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Essay: This Christmas, We’ll Leave Santa Mochi and Dumplings

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's son, Little Brother, and Santa Claus love sriracha. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

One of the perks of being a famous journalist is that you get to meet everybody.

I have been fortunate to meet and interview all sorts of amazing people — Reps. Mike Honda and Judy Chu, retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, Helen Zia, Angry Asian Man, the National Film Society, DanAKADan, Kristina Wong, Jenny Yang, Aasif Mandvi, Daniel Dae Kim, Deepa Iyer, Mee Moua, David Henry Hwang, Sikh Captain America — and I have learned so much from these elected officials, artists, musicians, writers, activists, academics, community leaders, and superheroes.

I am such a famous journalist that I even know the big man in red himself, Santa Claus.

In 2008, a local publication assigned me to cover the symphony orchestra’s annual Sing Along with Santa event. There is nothing I love better than singing Christmas carols with a beautiful man, and I knew that my youngest child, who we all call Little Brother, had some pressing questions, so I bundled up all the children and out into the snow we went.

Santa’s rich baritone filled the church, and the symphony orchestra was joined by a Chinese erhu player, an Indonesian angklung ensemble, and a German youth choir. After cookies, Little Brother got his chance to ask Santa his pressing questions, "Do you like mochi?" (the Japanese rice cakes that we leave for Santa each year instead of cookies). This launches a long conversation about favorite Asian desserts. "How do you get into houses with no chimney?" Santa replied, "Through the rice cooker, of course!"

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The following year, we were unable to attend Sing Along with Santa, so Santa kindly made time in the busy days before Christmas to meet the children and me for a quick cup of tea and a char siu bao at our favorite Chinese bakery, Eastern Accents. Little Brother noticed that everyone stops to say hello to Santa — the baristas, the owners, the regulars — and Santa obviously knows who everyone is, too, addressing each person by name. This becomes an annual tradition and we meet him at all our favorite restaurants and cafes.

Little Brother with Santa Claus Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Santa is always full of interesting stories and cultural tidbits from his travels around the world — how people dance in Indonesia, what amazing foods are eaten in the Philippines, important news items such as when the Huy Fong Sriracha factory was forced to close a few years ago and everyone was hoarding Sriracha, just in case — and he offers us a perspective that is worldly and wise, patient and kind.

Every year, Little Brother asks his pressing questions of the moment that only Santa can help him with — how to get ahead of his Chinese school homework, how to deal with bullies in school, how to be kind, and how to become a man in this day.

Sometimes I have questions, too.

Checking in with Santa every year becomes as reassuring for me as it is for Little Brother.

This year, many of us need a few words of wisdom and kindness even more than usual.

Despite all the uncertainty and hate in the world, I think about the many ways people of different ethnicities and faiths come together to stand up for and help each other, especially on Christmas Day. In Michigan, the Jewish- and Muslim-American communities volunteer together to deliver food to home-bound seniors, wrap and deliver gifts to families, entertain seniors in assisted-living facilities, serve hot meals at soup kitchens, volunteer at food pantries, and more. The Sikh-American community serves langar — a communal meal where all are welcome as equals. Years ago when I was executive director of a meals on wheels program that delivered hot meals to homebound seniors, we had an all-volunteer delivery on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I recruited people who spoke languages other than English so that they could talk to the seniors who did not speak English.

In coming together, we see that we all have a lot more in common than not.

Santa Claus reading "Dreams of the Diaspora" by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

This year, deep in the middle of college application season — round three for our family — the children and I are not going anywhere or doing anything other than writing about one’s community or a challenge overcome until all those applications are done on Jan. 2. We are also missing my oldest two children who cannot come home from college.

So instead of a big dinner this year, my daughter suggests inviting just a few friends over to make dumplings on Christmas Eve.

Chinese dumplings made using Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's family recipe. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Chinese dumplings — or jiaozi — are the perfect food, perfectly balanced and self-contained. They are labor intensive and something one would never make by oneself. Unless one buys them frozen, they are only satisfying if made in a big batch by a big group. One person rolls the dumpling skins, one person makes the filling, one person cooks the dumplings, everyone else sits around the kitchen table and wraps — a spoonful of meat, cabbage, and Chinese chives goes on top of each round dumpling skin, which is then folded and pleated into a tidy half-moon shape — while everyone talks and laughs and teases each other about who has made the ugliest dumplings.

Little Brother hugging Santa Claus Photo by Margot Wang

This is so what we need this year — for everyone to sit down and make dumplings together.

I am reminded of the Chinese New Year story about a family that had fallen on hard times and only had enough cabbage and flour left to make dumplings for New Year’s Eve. The god of wealth felt such compassion for them that he transformed all their dumplings into silver ingots. A Chinese New Year miracle. I think about the hope and optimism with which Chinese people around the world continue to make dumplings for Chinese New Year, thousands of years later, in the hope that it might happen again.

This Christmas, we will leave Santa mochi and dumplings, our wishes for togetherness, kindness, and hope in the new year.

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