Thanksgiving for Chinese in America

Wilson Tang

Owner Nom Wah Tea Parlor and co-owner Fung Tu, born and raised in New York City

Tell us about your background.

My family, basically, we are rooted in Chinatown but I also spent some time in Ridgewood, like Queens, Maspeth.

My dad was pretty much settled into the restaurant world, like Chinatown being the hub. We moved into Queens around grade school age because he thought I would get a better quality of life, with a yard and all that stuff. I pretty much stayed in Queens, Maspeth, Elmhurst for much of my grade school days through high school and it wasn’t until college that I went to school at Pace, kind of moved back out to the city when I was a little older.

And your parents are from?…

So my parents immigrated here in the early 70’s. My dad’s from Guangzhou, China. My mom was born in Hong Kong…My dad went from Guangzhou to Hong Kong and that’s where they met. And that’s where they decided to move to the U.S.

Right on.  My parents came in the 70’s from Taiwan. And I grew up in Columbus, Ohio.

That must be much more of shocker, right? Ohio?

It was odd because at the time, there was a Chinese church and that was sort of the center of the Chinese community. But being a university town, it was pretty diverse.

That’s good.

But you are right, there weren’t a lot of Asians compared to the East Coast.  So, what was Thanksgiving like in your house growing up?

Thanksgiving was, how do I say … both my parents were always working.  So, in my house, it was always just the immediate family. So it would be my dad’s two younger brothers and our family. It would be pretty simple honestly. We just buy a bunch of stuff because everyone didn’t really have much time because everyone was working. If it wasn’t in the restaurant business, it was the restaurant supply business. Or just business in Chinatown where it’s just open everyday.

Even Thanksgiving…

Even until today our restaurant is going to be open on Thursday. It’s open every Thanksgiving. It’s one of our busiest days next to Christmas. I really don’t have much about it besides getting together, and I guess luckily my birth date falls around Thanksgiving as well. My birthday is the twenty-sixth and every couple of years it would fall on Thanksgiving. I guess for me it was one of those things where we’re celebrating my birthday on Thanksgiving. So I guess it’s like the kid that had their birthday on Christmas.

They were going to celebrate it anyway. For us it was just very immediate family. And the last couple of years since I’ve gotten married and my family has gotten bigger to an extended family, it’s become more of a family gathering and more of an American-style Thanksgiving. Where there’s turkey and all the, you know, [sides] — just American style, like pie and all of that kind of thing because my wife’s side of the family is more American than my side. They are still Asian but more on the American side.

For Thanksgiving it was always soy sauce chicken, that is your pseudo turkey. I remember there were years that we actually did turkey. I remember growing up in high school and grade school, it was just turkey sandwiches, just because. In the high school and college years, it was the “Friendsgiving”, where there would be a bunch of high school friends and college friends that we got together or someone had their own apartment or living outside of their family, not with their family. So we  would do that.

So it was really kind of a mix bag, but being in a restaurant business, it was always just another day of work to be honest with you. It’s funny you had mention like today we are going to close early and in the last five years I’ve grown from one restaurant to four restaurants. And tonight we are going to close down all the restaurants that are open. There’s one that’s not open on a Monday and we’ll do like a family Thanksgiving.

Today, this is the first year that we doing this.  We are making new traditions. I think we have four turkeys ordered tonight. For tonight’s meal, my chef at the Nom Wah in Chinatown is gonna make a feast of other Asian delicacies and dishes for a staff of — I think we are at sixty people now.

It’s the first ever Nom Wah staff meal, all four places. Even Philadelphia is coming up for this one. It’ll be a big gathering. It’s all mixed too because originally when we’re doing this project, it was all Chinese people. My uncle’s kitchen staff was all Chinese and our wait staff was all Chinese. In the last five years, we’ve grown to, it’s all colors. And we’re celebrating Thanksgiving with all ethnicities now. Black, White, Spanish, Asian, you name, it’s on our staff. So it’ll be fun.

