It is Christmas again and I am sitting comfortably by myself at my keyboard trying to recall some of the Christmas days since I came to this country.

The first year I came to Duke as a graduate student, I lived in Graduate Center, the dorm for grad students newly converted from a Freshman dormitory. It was my first experience being in a dorm, any dorm, not just a college dorm in the US.  Well, It was a pleasant experience.  Shower down the corridor, cafeteria down stairs, a desk to do my homework.  What else do I need? Oh, yes, I am supposed to talk about Christmas.

That year, when Christmas came, everything happened naturally as usual: All the staff left for home. All cafeteria were closed. However, no one expected there were a few  of us foreign students left in the Grad Center.  It was late afternoon when someone got hungry and started to call for help. There was not even a Chinese restaurant and no one knew the tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas anyway. Besides, no one had a car. Thankfully, America is a kind country full of kind souls. Someone got the call and made an emergency decision: they realized that there was a special cafeteria in Duke Hospital open only for some patients with special needs.  Some one made a special permission for us to line in a single file, marching into that special restricted corner of Duke Hospital.

That was probably the lowest point in my Christmas experiences.  The other Christmases in my Graduate years were mostly getting something out the refrigerator to cook just like any other day. A few times, some of us foreign grad students gather in some married grad students’ rented apartments for a dinner.  As I remember, we even said “Merry Christmas” when we thanked the hosts.  

My best Christmas of all time came two years after I got my degree.

When I was getting my degree, I did not expect there were so many things to do in addition to defending for the thesis.  There were typing, printing the thesis, filing forms, applying for this and that … Luckily my good friend and fellow grad student, J H, came to my rescue. He was not only a smart and diligent student but also a man good in “worldly” things. With his help everything went smoothly.  Two years post doc in Germany later, I came back to Duke to do some research under my major professor and it was just time when J H was to get his degree.  I returned the favor of course.  Not only that, that summer, he was to get married, to get his first job, and to go to Hendersonville to start his new life.  I served in his wedding too as the professional photographer and was invited to their first family Christmas.  It turned out it was my first real family Christmas too.  He had his parents, sister, and her mother and sister with hubby … It was indeed a picture perfect, very warm family Christmas in a snow covered house in the countryside.  

First, we went out to a tree farm to choose a tree. We got it in the house and spent a lot of time decorate it. On the Eve, during the day, J H drove us to town so each of us had the chance to get presents for every one in the house some of whom we did not know would be there.  I remember we each went our own way so no one knew what we got for whom.  After dinner that evening, his father who was a history professor, a very intellectual person, read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.  After we all “retired”, it was a wrapping frenzy in secret and sneaking to deliver under the tree.

J H woke us all up and rushed us into the living room.  While I was still confused of what was happening, he made us all sit down and pulled a well wrapped piece out from under the tree.  He would read teh card and yell, “This is from so and so, for so and so.”  The receiver would open it, would woo and ah, thanking the giver, surprised by how close to what he/she actually wanted, laughter … Yes, that was a truly real family Christmas and I would alway remember it.