Learning Christmas

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For most of us Christmas traditions are virtually inherited. But for many immigrants, like Misa Sugiura and her family, they have to be learned.

When my parents came to American in the late 60s, they came prepared to embrace a brand new life. Instead of a trunk full of old Japanese holiday traditions, they came with an empty calendar to fill with new American ones.

Not everyone was prepared to embrace them, of course. Clerks were impatient with them when they struggled with English. They had trouble finding a landlord who would accept Asian tenants. When they moved to the suburbs, they couldn’t join the local tennis club. My siblings and I struggled, too. We were teased about our eyes and our lunches. We were subjected daily to the ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ rhyme.

Maybe that was why my parents went all in on the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. For every Christmas that I can remember, the tree was decorated and lit. Red felt stockings from Woolworth were hung by the chimney with care. Gaily painted wooden nutcrackers glowered at us from the buffet as we ate our roast beef and mashed potatoes. My mother dutifully made fruitcake for us to deliver to the neighbors, and baked gingerbread houses from a recipe in her Time Life cookbook. My father reported having met Santa Claus on the way home from midnight service.

I realize now that my parents constructed this experience for my siblings and me entirely from scratch—every bit of it painstakingly cobbled together from storybooks, the Sears catalog, and television. It must have felt foreign and unfamiliar to them, and my neighbors probably thought it quite droll. But to me, it felt real — genuinely and authentically ours. I felt a connection, however brief and illusory, to the mythic, traditional America that so often eluded me and my family.

My parents made a choice. Sometimes I wish they had chosen differently. I wish I knew how to make Japanese New Year’s dishes as well as the Time Life gingerbread house. But the fact that my parents were able to give us a sense of belonging that did not belong to them was a tiny, bittersweet miracle, and I will be forever grateful to them for performing it.

With a Perspective, this is Misa Sugiura.

Misa Sugiura is the author of a young adult novel and lives in Los Altos.

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