So, as the years go on, new traditions are made.  In the last five years, new traditions were made just because I got married. And we do more of the family stuff. But for the earlier part of my life, it wasn’t really much that celebrated because everyone was working, and it was more of my birthday/Thanksgiving.

But in going forward, I see more changes as well. I, now myself, have kids, and we’re trying to teach the kids the right, the meaning of Thanksgiving and trying to form new traditions for that as well.

Nom Wah staff pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Photo courtesy of Wilson Tang

Nom Wah staff pre-Thanksgiving family-style celebration. Photo courtesy of Wilson Tang

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish?

My favorite Thanksgiving dish  is, well, I have a couple and depending on where I am…I know there’s so much meat involved.  I’m typically very into the vegetable side of Thanksgiving, and I’m into what my sister-in-law makes which are roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts.

Basically what you are doing is you take these cauliflower, and you kind of sprinkle them with olive oil, and you just roast them in the oven until they are really wrinkled. And that’s one of my favorite dishes because we are eating all this other stuff too, all the actual protein and I am at age where I have to like kind of watch what I eat now.

More fiber in your diet…

I need to make sure I get the vegetable portion of the dish.

I also really enjoy leftover turkey. We actually make a congee out of it for some years.  I always enjoy just leftovers. It kind of reminds me of the Thursday, on Saturday or Sunday it reminds of the gathering, prior. For years at my sister-in-law’s house, we would take a lot of leftovers and I would take them to work — take it with me or bring it for staff meal. Those are always the fun parts of it. The vegetables and being able to talk about it in the days that follow.

And people love to hear what you ate over Thanksgiving.

I gotta to say, I grew up in Chinese household too and we’ve had Thanksgiving with other Chinese families. They are always fascinated by roasted vegetables. I don’t think Asians do a lot of that.  So, I’ve done roasted brussel sprouts or root vegetables, and they are like “Whoa! You put this in the oven? That’s so strange.”

I totally love that stuff. That stuff is …. I’m getting excited thinking about actually. Because this Thursday, again we are gonna to go to my sister-in-law’s house to do the whole Thanksgiving thing with the kids and all that. And the other fun part about it is all my family will be there. And also my niece her birthday is a day after mine on the twenty-seventh. And it’s thing, you know we get turkey and then we get cake as well.

One more question. So recently, I’ve discovered that a lot of students from China and Taiwan and other immigrants who’ve come to the U.S., somewhat recently, they don’t do anything for Thanksgiving. It’s an American holiday, they feel a little out of place celebrating it. Do you have any ideas for them, if they want to celebrate but don’t know how?

So you’re talking about people that are from Taiwan and China that don’t know too much about the holiday, right?

Yeah. A lot of students who come here for college or grad school.

Thanksgiving is about being together…[There’s this] term “Friendsgiving” now, and it’s just about a bunch of friends getting together and eating and enjoying each other’s company. Even in the most simplest form, just a sign of Thanksgiving.

I remember one year none of us cooked and we just bought a bunch of Boston Market and a couple of six-packs and that was our Thanksgiving meal. It can be a lot more elaborate than that, but even if you were to go to Boston Market as a group to celebrate the holiday and life…Just keeping it very simple is also very enjoyable.

Focus on the meaning of the holiday and don’t get so hung on having turkey and doing a big elaborate thing.

Exactly, because we can talk forever about what to make and how to make and the cranberry sauce and all the different sides. But at the end of the day, it’s really just coming together for a holiday and being thankful that we all are here and everyone is healthy and having another year to celebrate.

Right, right. Cool, I think a lot of people would appreciate hearing that.

Awesome, man!

Thanks so much for your time.  Enjoy tonight.  Eat lots, but not too much.

The post has been updated to include an additional interviewee.  

Lead image from Fresh Off the Boat Season 2, Episode 8, Huangsgiving

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