I spent this Christmas in the frosty winter wonderland of Minnesota. I was reminded why it is an abstract concept to teach California kids about a song like “White Christmas”, while I made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, went skiing and ice skating, and wore snow pants, all without leaving the neighborhood where my brother lives.
I was also reminded of the unique power of music to bring people together. In terms of demographics, there is seemingly little in common between my family – a nuclear unit of four created by my Taiwanese immigrant parents, plus a scattered array of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in similar nuclear units throughout the Midwest and East Coast – and the multi-generational Minnesota-native family of my brother’s wife. Every Christmas we gather at my brother’s house and it has been an interesting evolution over the past decade. At first, my sister-in-law tried to juggle both sets of traditions by essentially cooking two whole meals – one Chinese and one American – for the gathering of sixteen or so people. This put her in the kitchen – along with most of us – for most of the day. While the overstuffed table looked a lot like the familiar scenes from my brother’s and my childhoods (where having twelve or more dishes was commonplace at holiday meals), it did not have the same resonance or nostalgia for my sister-in-law’s family. When my niece Chloe was born, things started to shift toward more pragmatic concerns – like having enough time to enjoy the company, bake cookies, and wrap presents, rather than spending the day in the kitchen.
So we have let go of the Chinese part of the festivities. The only reflection of being Chinese – or any memory of our childhoods – is the fact that the four of us are seated at the same table. Salt and pepper and sticks of butter have replaced soy sauce and chili oil. Mashed potatoes (delicious!) have replaced rice and two kinds of stir-fried noodles. And a single main dish – a grand, standing prime rib roast – has taken center stage instead of the myriad braised, stir-fried, steamed, marinated, and roasted creations that constituted the vaudevillian array of foods of our childhood.
It still feels foreign to me. I look around and I know that this scene brings back warm and fond memories for the people around me, but I strain to feel the same warmth because it doesn’t contain any nostalgic value for me. I have to see beyond the actual elements and look at the meaning behind the gestures. I have to train myself to do this, even though I do know it somewhere deep in my heart.
This year I promised myself that I would try to bring my real self to the table, instead of staying small and silent and as out of the way as possible. I know from recent experience that I have warmth and light and joy and enthusiasm to offer, even to complete strangers. Sometimes it is transmitted in words, sometimes in the way I listen, and almost always through an offering of music. My brother never had a real piano in his house until this year. In years past I had brought my violin and played a few things, but always felt it was a little too showy, begging people to “look at me!” when in fact this felt more like a communal gathering rather than a place to put on a solo performance. I never felt quite right about asking people to sit and listen attentively to me play my violin for them. Plus, with carry-on luggage limits as they are, my violin has not made the trip to Minneapolis in quite some time.
This year, something inspired me to toss in a pile of my old piano books containing pop songs, Christmas carols, and a few “easy listening” favorites that I thought might appeal to the occasion. I didn’t know whether or when I would use them.
As it turns out, our after-dinner gathering around the piano to sing Christmas carols was one of the highlights of the evening. My family does not sing, by the way. This was something I always forced my younger cousins to do every year on Christmas Eve at my house. Every year my production would become more and more elaborate, requiring earlier and earlier arrival times in order to rehearse the group. I even started typing out lyrics and sending them in advance so they could learn the songs. I would sit at the piano and play, and they would sing and act out the parts, change costumes, do choreography.
This year the singing started more organically, with a couple of people sitting to listen while I goofed around at the piano. I can’t remember how we got started with the Christmas carols, or who started singing first. But as soon as the others heard, they came rushing from across the house to join us. Soon there was a large group huddled around the darkened corner of the dining room, all craning their necks to read the lyrics over my shoulder as I sat playing the piano.
The music brought back something familiar to me, but also something familiar to this family who grew up seemingly worlds away from me. The sounds of the music – and the collective experience of making it together – brought us together without need for explanation. Three generations of a family stood around that piano, singing as I played. My own family watched, with what I imagine was both awe and pride that I had an access point to communicate and build bridges among people of all backgrounds. I listened, in sheer gratitude for the beauty of the voices around me. I knew what an offering it was to sing out loud, to give voice to something. Some knew all the words to many verses by heart; others were harmonizing as if by second nature. Several verses were even sung in German.
Each of us held different memories and nostalgia woven into the songs, but these united in one sound. It was a beautiful moment of togetherness that arose from the sheer power of music.
Here’s a short excerpt we captured on video:
In closing, here’s a different yet equally powerful moment of music, when my niece agreed to help me play one of her piano songs (“Up On the Housetop”) and earn a candy star just like she did.
This joy, this enthusiasm, this gratitude, this awe – this is what I have, and what I wish to offer of myself in this life.