Ostensibly, Thanksgiving is about the celebration of the coming together of the Pilgrims (who were a group of people who came over from England to, ostensibly, escape religious persecution).
By ostensibly, I mean that this fact-of-sorts had been sort of softly hammered into my head since I was old enough to place a chubby little hand on a piece of brown construction paper and shakily trace a pencil around its outline. The thumb would become the turkey’s head, and all the rest of the fingers became its feathers. I learned other important skills in school too, like how to tell on people who were cutting in line and how to sometimes get two snacks instead of one.
By ostensibly, it means that no child growing up in the good ol’ United States of America escaped this annual exercise, so it sort of fits the narrative that teaching children history in America meant that you’d inundate them with picture books full of smiling Pilgrims and smiling Indians (somewhere along the line, we learned to say “Native Americans” instead), with a fat turkey as the centerpiece of a long table. We’d go around in circles, practicing giving thanks to our parents, our friends, our golden retrievers, or our goldfish at home. The word Thanksgiving, let alone “Chinese Thanksgiving,” was as foreign and familiar to me as stockings at Christmas (we didn’t have the stockings).
But everyone was always smiling in the books. So it meant that everyone was happy.
I grew up in Boston’s Chinatown, so the yearly turkey exercises and watching Thanksgiving sitcoms specials on TV juxtaposed hilariously with the thirty-odd not-white-and-mostly-Chinese kids in my classroom. We did all the turkey things, but as far as I knew, no one went home and actually ate turkey on Thanksgiving. As far as I knew, a Chinese Thanksgiving didn’t and couldn’t have existed.
As I got older, I learned that people in real life really did have those Thanksgiving dinners.
My dad drove us to the Norman Rockwell museum in Western Massachusetts once, which was the first museum where I really learned to enjoy the art, because, well, it was Norman Rockwell. I wasn’t staring at water lilies (hi, Monet) or depictions of Christ and blood and war and victory, things which I relegated dismissively as Things That Happened to Adults A Long Time Ago.
There were people on these canvases – people with rosy cheeks and raucous toothsome laughs and expressive postures. They fished and they ran and they went to the doctor’s office. Like me. And I saw a delightful white America that was so comfortable that I forgot I didn’t belong in it.
And then, there was this one.
Freedom from Want, The Thanksgiving Picture, or I’ll be Home for Christmas, depicted a Thanksgiving so idyllic that it was quite literally a caricature of what a Thanksgiving should be. A hefty turkey, requiring a good two-arm lift from an aproned matriarch with greying wispy hair, forms the foreground. There’s silver china on the table, and generations of a family sitting around it. Everyone has a smile on their face.
This was one of the moments where I realized that we did not have those Thanksgivings.
A Real Thanksgiving
I longed for a “real” Thanksgiving. I dreamed of the Thanksgivings I saw on Friends and on Everybody Loves Raymond, where a fat perfect golden-brown bird sat cozily as the centerpiece of an antique dining table. Arranged meticulously around it would be cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin and apple pie. It was the same type of longing that I saved for Lunchables – those processed snack-packs masquerading as lunch of the 90s – and for, strangely enough, being able to wear shoes indoors, because I saw the kids in the movies do it.
Thankfully, I grew out of those last two.
I don’t remember the why or the when of the time we finally got that real Thanksgiving, but I remember that we had it. My mother, a veteran of wok-fried vegetables and hand-wrapped dumplings, was no match for the classic American Thanksgiving spread. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d used the enormous oven.
Because of that, that meal was a product of a grocery store package – the ones where your local supermarket (Shaw’s in our case) packages up the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, in plastic containers and hands it over the deli counter into your waiting hands. A convenience Thanksgiving.
It was far from the elaborate home-cooked meals that appeared on the front page of Southern Living, but kid Lily couldn’t tell the difference. Those plastic containers could have held months-old canned boiled beans, and I wouldn’t have cared. If they tasted anything like my favorite restaurant, Old Country Buffet, (a moment of silence for this stalwart symbol of American suburbia), then I would have gobbled up every soggy green bean and slimy turkey slice.
“We can have our own Chinese Thanksgiving,” she’s said proudly, in front of the black plastic containers of pre-cooked food.
That was the genesis of our kind of Thanksgiving: the Chinese Thanksgiving.
The next Thanksgivings after that were a blur of sometimes-turkey and sometimes-not, in the way that the solidity of holiday memories as children inevitably give way to the haziness of those that take place during adulthood. Simple joys and simple feelings for gifts and Christmas trees and red envelopes are replaced by money troubles and geographic challenges. And critical thinking about the origins of our holidays. Did it really even make sense that this Chinese family celebrated a twisted and sanitized mythos of early colonists and indigenous peoples breaking bread together?
