Her chocolate-colored eyes took in all the people from different parts of the globe as they sat near a table filled with local and foreign dishes, including golden yellow noodles, crispy fried chicken, “orange-y” enchiladas and a cherry red and fluffy white trifle in a big clear dessert dish.
Women, men and children listened as the story of Christ and Christmas was told all in Spanish, with English interpretation. The brown-eyed woman with the golden skin and black hair pulled back into a chignon kept looking. Eventually, at least twice, she successfully crossed lingual, cultural and social barriers. She smiled.
Although there was no official Christmas tree at the simply styled gathering, smiles twinkled on like lights as immigrants from different countries and backgrounds melted into America by hearing, learning and using its language.
Some have gone farther than others in their journey toward a common language, but one who already speaks excellent English (with a Southern accent) is Melissa Perez, a native of Guatemala who has resided with her family, including parents, a sister and two brothers, in the United States for 15 years.
Perez is a sophomore at Bradley Central High School. She remembers her country of origin and its Christmas traditions.
“They do a lot of stuff like parties downtown — with fireworks,” she recalled. “People from the neighborhoods bring foods downtown, like tamales and ponche (a mixed fruit juice).”
Something Perez remembers well is arroz con leche with milk and cinnamon, also known as rice pudding. Her mother still makes the dish, which is one of Perez’s favorite foods.
In America, Perez said her favorite part of Christmas is “giving presents to other people.”
“In Guatemala, they don’t do presents” she commented. “It’s a good day if they eat.”
From another continent, Ha Czeczuga of Vietnam moved to Cleveland with her husband, Darren Czeczuga, and children — Honor Ton Vinh, Blessing An Hue, Sonshine Hoa and Ha Thanh — and have been here for the past seven months, while Darren worked on his master’s degree at Lee University.
The family is about to return to Vietnam, where Darren is educational director at Koala House Kindergarten in Hanoi, Vietnam. The couple met years ago when Czeczuga taught at Hanoi Agricultural University. His wife’s parents worked on campus.
His wife, Ha, remembers her homeland fondly. Christmas in America, she noted, “is very crazy with shopping” but she likes the Christmas music she hears.
She also likes that in America, if the weather is cold outside, she can go inside and keep warm. Although Vietnam is “not freezing,” it is cool there in some months. “Here,” she said, “it feels warm inside. In Vietnam, if you’re cold outside, you’re cold inside.”
In Vietnam, where many people do not have heaters, Ha remarked, they use lots of clothes and warm blankets against the lower temperatures.
Jerosalyn B. Ariate of the Philippines is spending her first Christmas in America this year. Christmas celebrations start as early as September in her homeland, she said, and she has missed foods like a pork meat-loaf type of dish called embutido.
Ariate moved to Cleveland to marry an American and has already been included in her family-to-be’s Christmas tradition of an ornament gift.
“My fiance’s mother gave me a Christmas ball,” she said. Then Jerosalyn put out her hand for a farewell shake — and smiled.