Ming’s Christmas Wishes
Susan L. Gong
Illustrated by Masahiro Tateishi

NOTE: I received a free ecopy in exchange for a review. Also, spoilers.

This was really cute. I don’t normally review children’s books, but this one piqued my interest, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Ming’s Christmas Wishes follows a little girl named Ming as she struggles to find an identity for herself in 1930s California, torn between her Chinese roots and her American life. Barred from the school Christmas choir on account of her race, Ming hopes to at least talk her mother into a Christmas tree, but her mother vetoes this, as Christmas trees are not Chinese. Ming’s sympathetic father takes Ming to visit an old friend, Uncle Lin, and they reminisce about their adventures, which span two continents. After leaving Uncle Lin, they visit an altar built by Chinese miners, then compromise on the tree issue by harvesting a Chinese pine. At the end they decorate the tree with Chinese ornaments while the mother watches in the background, if not with complete approval then at least without open hostility.

My favorite part of the book was the illustrations, which are gorgeous full-spread paintings done by Japanese illustrator Masahiro Tateishi. They’re so soft and cozy, and they set the stage beautifully. I also appreciated the setting and the details; the book was inspired by family stories passed down by Gong’s in-laws, and it includes a number of things familiar to me, from the juk (rice porridge) Ming and her father eat for breakfast to the incense they light at the altar. I’ve seen at least one reviewer note some confusion with the time period and the attitude of the American teacher who banned Ming from choir, but this wasn’t an obstacle for me, possibly because exclusion is a basic staple in Chinese American history.

The trouble is that there’s not much substance to the story. The writing is okay, if a bit awkward in places, but it doesn’t make me feel anything in particular. I get what Gong was trying to do, but the book’s stated purpose got muddled in the telling. It is not, for instance, clear to me how Ming learns to “draw strength from nature, from [her] Chinese heritage, and from deep and enduring family ties,” as the cover blurb claims she does. The closest we get is this bit:

“But Mama said no Christmas tree.”

“Ah, but this is not a Christmas tree,” Pop said. “This is a Chinese pine—for long life.”

“For strong character!” Ming said.

Other than that, Pop isn’t much help. Ming explicitly tells him she is trying to fit into two places at once, but she never gets a straight answer out of him.

“Pop,” she said, “I don’t fit in at school and I don’t fit in at home. What’s going to happen to me?”

He sighed. “You push too much, Butterfly. Pushing tips you off balance. Maybe you get hurt. Maybe you hurt somebody. Either way, pushing Mama won’t make you happy.” He looked deep into Ming’s eyes. “She is a good woman.”

“But she pushes me!” Ming said.

Pop sighed. “Hers is a hard story, Butterfly.”

Okay, first off: He didn’t answer her question. The question was “What is going to happen to me if I don’t feel either fully Chinese or fully American,” not “How can I get along with Mama?” The compromise with the Chinese pine is lovely and definitely fitting, but, though Ming ends up with a Christmas tree that isn’t overly American, there’s no way of knowing whether her field trip into the mountains has provided her with the armor she needs to power through the racism she encounters at school. The story is somewhat unresolved, and the characters are hard to pinpoint because they feel more like sketches than like people I might actually know. And maybe this is why the book feels so deeply impersonal to me: even though it was inspired by family stories, it doesn’t feel specific to this one particular family. It feels like it came out of a mold. It feels like a story that could be told by any Chinese American raised in the 1930s.

To be completely fair, I don’t know how Gong’s in-laws told the original story. I don’t know if she’s relating the story verbatim, or if she cobbled together several disparate stories to make a more cohesive narrative. Yet even allowing for this lack of context, it’s not obvious who the audience is supposed to be. If the book is intended for American children it should do its job just fine, though it is rather dated and I would advise parents/teachers to preface any readings with a brief explanation of the time period in which it is set, but if it’s intended for Chinese children it’s missed the mark.

Overall I think this book is a good entry point for kids who aren’t too aware of other cultures, but Chinese American kids looking for pointers on finding their way to a unified identity might be disappointed. In collecting my thoughts on this book, I asked myself, “Would I read this to my children?” And the answer, ultimately, was no. I don’t hate it. It’s not offensive. It’s not bad or mean-spirited or stereotype-ridden. It’s just very sweet and very bland, and that, in the end, was what pushed it – at least for me – from four stars to three.