Peung's first Christmas


SHE THINKS Santa Claus is the funniest thing she's ever seen.

"He makes me laugh, especially with those funny glasses."

Peung is from Bangkok, Thailand, and she has just been in this country six months as a new bride. She did not know what Christmas was, and she did not expect the giant carnival atmosphere that precedes the event.

We are sitting and looking in awe at the profusion of holiday decorations in a downtown mall. She is eating pizza.

There are stars in her beautiful brown eyes this day. She is looking forward to the holiday with great anticipation.

In her very nice English -- in Bangkok they learn English in elementary school -- Peung asks me: "Why do they hang stockings in the fireplace? I never heard of anything quite like that. What does that mean, and what is this about leaving milk and cookies on the hearth?"

Peung, in her early 20s, tells me that she likes the consumer frenzy although it mystifies her a bit.

"You have such a build-up to this. In Buddhism we have ceremonies and we bring gifts to the temple on Buddha's birthday, but Christmas seems a bit commercial. And then that music all the time . . . I have learned one of your songs -- "Jingle Bells." We both laugh.

I tell her that Santa puts gifts in the stockings, and I tell her the story of St. Nicholas. She understands the real meaning of Christmas, but she still seems a bit puzzled about the relationship between the Christmas tree and Jesus' birthday. "We have decorated a tree. It is a real tree and it is so pretty. I have been collecting decorations for it for weeks. I am making some decorations. I like this. I might keep a tree in the living room all year round . . . I will have to study more about this."

Peung is going to the Community College of Baltimore in preparation for college entrance exams.

She is the bride of Erve Chambers, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland at College Park, and she is in love with Christmas, with Baltimore and with her husband. She and Erve met in Thailand three years ago, as he made many trips there as a research scientist. She was taking some courses there at the time.

Over the holiday Muzak she says, "Baltimore is so nice, so pretty, not crowded like Bangkok. I love your buses, they aren't crowded either . . . But I am scared about winter. I have never seen snow, I will have to learn how to walk in it. I took some water in a pail outside one day to see what it looked like when it froze. I love the harbor. Will it freeze? I lived near the river in Bangkok."

She is dressed this December day at the mall in a cotton dress, but her husband had bought her a warm black coat.

"He had to buy me three coats. I must shop for boots, of course."

"I'm taking English, reading, writing and history, I can hardly wait to learn more things. She has also seen her first homeless person sleeping on a city grate. She was appalled.

"In our country there are no old people who are poor and sick on the streets -- children take care of their parents."

Peung's husband knows Thailand well. He says that Peung is like many young Thai women. She has the inner strength that Asian women have. Although she presents the facade of youth and a certain shyness, she is very independent.

For now, Peung is enamored of how friendly people are. "Everyone smiles at me," she says, but then who wouldn't.

Looking around, we were both impressed suddenly with the mix of live poinsettias, shiny plastic and the frantic air of buying. I am tired of it and would like to go home and soak my feet and retreat, Scrooge-like, but Peung feels it is part of some large wonderful celebration and that everyone is having a good time.

Some questions I couldn't answer were: How long goes the snow stay on the ground, and do all children believe in Santa Claus?

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