesn't really have the same kind of connotation when you're not with your family, so you kind of create different traditions.

And when you do come to live in a foreign country for a certain amount of time, it's been six years for me now, you engage in their customs and their holidays as well and kind of embrace them as your own.

And also I think a lot of the season is just about seeing the joy in it and having that kind of jubilation. So even, say a couple of years ago, when I was freelance writing, I did some odd jobs including teaching English at an elementary school in the mornings.

And I taught my first and second graders, among other things, American cultural habits and so for Halloween, for example, I brought in a pumpkin and I taught them how to carve a jack-o-lantern and they were so enthralled and excited by this process.

Now when Christmas came around, I taught them some pretty basic Christmas carols and right before their Christmas concert, their class teacher came to me and said, Megan, you know, they have a really lovely surprise for you, so I think you're going to be very happy.

And so I went and I sat on the audience and as they paraded in, singing "Joy to the World," each little cherubic face is illuminated by the glow of the jack-o-lantern. They all have jack-o-lanterns at home for Christmas.

And as they proceeded to sing "Joy to the World," "Oh Come all Ye Faithful," and ended with the "Jingle Bells" rousing kind of finale. They had choreographed moves with the lit jack-o-lantern as they sing the Christmas carols. So maybe the idea was off a little bit, but the joy was there and I think that's probably the most important part of it.

MARTIN: It's a fabulous Halloween Christmas magic. We're talking to Megan Shank who is senior editor of Newsweek Select, the Chinese edition of Newsweek magazine. She's spending her Christmas in Shanghai.

STEWART: Megan, I'd be interested to know, I know, China is a booming economy. There are tons of these crazy malls. I was in Shanghai and saw these, I mean they're just so huge and the shopping culture is really big there. Does that translate to Christmas? Do people buy each other presents?

Ms. SHANK: Definitely, definitely. When we talk about Christmas, we're definitely not talking about the people who are manufacturing 80 percent of the world's Christmas goods. And likewise, it's not really a big religious holiday here. I mean, there's about 40 million Christians, but still that's only three to four percent of the population.

Like you said, that shopping culture, that rising middle class is what gives way to Christmas manifestation here in and the government is happy for, of course, because it keeps the factories moving, it instigates domestic spending, which can fuel the economy rather than kind of the traditional over-reliance on exports.

And also it serves as an early starting point for the Chinese New Year, which happens in mid-January to early February. And you have shopping deals and that's what people do on Christmas. They go out. They go shopping. They might have a nice dinner somewhere. All the hotels in town, especially western hotels, they have $200 U.S. plates.

They invite in acrobats, they invite in kung fu masters, they invite in pop stars, you know, I mean, this is a really big kind of deal and tonight too, I was walking around a little bit in there's fireworks going off all around the city. You know, this is not a silent night type of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHANK: holiday here. The Chinese very much like their holidays what they call (Chinese spoken) and (Chinese spoken) means, hot and noisy, but I guess that's the very literal translation of it. To them it's more like bustling, it's lively, it's vibrant, it's alive, you know? And it's about kind of shining that light of joy and happiness and love and so that's definitely been happening tonight.

STEWART: Sounds like a pretty okay way to spend Christmas actually.

Ms. SHANK: Yeah, (unintelligible).

STEWART: Yeah, not bad.

Ms. SHANK: Fireworks make everything better.

STEWART: My birthday is the Fourth of July, so I have to agree with that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Megan Shank is senior editor of Newsweek Select, the Chinese edition of Newsweek magazine. She spent her Christmas in Shanghai.

Hey, Megan, thanks for spending a part of your day with us.

Ms. SHANK: Thank you. Thank you guys.

MARTIN: Okay. Merry Christmas.

STEWART: And happy New Year.

Ms. SHANK: Yes.

STEWART: Stay with us. We're not going away.

Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, you'll love them, we've got them. The most popular news stories on Christmas into Webs. And an interesting story we first learned about on our blog. It's about a family in Baltimore who are redefining the definition of family.

Good story for a Christmas morning. Stay with us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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