What Christmas is like with an Asian Mom

What Christmas is like with an Asian Mom

Growing up, I dreamed of a Christmas like the one I saw in the movies. A big shining tree, a table surrounded with family, a house decorated in lights, and most of all the anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to a tree filled with presents just for me.

Well, with my Asian mom around, all of the above seldom happened.

My Irish dad expected his wife to be in charge of making Christmas a joyous, holiday season — just like his mother did for him as a child. Instead of do it himself, my dad (like most men) had the unsaid expectation for my mom to accomplish all these things for his children.

But here’s the thing: my mom is from Vietnam. Although he got lucky and snagged a catholic wife, she was still from Vietnam. In Vietnam, Christmas was not a commercialized affair like it was in America. There was no singing. There was no tree in the house. And most of all, there were no presents.

So in short, my mom didn’t know what the hell she was doing.

But if there was one person who saved the day, over and over again, it was my older brother.

Christmas before I was born

My mom looked at my dad and said, “how about we go to Vegas for Christmas?

My dad said, “sounds good.”

My poor brother spent Christmas alone in the hotel room as my parents gambled the night away.

Christmas as an infant

My mom looked at my dad and said, “how about we go to Vegas again for Christmas?”

My dad said, “sounds good.”

My poor brother spent Christmas watching me in the hotel as my parents had fun in Vegas, cradling me in his arms and making sure I wasn’t crying and waking up other guests.

Christmas as a young child

My mom looked at my dad and said, “how about we go to Vegas for Christmas?

My dad said, “sounds good.

I screamed at the top of my lungs and said, “WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO SPEND CHRISTMAS IN VEGAS! I’m bored to death in that hotel room and Michael is miserable watching me! We’re supposed to cook turkey at home and have a tree!! What is wrong with all of you?! No one else I know goes to Vegas for Christmas!!”

I screamed and shouted so much my parents finally caved and let us stay home, minus the tree and dinner (we opted for Chinese take out).

I used my savings to buy this new game Mary,” my brother said to me as he fired up Sonic the Hedgehog on the TV. “Let’s play together?”

I nodded. Some of my fondest memories are playing Sonic and other Sega and Nintendo games with my brother that Christmas.

Christmas as an adolescent

The short-lived Sega Dreamcast

Mom knew that with her loud and demanding Christmas daughter around, the days of going to Vegas and having fun on Christmas were through. With the force of a military commander, I organized our family to put up lights and decorate a tree. My mom even prepared turkey and made a feast for our Christmas Eve meal. After midnight mass I went to bed with a fluttering heart in eager anticipation of my Christmas presents the next morning.

On Christmas morning, with trembling hands and a smile filled with anticipation, I tore open the present from my mother. We were finally having a normal Christmas and I was eager to see what she had gotten me.

“Mom,” my heart sank. “This is my hat. Like, the hat I bought with all my savings from last year.”

What?” she looked at me and then to the hat. “No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

Ok, ok,” my mom sighed. “I find in garage.”

“You gave me an old hat that I bought for myself last year?”

“Well, you know, I thought maybe you no remember it.”

I wanted to break down in tears since this was the only present from my parents. Utterly devastated, I was about to run to the bathroom and cry when my brother stopped me.

“You didn’t open my present yet.”

I saw one remaining present addressed to me. Wiping away some leaky tears, I sat down underneath the tree and carefully tore off the wrapping paper. When I saw the inside contents I literally screamed and began to cry tears of joy.

It’s a Sega Dreamcast!” I looked at my brother and then to the Dreamcast in disbelief. “But how did you find one? And how did you afford it?”

“I was able to get it. And don’t worry, I have money saved up.”

My parents looked just as shocked as I was. I hugged the dreamcast and felt like I just had my first real American Christmas. The two of us played the Sega Dreamcast all week long.

Christmas as a teenager

Ok mom,” I looked my mom straight in the eyes. “I know you’re terrible at this gift giving thing. So look, I’m going to explicitly tell you what to buy me for Christmas. I want you to buy me the movie Kung Fu Hustle on DVD — you can buy it at Wal-Mart for $15 bucks. That’s it. That’s all I want. Can you do that?”

“Yeah, yeah, ok. Geez, you so bossy.” My mom went back to cooking breakfast. I prayed that the message went through.

Christmas morning came and, to my dismay, I saw no box that looked like a DVD. Instead, I unwrapped a giant box addressed to me from my parents. Inside was a frilly pink carousel lamp adorned with unicorns. I was sixteen years old when I received this gift.

Mom,” I balked. “It’s really nice, but.. uh… I think I would have liked this present if I were, you know, five years old.”

“So you don’t like it?” My dad asked with a twinge of sadness. “We picked it out for you.”

“It’s…….. cute.”

Eager to change the subject, I looked underneath the tree to see if any other presents were left for me. Again, a surprise package emerged from my brother. I carefully unwrapped the paper and, when discovering what was inside, gasped in disbelief.

