Thanksgiving for Chinese in America

Cathy Erway

Food blogger at Not Eating Out in New York and author of The Food of Taiwan and The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, born and raised in New Jersey

Tell us about your Thanksgiving experiences growing up.

For as long as I can remember, my family splits the Thanksgiving gathering into 2 nights: the night before Thanksgiving is a big multi-course Chinese feast that my mom and uncle prepare. The next day, Thanksgiving, is the traditionally American meal. So, to each, their own. But somehow, these two meals are intertwined in my memories thanks to repeating this tradition year after year, so much so that when someone asks about what I’m making or looking forward to having on Thanksgiving, I might accidentally say something like, wintermelon soup.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for newcomers to the US who would like to celebrate Thanksgiving but don’t feel like it’s their holiday or don’t know what to do?

I think it’s always fun to tackle an unfamiliar dish like a whole roasted turkey. But if that sounds not so fun or appetizing, then the holiday is really about getting together and spending quality time over good food with your family—that’s all you really need to do to celebrate Thanksgiving. So whatever “good food” means to you, do it with care and love, preferably with others or with all others around while you work. And folding dumplings with a group is always a good way to divvy up the work and have fun cooking together.


Ivy

Paralegal at a New York law firm, originally from Hong Kong, in the US 27 years

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?  How will you spend Thanksgiving this year?

We usually spend Thanksgiving with the whole family. We are not going to gather this year as some family members have other plans and will not be available, also everyone is too busy to coke and we have decided everyone will just have a  relaxing thanksgiving this year. My ideal Thanksgiving is still gather with family if anyone is willing to cook =X

How long have you been in the United States?

I came to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was a teenager, which was 1990.

How did you learn about the story of Thanksgiving?

I learn about the Thanksgiving story from school and also from my other families here which to the U.S. before me.

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the United States?  Were you excited to experience it?  How did you spend your first Thanksgiving?

I had never heard of Thanksgiving before I came to U.S.  But I think it is good and fun to have another holiday and also a get together time. I spent my first Thanksgiving with all my family as I was still a teenager who lived with my parents and all my other families here. I thought the highlights of Thanksgiving are turkey and ham.

Do you and your family like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods?  What’s your favorite?

We like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods if only to serve on once a year on Thanksgiving. Turkey and Ham are A must for this holiday and I might not feel the holiday season without them. However, I don’t think I will eat the whole turkey and ham normally.

Do you shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?

I will usually try to shop on Black Friday just because it is the traditional shopping day, I just don’t want to feel like I have missed anything from the holiday.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for newcomers to the US who would like to celebrate Thanksgiving but don’t feel like it’s their holiday or don’t know what to do?

I know some friends who came to the United States by themselves, and they didn’t have any family here.  So, they celebrated with neighbors.  I don’t think anyone should feel it is not their holiday because I think this is just another free holiday which everyone will love to have and also an special time for friends and families to get together to hang out.


Ian Chan

PR Director at a social service agency, originally from Macau, in the US 20+ years

I came to this country more than 20 years ago. As a foreign student, I didn’t know a soul in this new land. My early memories of Thanksgiving were of the kindness of new friends who invited me to their Thanksgiving gathering and its meal– the sweet potato soufflé was buttery and he turkey was dry. I felt sorry for anyone who had to eat leftover turkey sandwiches for a week, and Americans’ annual ritual of stuffing their face to food coma has never cease to amaze me.

I have lived in New York City for ten years now. While other people would go back to their home and have a pleasant (or awkward sometimes) meal with their family, it would be a luxury for me because my family is 8,040 miles away in Macau. Even an unpleasant family meal would take a 15-hour flight. So I usually settled with my “faraway family”– my friends here for Thanksgiving dinner. It is on occasions like this that I realized these people gave me a sense of belonging and root.

A few years earlier, I became an accidental Thanksgiving volunteer when I worked for the City. I was assigned to deliver several dozens Thanksgiving packages to a number of churches and senior centers in our district. Carrying those icy bowling balls, otherwise known as frozen turkeys, was back-breaking. At the end of he day, though, there was a sense of accomplishment. So it has become a ritual for me, I signed up for another volunteer assignment on the years followed. And I would encourage anyone who has ever received an act of kindness to give back in this holiday season, it might be more fulfilling than Black Friday shopping.


