Winter Homework Assignments Bring About Cultural Awareness

It’s the third week of school. The new semester has just begun and everyone is starting to settle into routines. As for me, I’m wading through the last pile of my holiday winter homework assignments.  “Winter homework?” you ask. “What’s that about?”

What is Winter Homework in China?

In China, winter and summer homework assignments for the holidays are always given to students K – 12. On the last few days before school, teachers hand out a long list of textbook pages for all courses that students are to finish the first day they return to school after the holidays.

Of course, no one wants such a burden placed upon them. The students want a holiday, but the teachers are also groaning. They are forced the first weeks of school to go over hundreds of assignments, checking each one and recording in the gradebook.

No one has much of a say in these things because every school administrator demands this to be done. The state regulations for education require it.

All students are expected to do this work and are punished severely if they don’t. Punishment might include calls to the parents, strict reprimands from teachers, low grades or holding students back a grade.

For the most part, students do their holiday homework, no matter how tedious it might be. They might not do it well but it does get done.

As for college level, there is no such thing as holiday homework . . . . except in Connie’s class.

The Mean Teacher

Yes, I am one of those mean teachers who requires my students to do something with their English during the winter break. For over a month, my students have no contact with the English language whatsoever. They go back in their villages, speaking their local dialect without a single word of English ever entering their minds. After daily English classes at school, their language ability begins to fly out the window once they step foot outside of the school gate and head back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year.

So just to keep them on track, I assign homework to be handed in the first day of class.

Winter Homework for My 1st Years

For my 1st year students, their assignments are from our textbook.

Our unit on International Women’s Day (IWD) is always the first cultural activity of the year. IWD is celebrated on March 8 and, since 1975, has been designated an international holiday by the United Nations. It’s quite popular in Asian countries and Europe to celebrate this day but not so much in the States.

Our unit is about the history of the day, a look at well-known American women and then a writing assignment about a woman the students admire.

All 3 pages of our textbook I ask to be finished, including the 200-or-more word essay about a woman admired by my students. The essays are to be handed in to me the first day we have class.

Winter Homework for my 2nd Years

My second year students are more independent thinkers. They don’t need a textbook to follow so they are asked to choose 3 days during their holiday and write about those 3 days. Each day written about must have 150 or more words. This assignment also is due the first day of class.

Assignments Bring Revelations

The students do moan and groan when I announce their winter homework assignments. I explain to them my reasons, of course: Keep up your language skills; Give you something meaningful and educational to do; Broaden your mind; Make your parents proud, seeing how diligent you are in your studies.

Some nod in agreement; others roll their eyes in annoyance. But for the most part, I get my assignments that first day of class.

Then it’s my turn, spending numerous hours reading over and commenting on what has been handed in to me. I don’t check for grammar but only for content, giving feedback about all the fascinating things I have read.

It’s content that I find the most important, and it’s content that gives me a very private, unique and treasured glimpse into the customs, lifestyle and family relationships of rural China, all through the eyes of my students.

Interesting Readings Enlighten

Mina (Zhou Yishan) had to wait an hour in the bus station for her journey back home from school. While there, 3 boys stood next to her and bumped into her. They didn’t say they were sorry and just scurried away. When she got on the bus, she found her cellphone was stolen! And she wasn’t the only one. I had 2 other students who also said how their phones had been taken by unsavory individuals.

Yet another student told about a woman whose money was stealthily taken from her by a thief. Many people saw him do this, including my student, but they said not a word. Everyone was afraid of their safety, even in the crowded streets.

This is also something I have learned about most Chinese: They will not put themselves at risk for someone they don’t know and will just watch in silence as pick-pockets steal or ruffians bully others. Chinese pick-pockets know their culture well so they get away with their crimes quite often, especially during the Chinese New Year.

Maybe in America, bystanders might ignore such goings-on but I like to think at least one person would stand up to such criminal activities.

New Year’s day also seems to be a time when families go out. In many essays, the custom in their area was to go hiking in the mountains. Many small town tourist spots offer these kind of experiences for their towns people. Hiking the mountain paths with relatives is considered to bring one good luck and prosperity if you reach the top.

Of course, the hong bao (red envelope) is always what everyone talks about for New Year’s Day. The custom is for young people to visit family members and also neighbors, wish them a prosperous New Year and in return, receive the hong bao filled with money. The hong bao is given to children, but it seems to be carried on to young adults who are students. If you are in school, and not making your own money, you get a hong bao. That includes my college kids so I had a lot of essays mentioning the great joy of having money to spend for the Year of the Dragon.

My understanding was that family members usually gave hong baos but after reading what my students had to say, it seems all adults prepare these for young visitors to their homes. One of my students was invited to visit her friend’s house. She had a choice between going to Grandma’s home or the friend’s invite. She accepted the friend’s invitation and raked in 500 yuan ($90) worth of red envelope money from her friend’s relatives!

Guess she made the right choice.

The Family Dispute: Meat or No Meat? That is the Question

And who can’t help but write about family arguments?

Jenny (Li Xiaoyan), in one of my 2nd year English Education class, enlightened me to a custom for Chinese New Year I’d never head about before: No meat on New Year’s Day.

It seems for some minority people’s groups, eating meat on Spring Festival Day brings bad luck. You are only to eat vegetables and fish to welcome in the new year. Yet for most Chinese who are of Han descent (90% of the population), the absolute must for the Spring Festival dinner is meat. Duck, pork and chicken are the good fortune symbols. These are what everyone prepares for their special reunion meal together.

In Jenny’s family, there are two opposing opinions: Her mother is from a minority people’s family that believes in no meat on New Year’s Day. Her father, however, is of the meat family who always had the traditional hearty animal dishes served for their big dinner.

Every year, Jenny listens to the argument ensue about meat or no meat for their special day. Her dad insists on shopping in the market, getting nice, fat, juicy, carnivore treats to bring home and wok up. Her mother, meanwhile, steadfastly holds to her fish-and-vegie menu, insisting the year will be a disastrous one if they partake in what is “forbidden” by her beliefs.

Back and forth this goes until neither parent will talk to the other, leaving Jenny stuck in the middle.

She never did explain how exactly the yearly sore spot is ever resolved but only that it always has a winner, the same winner, every year.

When it came time for the day-before grocery shopping, held off to the very last minute, what section of the open-air market do you think they all troop off to?

Well, let’s just say that, in Jenny’s family at least, the old adage “Men rule the roost” is far, far from the truth.



From Longzhou, China, here’s hoping your Midwest in-like-a-lion March is soon to become the out-like-a lamb. Ping An (Peace!)



About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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