I'm an ABC. American Born Chinese. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States. And growing up American with traditional Chinese parents was hard at times. There were awkward moments in school when classmates talked about their Thanksgiving plans and dishes. Here I was, the Chinese girl who had Thanksgiving dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Instead of a table lined with runners and centerpieces, ours was lined with newspaper and mismatch chipped rice bowls. I didn’t understand why we were different, or in the mind of an adolescent, “weird.”
We did cook a turkey, and I think my parents did that for my siblings and me so we could experience a western holiday. I still get emotional thinking about how much my parents did to let us experience what everyone around was experiencing. It’s easy for me to say now that food doesn’t make Thanksgiving, but I’m pretty sure as a kid, I wasn’t that understanding.
As a kid, I thought turkey=Thanksgiving. To sum up Peppermint Pattie: "You can't have Thanksgiving without turkey." And when I told people that our family ate turkey and apple pie, they were surprised. It's funny, how in 2007, there are still some people who, when I say I'm eating Thanksgiving dinner, look at me funnily and ask the question that I dread the most. This is from a recent conversation.
Person: "So, Thanksgiving dinner. Nice...so are you guys going to eat....(pause)
Me: "Yes, we're going to eat."
Person: "Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving? Do you eat like, regular stuff?"
Me: "Yes, turkey and all the sides and desserts."
Person: "Wow. Outstanding."
I wanted to share a Thanksgiving column I wrote back in 2005 for AsianWeek. It's pretty self-explanatory. I hope you enjoy it.
Have Yourself a Feast of Good Feelings, November 25, 2005
You can be guaranteed satisfaction if you make the best of every situation. Granted, it can be somewhat difficult when it all seems like Murphy’s Law is working overtime just for you. But over the years, I’ve learned to try and live by what my father says is one of the keys to living a happy life: Being thankful for what you have also goes along with making the best of every situation.
My first Thanksgiving away from home was when I was living in New York City during graduate school. My roommate and I decided to cook Thanksgiving together in our apartment in Morningside Heights. We ended up cooking a fabulous feast for two.
Let me rewind just a bit. I wouldn’t say that my family celebrated Thanksgiving like other American families celebrated the holiday. So not being home for Thanksgiving wasn’t such a big deal for me.
Up until we closed our Chinese restaurant, we were open every Thanksgiving. And yes, we would get several orders. But most of the time my dad would cook up some rice and chow mein for the cop that worked the night shift, or the family that didn’t have quite enough for a turkey that year.
My dad would marinate a turkey the night before (using Asian ingredients), my mom would buy potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread and Jell-O. Every year I’d make orange and strawberry Jell-O. Sometimes we’d invite our uncles and aunts, but most of the time Thanksgiving was a day I got a chance to help my dad clean the restaurant. Of course, I was happy that I didn’t have to go to school for two days, but what I was most happy about was that my dad could sleep in a few more hours.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving in New York with my roommate: Although I missed being with my family, I knew they were a phone call away. The following Thanksgiving, I spent away from family as well. This time, it was more than 5,000 miles away.
I was living in Sichuan, China. Two months had past since the 9/11 attacks, and though my friends and I were coping with being away from family and friends who were in New York, we were also trying to make the best of our situation.
Here we were, four young Americans at a communist boarding school, teaching thousands of Chinese students the words to “Over the River.” My headmaster told us to spend a week teaching students about pilgrims, Native Americans and Thanksgiving.
The day before Thanksgiving, I went to the school cafeteria early and asked the cooks if they could prepare something special for the teachers. I knew my friends were homesick with 9/11 still heavy on their minds.
In between my broken Mandarin and gesticulations, I gave a brief history of Thanksgiving and what Americans ate on this day. In Chinese, gan en jie means Thanksgiving. The cooks had smiles and confused looks on their faces when I told them about bread stuffed in turkey and cranberry sauce. The staff was obliging and, though they couldn’t find a turkey, they gave us lunch for which we were all thankful and grateful.
We ate in the cafeteria with the rest of the students, and our table was filled with steaming plates of food. We had steamed chicken, roast duck, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, rice and man tou (Chinese steamed bread). We were all moved and we all said our thanks before the meal.
The mashed potatoes weren’t made with butter and milk, but with Sichuan peppercorns and lard. The pumpkin wasn't pureed but cubed and cooked in a sugar syrup, and the chicken and duck were both served with their head and feet intact.
With tears in our eyes, we began our Thanksgiving feast with chopsticks in hand. It was probably one of the best and unforgettable meals I’ve ever had. It’s not the food that makes Thanksgiving, it’s the feeling of gratitude and humility.