Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. This opportunity to reflect on blessings and show gratitude transcends religion and is celebrated nowhere else — yet forgoes the patriotism of other national holidays. However, being a holiday rooted in American history and with a specific food tradition that friends and family spend together, people from other countries far from longtime friends and family might feel unsure how to celebrate the holiday. In Fresh Off the Boat’s Thanksgiving episode this season (stream here), Jessica, the ever-resolute mother, tells her Taiwanese American family that the holiday has no relevance to them.
My family too came from Taiwan, but we never once thought Thanksgiving had no relevance to us. It was instead a chance for us to partake in something American. In the first years after my family came to the United States, western food was foreign and turkey, being a once a year thing (we hadn’t discovered turkey sandwiches yet), was the most exotic of them all. Over the years, having turkey was a must, and we dabbled in accoutrements and sides but always had rice and Chinese vegetables. There were Chinese dishes and there were American dishes. Had we known about Not Eating Out in New York and Food of Taiwan author Cathy Erway’s recipe for curried sweet potato dumplings, we would have made those and been much more daring in fusing east and west in the kitchen.
The proverbial Thanksgiving involves traveling somewhere by plane, train, or automobile, a perfectly cooked turkey with sides, doorbuster Black Friday deals, and college football, but what are some of the Thanksgiving experiences unique to Chinese and Chinese Americans?
After I started Beyond Chinatown and got to know more international students from Taiwan and China, I learned that many of them did not make specific plans, and perhaps more shocking to me was that they did not like turkey. Since then, in the past two years, I’ve organized get togethers for friends from China — first year, at a restaurant and at my apartment last year — so they could celebrate the holiday and enjoy a mostly traditional Thanksgiving meal.
My immigrant family’s Thanksgiving experiences and those of international students and others who have stayed after graduation and are becoming the new Chinese Americans got me thinking. How this American holiday is celebrated by the diverse huaren population in the United States who have different backgrounds? What does it mean to them?
Over email, on the phone, and in person, I talked with nine people who grew up in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, North Jersey, and Queens who now live in New York City area to learn about their experiences. They include people in the restaurant and hospitality industries, the arts, and non-profits. Some have been here their whole lives and one just over a year. Some arrived in the US alone, others had family members who were here, and those who grew up here were born to parents who were immigrants themselves.
Below is the list of everyone who shared their experiences. Their interviews are spread over three pages, but you can click on any of the names to jump to the person’s interview. Except for Zhang Hongtu’s and Wilson Tang’s bookend interviews, they are ordered in descending order by how much time they’ve spent in the U.S.
Zhang Hongtu, artist
Cathy Erway, food writer
Ian Chan, PR professional
Mindy Weng, restaurant owner
Xige, graduate student at NYU
Mini, non-profit professional
Jiayin, arts professional
Yiwen Han, graduate student at Christie’s Education
Monica, recently moved to Portland, OR
Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor and co-owner of Fung Tu.
When I reached out, I wasn’t sure whether they’d be interested in participating. Everybody was. Enthusiastically. Despite their varied backgrounds and experiences, we feel their appreciation of the spirit of the holiday and their celebration of personal and family traditions.
Artist, born in Pingliang, Gansu Province, in the US 35 years
When did you first learn about Thanksgiving and what did you think of it?
It was in 1982, not long after I arrived in the States, that I heard about Thanksgiving. I might heard about it from pre-holiday sales advertisements on TV as well as newspapers. A Columbia University student who used to study in Beijing told me about the origin of Thanksgiving — a gratitude towards the Indians who helped early Europeans settle down in North America — I thought it was very touching.
Where did you celebrate your first Thanksgiving and how did you spend it?
In 1982 an American friend invited me to her house in New Jersey to celebrate Thanksgiving, it was my very first time. It was a big dinner, and the highlight was of course the huge roasted turkey. Placed in the center of the table, the turkey was quite a spectacle, but I did not really know how to appreciate it and failed to find it flavorful. I tried to find the connection between the Indians and the celebration during the dinner but it was not successful. However, the atmosphere of a close and harmonious family reminded me of the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. Oh, Thanksgiving is the American day for family reunions! I finally understood.
Has Thanksgiving changed for you over the years?
There isn’t much change, but my wife Miaoling’s Chinese-Western fusion roasted turkey tastes more and more delicious.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food? Are there any special traditions or recipes your family has?
Turkey is of course delicious, and I also like the jellied cranberry sauce which is often served on the table. It always reminds me of the haw jelly cake I had in Beijing when I was a kid.
Miaoling’s turkey recipe:
An 8 – 10 lb turkey, or less than 8 lb turkey breasts, a small bunch of fresh rosemary,
2 – 3 cups 1 cup [update] of Kikkoman soy sauce
1. Prick the turkey breasts with the tip of a knife, and place the rosemary under the breast skin, put it in a large food storage bag and pour in the soy sauce. Place in a bowl and let it marinate for 4 – 6 hours in the fridge. Turn it over from time to time to let it marinate evenly.
2. Prepare turkey fillings: sticky rice with chestnut, dried shrimp, shitaki mushroom, Chinese preserved sausage,etc (the ingredients has to be mixed together and cooked in a rice cooker before being put into the turkey)
3. Set the oven cooking temperature and the time according to the weight of the turkey. Put the fillings inside the turkey and put the turkey in the oven, and apply honey and olive oil when it is half cooked and put it back to the oven. You can also put potatoes or sweet potatoes around the turkey.
What are you planning on doing this year?
For Thanksgiving this year, my son, his wife and our two granddaughters will join us in my house to celebrate.
[…] also discussed by Andrew of the blog Beyond Chinatown, who compiled some great interviews on the Chinese American Thanksgiving here.) But as I’ve learned through the years, not many people eat turkey and cranberry sauce […]