Feeling strange about it all coincided with my leaving the nest. I’d gone abroad to London, moved away from my family when I started a job in Boston, and then found a new life in Hong Kong. I wasn’t always around for Thanksgiving, and couldn’t recall which I’d spent at home and which I hadn’t.
But I did have gems like this to remind me that they still took place.
In 2019, I did go home.
The Thanksgiving of 2019
This Chinese Thanksgiving, my mother had ordered a turkey dinner from the supermarket. It included a full turkey, a plastic container of mashed potatoes, a plastic container of stuffing, a plastic container of cranberry sauce, and a pecan pie.
She’d also found it necessary to go to Chinatown Café, which I’ve written about briefly in my nostalgic post here, a stalwart of cheap and dependable eats in Boston, and get a full-sized goose, a roast duck, roast pork with crispy skin, and soy sauce chicken. This, in Chinese cuisine, would have all qualified as siu mei, a genre of Southern Chinese cooking that revolves completely around roasted meats.
On Thanksgiving Day, she and my dad spread silver tin foil around the 18 pound turkey and warned me to watch it and set an alarm until it was done.
I opened the oven and peeked in occasionally. There it was – the marker of our home, of the nearly three decades that I’d lived in this country, and the biggest signifier that I’d really come home for the holidays after spending nearly three consecutive years in Hong Kong.
A few hours later, the group of people inside the house had grown as the day’s guests arrived. My mother had laid out the spread: the turkey spent an entire two and a half minutes in its unadulterated glistening golden state before it was completely desiccated by my father wielding the heavy cleaver so ubiquitous in Chinese homes. In a Chinese home, you do not attack a hunk of flesh on your plate with a sharp knife, to be used only by yourself. Meat is sliced thinly – to be easily picked up by chopsticks and accompanied by rice.
Even the turkey didn’t escape this treatment.
And all around it were the Styrofoam boxes of roast duck, roast goose, and roast pork that my mother had carefully arranged – dishes that she’d not had the time and capacity to make from scratch at home, but that would taste like home. Next to those were plates of pan-fried dumplings that she’d carefully folded and wrapped in advance, bursting with pork and chive filling and crispy on the bottoms.
It didn’t look like the Norman Rockwell painting of a Thanksgiving. And, to be sure, of the ten people that were in the house at that moment, only three of them were connected to me by blood. Next to the dumplings were stir-fried green beans with chili sauce, and next to those were an apple pie, a grocery store pecan pie and pumpkin pie, and the pineapple cakes I’d brought home from Hong Kong.
As the afternoon went on, I let my fingers run over the old upright piano in the dining room between forkfuls of turkey, unpracticed fingers stumbling over Chopin and Mozart. I sipped a Chardonnay that my parents had brought home from a wine tasting in Rhode Island.
I opened an oversized bottle of red that looked suspiciously like it’d been sitting in the fridge for too long – not to mention that it also looked like the dollar store version of Barefoot or Yellowtail wine. I gave it a good sniff.
“This smells….pretty vinegared, don’t you think?” I said to my dad. “How long have you had it?” I tossed out, fully expecting him to say a couple weeks at the most.
“Oh, I don’t know. Six months?”
“Six months?” He noticed my gaping look of horror.
“What? It’s still good.”
In that moment, I realized that even though the food and drink served at that Thanksgiving hadn’t changed, – I, having had my fair share of drinking questionable (but affordable!) wines in college, had graduated into steady paychecks and wines-by-the-glass. And I wanted to give my dad an enormous hug for not knowing or smelling the difference.
And the mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce from the plastic tins?
They were still there, a legacy from my childish yearnings from long ago. Only this time, we’d all forgotten about them. The mashed potatoes had a good showing, although the stuffing and cranberry sauce (admittedly the most bizarre offering from a Chinese person’s eyes) laid virtually untouched. Perhaps the Chinese part of the Chinese Thanksgiving was the most appetizing part.
I looked around at the flurry of activity, the conversation, which spanned from the protests in Hong Kong, to college applications (there was a fourteen-year-old amongst us), to post-university plans, and travel in Italy. We looked into old photo albums, when my parents looked impossibly stylish (“We weren’t,” my mom said curtly) and less weathered. I was so, so, happy, but also inexplicably sad.
That’s the problem with holidays. Every new experience softly breaks my heart, because it reminds me of an old one. The people around the table are more or less then same, but the wrinkles are deeper, the hair wispier, the voices less raucous. The babies are teenagers.
I hold onto them for longer now, because I know the ones that stick in my head are few and far between, especially as I spend more time abroad. I cherish them more, because I know that in the future, there will be another Thanksgiving during which I’ll remember this one – the one with Chinese food and one Korean and one Italian guest, and when I was home for the holidays.