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This article is part of Mochi’s Holiday 2022 issue, celebrating Asian representation in the immigrant family holiday experience, fantasy shows to binge-watch through the new year, and our traditional and unconventional gift guides. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

Whenever I think of the holidays, the word “abundance” comes to mind. I picture nuclear families wearing matching sets of Hanna Andersson pajamas. Oprah’s Favorite Things. The latest issue of Amazon’s gift catalog.

But despite all this, I didn’t have a Christmas tree until I was 23 years old. My lack of a Christmas tree wasn’t because I was raised to avoid pagan holidays. It wasn’t because my family had a thing against capitalism. And no, I’m not Jewish. 

My family couldn’t afford one while I was growing up. For us, Christmas was another day that came and passed. 

As a child, I clung to a memory of a little girl running down the stairs and stumbling into a living room, still half asleep. She gawks at the presents spilling out from underneath a twinkling Christmas tree. Stockings cheerily hang from a fireplace, bulky and inviting. The girl squeals, tearing through foiled wrapping paper, revealing the one toy she had begged for all year. But this girl was never me. And this memory wasn’t mine. It was stitched from images in holiday ads, television commercials, and stories I only read about.

Hiding My Family’s Financial Status for the Holidays

My parents are immigrants from Korea, where they were both school teachers. They chose to immigrate to the United States in the 1980s because they wanted a chance at the American Dream. Without blinking an eye, my father traded in his college degree to work at two separate grocery stores seven days a week in the greater Seattle area to support our family. My mother worked in a cashmere factory that distributed designer clothes to high-end department stores. 

My mother took solace in our local Korean church in order to escape people screaming English in her face as if she were hearing impaired. While my mother thrived, I became stunted. My childhood was wrought with shame: The families in our church were financially better off than we were. I attended services in clothes my mother purchased from the church bazaar. There was literally no saving face while wearing the clothes that other families had discarded. 

By the time I was in sixth grade, I became a savant at hiding my family’s situation. One December, my friends decided to purchase gifts for one another. That was also the first year my mother gave me cash in a red, Chinese money envelope. She had meant for me to purchase a Christmas gift for myself. But instead of buying something new, I spent every penny of my mother’s hard-earned money on purchasing gifts for my friends, to disguise the fact that we didn’t have enough to afford the holiday practice. 

After I graduated high school, my parents worked hard to support me through college. This was the reason they immigrated to this country: To get their child a quality education that would open the door to a respectable career. 

But when I graduated college in 2008, the economy crashed. Instead of fulfilling my parents’ American Dream, I couldn’t get a job with my expensive four-year degree. My generation was nicknamed the Boomerang Generation as I sheepishly returned to the nest (despite the fact that multigenerational households are typical in Korea). But since I was determined to escape financial instability, I made an unconventional choice: I joined the United States military as an Asian American minority, with Asians making up about 3.7 percent of the United States Armed Forces. 

Figuring Out What the Holidays Meant to Me

In the military, I met my husband, and we had a son in 2013. We purchased our first home the year after, thanks to our veterans’ benefits. This home symbolized the fulfillment of my own American Dream. As our realtor passed the key into my hands, all I could think of was how our Christmases would be vastly different from the ones I experienced growing up. 

While most parents grappled with breastfeeding, baby products, and child development, I grappled with something unexpected: how to “do” Christmas. It was never modeled for me. I didn’t have traditions to pass down to my son. My husband’s holidays revolved heavily around family gatherings, and since his family lived on the East Coast, gathering with family wasn’t an easy tradition for us to carry out for our son year after year. 

Credit: Inga Seliverstova/Pexels

While I struggled to identify what our Christmases would look like, it appeared there were other “traditions” that I had overlooked. A mom-friend once admonished me for not wrapping my son’s “gifts from Santa” in a different wrapping paper. When I inquired as to why, she informed me that if all the presents had the same wrapping, then the children would easily realize that the gifts came from their parents. I couldn’t help but scoff at the superfluity as I began to suspect that not all traditions are worth passing on. 

Now that I was able to provide my son with the Christmas I always wanted, none of the traditions truly felt meaningful to me. Maybe it was because I never grew up with any and I lacked the nostalgia others seemed to have. Maybe it was because the holidays have been hijacked with consumerist ideas of overabundance. Maybe I didn’t connect with the holidays that were becoming more about sales and superficiality than about relationships. Although it brought me satisfaction to buy my son the things on his wishlist, I was moving through these meaningless motions that held no real significance. 

Creating My Own Kind of Abundance

When I asked my son what he wanted for Christmas last year, he said he had everything he needed. Surprised at a 9-year-old’s lack of desire for materialistic items, I gave him gift ideas, which he shot down one by one. Instead, he was more interested in a “Yes Day,” where he could choose how to spend his time (watching television or eating ice cream for breakfast). After pressing my son for wishlist ideas to relay to his grandparents, we quickly grew bored of the conversation. 

If the holidays weren’t about gifts for my son, then what was the point of fulfilling my childhood fantasy? 

But last year on Christmas day, it hit me. Same as every year, I insisted on hosting my parents for dinner. Over the phone, my mother pretended to refuse because she didn’t want to be a burden. My parents eventually came over and I cooked every single “traditional” American dish I could think of. I felt great joy at watching my parents scoop extra helpings onto their plates. 

After dinner, my mother and I sat on the floor as my son read us a book. She looked up at our Christmas tree mournfully. And I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday: 

“Jo-won,” my mother began. “Nah meeyanheh.” 

“What are you sorry for, Umma?” I asked, curiously.

“I never have money to buy you Christmas lights,” she hung her head in disappointment. 

“Umma, no,” I said firmly. “I don’t care about any of that.” 

In that moment, it struck me just how true that was. The Christmas I want is to provide for my parents and thank them for their sacrifices, which enabled us so much: my education, food on the table, and the assurance that we always had a roof over our heads. I didn’t break out of generational poverty when I joined the military. Yes, I emerged from generational financial discomfort, which was commendable given the circumstances, but joining the Armed Forces didn’t “save me,” as I had once thought — because I never needed saving. My parents started their lives from scratch in a country that was not their own, and we never starved. I may have made myself more comfortable, but I was never truly without.

That Christmas evening, I reflected on the shame I felt as a child. I wished I could tell that little girl that the holidays she wanted would never bring me joy as an adult. Instead I would feel pride as I cooked a turkey for my parents, while they spent time with their grandson. 

“I love this one,” my mother said happily, as she scooped more of the canned, cranberry gelatin onto her plate. 

“I couldn’t make from scratch this year because the store was out of fresh cranberries, Umma,” I apologized. 

“That’s okay. This one much better than yours,” she “reassured” me. 

I smiled as the memory of the little girl running down the stairs to overflowing gifts under the tree was now replaced with the real memory of me feeding my parents and enjoying new memories in great abundance.

Cover credit: Nicole Michalou/Pexels

Author

  • A freelance writer and collegiate recovery advocate, Joan King is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Willamette Writers Organization, and the National Women of Color Network. Joan has a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, an MA in English, and is currently obtaining a Doctorate in Education. Her articles regarding AAPI voices in literature appeared on the teacher blogs BuildingBookLove and TeachNouvelle and she has also been published in TinyBeans.com, the United States Air Force Arctic Warrior, and the Seattle Times. She received a United States Air Force Medal of Achievement.

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