Sister Santa’s once-a-year smile

I adored American Christmas

I fell in love with America for the first time on a sweaty night in a Bangkok refugee center in March 1991.

“In America people have meat with every meal,” my dad told me as we looked into the city skyline glittering with streetlights and blinking neon signs in the distance. I was transfixed. Braised meat, steaks, chops; meat on skewers, meat over rice, between bread.

All around us were other refugee families coming to America through Humanitarian Operation, a subprogram for the relocation of families that faced political persecution in Vietnam.

After a week of boiled eggs and pickled turnip every day, twice a day, I was ready for Meat Country. Two months later I fell for America even harder. It was my birthday. My Uncle Frank bought me a cake with my name on it and bought me a mottled-gray Huffy bike. I did not know this was a thing: that you got free stuff, a cake, and a song on a day that commemorated your birth. I also always thought my birthday was in August, but who cares? And then came Christmas.

Christmas in my village of Lam Son meant night Masses with about two hours devoted to singing and scripture reading. The songs were mostly major-key standards, accompanied by some American Christmas carols with Vietnamese lyrics.

Afterward we would head out to the front of the church and the priest would project the movie King of Kings onto a white sheet while we sat cross-legged with our families on the gravelly ground. Little kids would sit with arms folded as a sign of respect. The more devout church ladies would cross themselves every time Jesus, played by Jeffrey Hunter, appeared onscreen. I wonder now what Hunter would have felt about being an object of devotion to some lady in a brown ao dai, teeth blackened by betel nut, and skin prune-darkened by the sun.

We would eat popcorn handed out by the nuns. Among them was the Soeur Santa, affectionately called Soeur Satan, who had a chubby face and a voice like vinegar. We’d then trek back to our homes in the dark guided by the shapes of swaying bamboo trees in the night. I would wear my good jeans, my big-boy jeans imported from Laos with patches spelling out nonsense English words on them. The priest would go back to his rectory, light a cigarette, and fall asleep watching old soccer games on one of the three TVs in town.

What was most apparent was the lack of stuff, or the promise of stuff. There were no elves-on-the-shelves, no lists, no Stasi Santa wiretapping us and watching us while we slept.

American Christmas had its own vocabulary, its own grammar, and the movie Home Alone was my guidebook. I learned there was no Christmas but American Christmas, and Macaulay Culkin was its prophet.

American Christmas was fluorescent-bright, it was loud, it talked back to its mom, and made its family disappear. Nobody went to Mass during American Christmas except for semi-orphaned kids and weird old men with snow shovels. And even though Home Alone was in some ways a cynical movie, it made me think of family in a more immediate sense — the movie was about forgiveness and grace as much as it was about outsmarting burglars who probably would have just knocked out Kevin with their big adult hands and called it a day.

I watched the movie over and over on VHS and even bought the novelized version on Scholastic book day in school. Side-by-side, the contrast is temptingly convenient. On the one hand we have a rustic set-piece defined by its smallness and communal intimacy, while on the other hand, a tacky worship of capitalism and individualism. You want to choose the former in the same way you want to eat that gluten-free, fair-trade, organic chocolate bar: it’s the more virtuous option.

But it’s not so binary. I loved, I adored American Christmas. I looked forward to seeing the glittering lights in the bustling suburban malls of the Bay Area, Eastridge, and Valley Fair, Vallco Park (RIP), and Great Mall. I looked forward to hearing “Jingle Bells” in English — there was more Jesus in the Vietnamese one. I loved having the option to pick out a Calvin Klein windbreaker or a Tommy Hilfiger one, of getting a Rune Glifberg Flip skateboard deck or a Natas Kaupas Element version.

It was odd for me to experience American Christmas with such joy and see some Americans denounce its materialism. Only in a country of abundance can people reject stuff, reject ownership, and come off as more virtuous than their neighbors. In my village, we were sharing year-old toothbrushes gifted by my mom’s friend from Australia.

Over the years, I admit there was a constant tension between the Christmases past and present. But like many things, they synthesized, fused. I learned to stop worrying, stop choosing, and to love them both. I celebrated American Christmas with open gratitude while Vietnamese Christmas played a hidden soundtrack underneath. And every year after the presents have been unwrapped by the tree and the prime rib is congealing on the oversized plates and Nat King Cole sings “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...” on Pandora, I look inside myself. I replay those dark Lam Son nights, of a flickering Jesus swaying on the white sheet, Soeur Santa smiling her once-a-year smile, and me in my big-boy Laotian pants in my father’s arms on the long walk home.

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