“A Macbook?” I looked at my brother wide-eyed. “Can you afford this?”

“Mary, don’t worry, it’s not like I buy these things all the time.”

It was the gift I had wanted all year, but was too poor to afford. I gave my brother a hug and thanked him whole heartedly. I used that macbook for twelve years.

Christmas as an Adult

Christmas in Tokyo

I finally understood why all my childhood Christmases were so traumatizing after living in China and Japan as an adult. After years of disappointment and frustration, all the pieces came together when I spent my first Christmas overseas.

And the reason is, quite frankly, because no one in Asia gives a damn about Christmas.

When I saw just how apathetic people in China and Japan were to Christmas, it made me realize just how foreign my mom must have felt in America when she was given the task of orchestrating an American style Christmas from scratch. Like most people in Asia, she just wanted to travel and take a break on Christmas because that’s all it was in Vietnam: a day to have fun.

Yet no matter what — whether I was in Japan or China or Utah — my brother always managed to get me a thoughtful gift that made my Christmas special. My brother is the one person who always managed to make my Christmas feel truly meaningful.

And to this day, my brother and I refuse to go to Las Vegas.

Christmas 2021

This year my husband is working at the hospital through the holidays, so I’m spending time with my family in Utah. It’s lonely without my dad around this year, but I think he would be happy to see our small family sticking together with tree and turkey dinner in tow.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas 2021

7 thoughts on “What Christmas is like with an Asian Mom

  1. This totally made me tear up. Your brother is so sweet. In my family, it was every kid for themselves…until my baby siblings were born. Then we had to parent them.

    It is helpful when one figures out exactly where one’s parents are coming from. Good for you for being able to see your mother’s perspective. But at the same time, your parents should have been able to see what their kids needed and put those needs ahead of their own. Not having your needs met did teach you to be an advocate for yourself, at least, but sometimes it makes it really hard to shake the question, “what’s wrong with me? Am I unworthy?”

    I was able to acknowledge and cope with my messed up childhood. And then, once I had a kid of my own, one that I want to be happy and successful? One that I prioritize?

    I am appalled anew at my own shit upbringing. On literally a daily basis.

    1. Awww! I bet you were also a great sibling to your younger ones. I imagine they are just as grateful to you guys for giving them the childhood your parents couldn’t (similar to my brother).

      I totally feel you when it comes to dealing with a messed up childhood. I’m always amazed that my brother and I didn’t end up crackheads (seriously), it’s a miracle we were so “successful” when I look back.

      And yeah, in my older adult years I’m now able to empathize with my parents more and see all of their shortcomings. It still doesn’t mean I’m totally at peace for everything (honestly it’s a miracle my brother and I still love them so much), but I think I’ve forgiven them.

      Also, I didn’t mention it in the post but my dad is definitely not absolved of any blame. He was the born and bred American so he should have done more to make Christmas better for the kids instead of shoving everything onto his foreign wife. But hey, he was from the silent generation and I think he thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

      I’m so glad you’re able to give baby D such an awesome childhood (with so many amazing baked goods!!). He’s a lucky kid!!! If I have a child I’ll sure as hell give them a better Christmas than I ever got as a kid, that’s for sure!

  2. I want to hug little Mary! How much older than you is your brother?

    I feel sorry for your mum and I’m glad you understood later why she acted like that. If my son expected me to, dunno, make handmade dumplings, I would be in trouble, hahaha.

    1. Awww!! Thank you!!! My brother is 11 years older than me, so he is much more mature.

      Haha! you made me laugh with the dumpling comment. I think I would be equally screwed if my kid asked for hand made dumplings!

  3. Kudos to your brother then, I can only imagine growing up half-asian in small town Utah! I can still remember getting stared at a Gas station in Peoa we stopped at on the way to the stake camping ground. Growing up in SLC in the 80’s was hard, although it got easier to deal with once I became really athletic. It was harder for my sister, girls are far more devious at excluding/alienating people. Give him a fist bump for me, and thanks for sharing!

  4. I.CAN.SO.RELATE.

    After my dad passed, we never took any photos at Christmas anymore, so we simply don’t have them like other American families.

    I think I’ve written about this a lot and it’s in the ‘ol memoir somewhere so I won’t bore you with my stories. But damn, thank god for your brother. Since living in Thailand, I’ve tried to see the holidays from her perspective, too. Don’t really get Thai holidays either, but with the West it’s so ingrained with our culture. I don’t really see an equivalent.

    1. Yeah I think a lot of Asian American families (especially first gen) can relate to having a very lackluster Christmas (or Thanksgiving, or 4th of July!!).

      I’ll have to comb through your blog and memoir to read about your stories!

      Yeah I got into celebrating Chinese New Year in China, but that was about the most festive I got. I am so clueless when it comes to Thai holidays — is new years the biggest holiday there?

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