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December 17, 2019

Jean Kwok: A Christmas Without Santa

Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of GIRL IN TRANSLATION, MAMBO IN CHINATOWN and her latest novel, SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE, which untangles the complicated ties binding three women --- two sisters and their mother --- in one Chinese immigrant family, and explores what happens when the eldest daughter disappears and a series of family secrets emerge. In this touching holiday blog post, Jean talks about immigrating to New York City from Hong Kong with her family at the age of five, the hardships they had to endure, and her very first Christmas, which turned out to be more special than she ever could have imagined.


I will never forget my first Christmas. I immigrated to New York City from Hong Kong with my family when I was five years old. I remember our ride from the airport. I was craning my neck, peering out the car window, hoping to catch a glimpse of women in fur coats, skyscrapers and streets paved with gold --- after all, we were in the Beautiful Country now, the Chinese name for America. Instead, we wound up in the slums of Brooklyn. The apartment we lived in had blocks of plaster falling off of the walls and ceilings. I hated sleeping on my mattress on the floor because the rats and mice raced past me in the night. All of the vermin in the area flocked to us because we were the only inhabitants in the building and thereby the sole source of food. The building was obviously in violation of many housing codes, but we didn’t know that and were too fearful to question our landlord. Worst of all, there was no working central heating system.

I had come from a tropical country and had never even seen snow before. All of the blankets, coats and sweaters that we’d bought for this new country were woefully inadequate. As the weather grew increasingly bitter, I began to understand that cold was equal to pain. The only source of warmth was the oven, which we left on day and night, with the door open, but the windows in the kitchen were broken and the wind gusted against the black garbage bags we had taped across the missing glass. A permanent layer of ice spread across our intact window panes on the inside. I spent many hours pressing my bluing fingers against the ice, trying to melt it to catch a glimpse of the world beyond.

But then the holiday season arrived. I was riveted by cartoon specials on television, singing of things I had never imagined, like mittens and Santa Claus. Snow became something magical. There were toy ovens that could turn out pies more delicious than the ones at the bakery, dolls that came to life and danced. I believed with all my heart because I had no basis in reality to use as comparison. Most children had received a gift they’d seen advertised and realized that those battery-operated ovens didn’t function nearly as well as they seemed on TV. But I had no toys. By then, we were all working in a clothing factory in Chinatown. Even though I was still in kindergarten, I was picked up by Pa after school and took the subway to the factory, where the air was clogged with fabric dust. We were only paid one penny per piece, so everyone had to help. There was no money for playthings, candy or books. But that didn’t matter to Santa Claus. He took care of all children, although he clearly didn’t manage to make it to tropical places like Hong Kong.

I counted down the days until Christmas Eve, when Santa would come to our apartment, which didn’t even have a Christmas tree. I made a lopsided red stocking at school and kept it hidden until the last moment, then nonchalantly lay it on the floor next to my mattress. With no fireplace, I had almost placed it on our altar to the gods but thought the Buddha might not like it. I caught a quick exchange of alarmed glances between my parents before I tightly closed my eyes, willing sleep to come quickly.

What would I get? I longed for a golden-haired Barbie, so American that she would transform me into an American as well. Or possibly a book of my own. I was learning to read in English and already loved the public library, taking out the maximum number of books every week. The only book we owned was a tattered copy of the Monkey King’s adventures in Chinese, which my brothers would read to me on the nights they weren’t too exhausted by our long days at the factory.

I dozed intermittently but kept waking up to feel my stocking. It was empty. How could this be? Had I been bad? A deep cold started to penetrate my chest, more painful than the iciness of our unheated apartment. But then…there was something thin in the stocking! I sat bolt upright and pulled it out. It was an envelope, but the inside was empty. An arrow had been drawn on the outside. Furrowing my brows, I pondered this. What a strange gift. The ways of Americans were a mystery to me. But at least Santa had come and given me a gift.

Satisfied, I hugged the envelope to my chest and lay down to finally get some rest. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Pa.

His mouth twitching, he said, “Have you ever considered seeing where the arrow pointed?” He gestured with his finger.

My mouth dropped open in surprise. No, that hadn’t occurred to me. I looked over to where Pa was indicating. There, on the low table near my mattress, was a mandarin orange, a red packet for lucky money, and our old copy of Monkey King stories. At that moment, I understood that the thought I had been resisting was true: there was no Santa Claus. But I had my Pa, and he loved me. That was more than enough.