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December 23, 2011

Jean Kwok on Not Knowing Christmas

Posted by Katherine


Like her protagonist, Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong.  Along with her family, she immigrated to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood.  After entering public elementary school unable to speak a word of English, she was later admitted to Hunter College High School, one of New York City’s most competitive public high schools.  She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia.  She has worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  In addition, she has been a professional ballroom dancer, a reader for the blind, a housekeeper, a dishwasher, and a computer graphics specialist for a major financial institution.  Her work has been published in Story magazine, Prairie Schooner, and the NuyorAsian Anthology. Here she talks about how she came to understand Christmas.


When I was asked to write this holiday blog post, I started browsing through past posts written by other authors. As I read stories of cherished Christmas memories or books that were given for Christmas --- books that would start a life-long love affair with literature and writing, I realized something: I don’t have any memories of Christmas as a child and I’ve never been given a book for Christmas. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. We moved from Hong Kong to New York City when I was five years old and we lost all of our money in the process. We lived in an unheated apartment in Brooklyn that was overrun with rats and roaches. We used the oven, keeping its door open day and night throughout the bitter winters in order to have a bit of warmth there. To make things worse, my family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown and even though I was only five, I went along to help work everyday after school.

There was no money to spare and even more than that, we didn’t know Christmas. It belonged to the many things we didn’t understand, like how people could have red hair and setting a table with forks and knives instead of chopsticks.  But how I longed to know it. Dreams of Christmas wreaths, Santa and Rudolph swirled through my mind for weeks. I heard the story of “Gift of the Magi” at school and cried over the ending. I wished that like my friends, I too lived in a house with a Christmas tree and the smell of baking cookies. Still, there was no Christmas at my home.

However, there was a gift --- not given at Christmas --- that changed my life. After our shift at the factory, I would take the subway home with my parents at about 9 or 10 pm. My brother Kwan, who was in high school then, would actually leave a grueling day at the factory and go onto a second job waiting tables until late into the night. I was usually asleep by the time he came home. One night, I woke up and realized he had come in and laid a brown-paper package on the mattress where I slept. It was a rare, unexpected treat for me to receive a present since we barely had enough for food. I unwrapped it and found --- instead of a toy or a piece of candy --- a blank diary.

“Whatever you write in this will belong to you,” my brother said.

To me, a child who had left everything she knew behind, it was a priceless gift. It was a place where I could write down my confusion, anxiety, fear and desires and try to make sense of it all. When I look back, I don’t know how he could have managed to save enough to buy me a present when we were earning pennies for our work and I don’t know how he was wise enough to get me something that would nourish my soul for the rest of my life. I started writing from that day on.

And so I realize that although I did not know Christmas in its traditional form, the spirit of Christmas did live within our household. Nowadays, as I wrap presents for my kids and bake candy cane cookies to hang in our tree, I never forget that the true meaning of Christmas lies in love, generosity and sacrifice.

To read more about Jean Kwok, visit her website at