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Personal columns

Previously published by The News-Press

"The parents looked at me like I had three heads."

"They opened the boxes and bags with a delight that made me ashamed."

My magical first Christmas tree

Published in The News-Press on 12/30/12


This column first appeared Dec. 24, 1981, in the Commercial-News in Danville, Il.


When I was eight years old, my parents and I had been in the United States for a year.


Ample time for a young Chinese girl to learn some of the strange American customs. Like how to read comic books. The best way to hold a bat. How to watch TV in 101 positions.


That December (1968) I decided it was high time for us to get a Christmas tree. My aunt, who had sponsored us to America, had a pure white one that was the most glamorous thing I had ever seen. I wanted one.


I remember it well. There were three plastic brown poles with holes in it that you stuck together. Synthetic green pine branches wrapped around metal prongs that were inserted into the pole. The branches were colored differently so you would know which belonged where—shorter ones on top; longer ones on the bottom.


We bought some garland and bright bulbs and I piled it on. I thought it was the greatest tree in the world.


In time both the tree and I grew older. The branches bent and drooped. The ornaments flaked; the garland shed. It became a chore to put that tree up.


I went away to college, and my roommate introduced me to a real living tree. A real tree! It was just a midget that fit into our dorm room, but it was real! It smelled so good! We made garland from popcorn. She made gingerbread boys and girls. The fragrance and texture hooked me.


The family tree collected dust in the basement. (For Floridians, that’s like a second-floor but under the first floor.)


A few years later, when I was home for holiday break, I learned my father’s sister’s family had found an apartment in Chinatown. Aunt Wai, Uncle Leung Wong and their three children had come months ago under our sponsorship.


The parents looked at me like I had three heads; the kids with awe. Never mind I could barely speak my native tongue. I went away to college! I drove a car! I wore blue jeans! I would talk back to my mother! (Sometimes.) This was America, a land where anything was possible.


“Do they know about Christmas?” I asked my parents. “Not exactly,” was the reply.


“You mean they don’t have presents? No tree?”


Why don’t we give them some of my old stuff?


So we wrapped up some old clothes I had discarded; some toys I no longer used or were missing pieces; and we pulled out the old tree. “You want to give that away?” my mom asked. “Sure. They should have a tree.”


“When are you going to go,” my mom asked innocently.


“What, me? Are you kidding? I’m not going. You go.”


Of course I ended up alone with bundles, tootling along to Chinatown.

As I drove up to the decrepit brownstone, the kids stuck their heads out the broken windows and jabbered away excitedly. I pulled out the bags, and they ran down to help, even little Aunt Wai. “So this is how Santa feels,” I thought.


Upstairs, I got a shock. There were the remnants of my family. Our old chairs and tables; my old TV; our tablecloth; pots, pans. This was their foundation to build new roots in a strange land.


They opened the boxes and bags with a delight that made me ashamed.

“Look at this!” “Is this for us? All this?” they squealed.


I opened the Christmas tree box and they went wild. I mumbled in my broken Chinese and demonstrated how it worked. Then I sat back.


They chattered away as they stuck branches hither and yon. The tree was crooked. The stand had become wobbly and needed to be balanced with books. Aunt Wai stuck the hooks on the ornaments—she thought they were a gift of fish hooks at first. They hung up every single ball, strand and light. When uncle Leung put the angel on top and the circle of lights around her blinked on and off, they all oooheed and ahhhhed.


It was the worse tree you have ever seen.


And it was the most beautiful tree in the world.

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