Mindy Weng

Co-owner of a Chinese takeout restaurant in Washington Heights, originally from Fujian Province, in the US 17 years

Responses are summarized from our conversation in Mandarin.

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?

Our restaurant is closed that day, so we have the day off.  We used to only close on Thanksgiving, but for the second year, we will close on Thursday and Friday.  Maybe we’re just getting a little lazy. [laughs]

We go to a Chinese church — I’ve been a Christian since before I came to the United States — in the Upper West Side, and there’s a potluck where all the families bring dishes, usually Chinese food like dumplings.

My son will come home from college on Wednesday, and we’ll probably have hot pot at home.  My husband will finally have a chance to relax, but he’ll still get up at his usual time out of habit.

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving?

Yes, I learned it in an English class when I first came to the United States.  They teach you language and culture through stories like this.

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the US?  Were you interested in celebrating it?  How did you spend your first Thanksgiving?

Not really, because it’s an American holiday.  My husband was already here, and we went to a church pot luck.

Do you like traditional American Thanksgiving foods?  

I’m not used to them.  I’ve tried them, people bring them to the church party but I prefer Chinese food.  We’ve had fish at home on Thanksgiving, and my sons, who were born here, would rather eat American foods like hamburgers or fried chicken.  We’ve roasted chickens before.  We tried doing a turkey and it didn’t turn out well.

Do you shop on Black Friday?

Yes, one year my son and I got in line at 7 AM to buy an iPad.  We’ll stroll the malls, but it’s really a day to relax and spend time with the family.  We don’t really get a chance to relax though, we’re always still doing things!


Every Chinese American kid's Thanksgiving experience. Courtesy of Connie Sun

Every Chinese American kid’s Thanksgiving experience. Cartoon by Connie Sun


Xige

Visual arts administration graduate student at NYU, originally from Dandong, Liaoning Province, in the US 7 years

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?  How will you spend Thanksgiving this year? 

I plan to have hotpot with my friends. In the past few years I spent each thanksgiving with friends and family in typical style, having turkey and stuffing, pumpkin pie and so on.

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving?

I do, but l feel this festival’s original purpose of being thankful is fading and now it’s focusing more on eating and getting together, which is not bad. (But looking at Indian people’s socio-economical condition right now, I feel a sense of irony, pardon my personal point of view).

How long have you been in the United States?

I’ve been in the US for 7 years, almost.  I came in March 2010 to Eugene, Oregon for a Digital Arts BFA at the University of Oregon.

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the United States?  Were you excited to experience it?  How did you spend your first Thanksgiving? 

I know about Thanksgiving before coming here; I wasn’t excited to experience it.

First Thanksgiving, I went to an outlet and stayed up the whole night. I didn’t buy lots of stuff, just there to experience. Before coming here I didn’t know about black Friday. But after that time I didn’t really participate much in Black Friday “shopping mall sweeping”.

Do you like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods?

They are not bad. I’ve enjoyed my Thanksgiving meals.  My favorite is pumpkin pie with a lot of whipped cream.

Do you shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?

My buying pattern on Black Friday isn’t different than any period of time in the year, I only necessary/essential things. If the product happen to be cheaper on Black Friday, I’d be happy to purchase it with a lower price.

What are you thankful for this year?

I am thankful that I’m in New York City, and having the chance to study at NYU. I believe my vision is much broader than that a year ago.


Mini

Social science graduate working in non-profit, originally from Shanghai, in the US 7 years

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?   What will you do this year?

Having Friendsgiving with other former F-1 [student visa], current H-1 [specialty worker visa] people.

This year, I’ll go with my newly-married friend to her in-laws in New Jersey.

I don’t have a particular expectation for Thanksgiving, unlike the iconic figures and events for Christmas (Christmas tree, Santa Claus, etc.) or New Year (countdown, etc.), I am not very excited for turkey dinner. Actually, it creates pressure if I have no plan at all on this day while other people are fulfilling their social obligation.

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving?

Yes, I learned about it through TV shows and movies.

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the United States? Were you excited to experience it? How did you spend your first Thanksgiving?

I knew. I was excited for the first time, not so much afterwards. Through a nonprofit organization, international students were paired with local Christian volunteers at the time of arrival to help with everything from transportation to socializing. And I spent the holiday with them and other students.

Do you like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods?

Not so much.

Do you shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?

It is just a normal day for me…

What are you thankful for this year?

Quantum physics and the fact that someone was once willing to marry me.


Jiayin 

Arts professional, originally from Taiwan, in the US 4 years

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?

Sometimes with my relatives who also live in New York, sometimes with friends or not celebrating at all.

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving?

Only very vaguely.

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the United States? Were you excited to experience it? How did you spend your first Thanksgiving?

Yes. I remember it was the first semester in graduate school, I knew about Thanksgiving Day but didn’t have any experience and didn’t expect it to be that big- I mean you just don’t realize and feel it until you really live in the States. Thanksgiving is not at all a holiday that Chinese celebrate; in Taiwan, people celebrate Christmas, Valentine’s Day, New Year, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays in US, probably second to Christmas as a family holiday yet completely foreign to most international students. I think this particular time in the year does make me a little homesick.

I remember everyone was talking about their plans for Thanksgiving; that year, my aunt invited me to join a family hot pot in their home, in the end I also invited a Chinese friend of mine who didn’t have plans come join us. I always feel grateful when someone think of me and invite me on Thanksgiving; everyone feels a little lonely or homesick from time to time and friends in this city make you feel you are not alone.

Do you like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods?

No. I don’t eat turkey usually, it’s not common poultry for Asian.

Do you shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?

As a digital native I prefer shopping online and avoiding crowed shopping venues at all costs. However, I haven’t really participated on Black Friday so far; neither online nor offline.

What are you thankful for this year?

Always thankful for people in my life who support and love me; friends, family, as well as new encounters that bring blissful moments into my ordinary life. Although I don’t particularly think about this on Thanksgiving day!


Yiwen Han

Master’s degree student at Christie’s Education, originally from Beijing, in the US 14 months

How do you typically spend Thanksgiving?

Normally I spend time with my friends at home, and I will do the same this year. This is my ideal Thanksgiving!

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving?

I’ve heard of it when I was in kindergarten, probably?

Did you know about Thanksgiving before coming to the United States? Were you excited to experience it? How did you spend your first Thanksgiving?

Yes, but didn’t really get excited about it. I spent my first Thanksgiving at the States with my friends, eating at home…

Do you like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods?

Don’t like them except pies.

Do you shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?

No.

What are you thankful for this year?

I feel so blessed to have the people I love around me.


Monica

Originally from Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, recently moved to Portland, Oregon, in the US 5 months

Is this your first Thanksgiving? Are you excited? How will you spend it?
Not my first, but first time to spend it in the US.

How long have you been in the United States?

Almost 5 months. Still trying to get my green card.

Do you know the story of Thanksgiving? If so, how did you learn it?
A little bit. From English classes in China college taught by foreign teachers.

Do you like the traditional American Thanksgiving foods? What’s your favorite?
Sweet yams with roasted marshmallows on top. Turkey is not very popular with Chinese.

Tell us about the cakes you are making for Chinese families. How did you become interested in baking and how did you end up with this business?
Most are Chinese flavored cakes — light chiffon cakes with whipped cream as a decoration. I love to bake, and making cakes for others is a way of using my skills to lighten up other people’s special moments.

Do you shop plan to shop on Black Friday or do you celebrate Buy Nothing Day?
I shopped a few bags for friends in China and made a small commission out of it.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for newcomers to the US who would like to celebrate Thanksgiving but don’t feel like it’s their holiday don’t know what to do?
Read about the traditions and be thankful for what you have. Try to help others who are in need.

What are you thankful for this year?
Being healthy. Being able to spend every day with my daughter and watch her growing fast. Having family around. Having moved to the US.





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