Letters from China: Celebrating Thanksgiving in the far east

Despite the absence of Brussels sprouts, cornbread and pumpkin pie, a group of Americans living in Beijing was able to come together to celebrate Thanksgiving with such staples as turkey, sweet potatoes and apple pie. Enjoying the quintessential American holiday with newfound friends, thousands of miles from home, left the author with much to be thankful for. 

Celebrating American holidays overseas is always an interesting experience. 

Four years ago, while studying in London, I was determined not to let those pesky colonialists interfere with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. It meant I had to plan ahead: I found an exorbitantly priced turkey at a gourmet grocery store, made cornbread from scratch with cornmeal I found on the Caribbean shelf at yet another grocery store and I enlisted my five British flatmates to help with the cooking, working around our class schedules. I was a little annoyed that one of them blanched the green beans for longer than the 60 seconds I specified both verbally and on a Post-It, but all in all, it was one of the loveliest Thanksgivings I ever had. I introduced Thanksgiving and cornbread to five people who had never experienced either. 

This year in Beijing I didn’t have high expectations for Thanksgiving—there were no Brussels sprouts, sage or cornmeal to be found—but dinner, hosted by two ambitious friends, turned out to be a smashing success. Held on Thursday night at a beautiful, traditional Chinese courtyard house, dinner came with something not so traditional in Beijing—an oven, which meant our gracious hosts could roast a turkey. Originally, we were going to eat duck, which is much easier to come by in China than turkey, but with some perseverance, our hosts Adam and Amy were able to find one of the last three turkeys left at an expatriate grocery store, and thereupon cooked a bird succulent enough to rival those at Beijing’s most famous Peking Duck houses. 

Despite the lack of cornbread and pumpkin pie, the spread still felt authentically American with our turkey, sweet potatoes and apple pie. Cooking in China simply meant we had to tweak a few of the ingredients, and that this writer may have added MSG to the stuffing (when in Rome…), but in the end, none of us noticed a thing missing from our dinner. Certainly, everyone experienced food coma afterward. 

But the food, of course, does not alone make Thanksgiving. The thing is, Thanksgiving away from family can never be the same; we cannot replicate the same feeling of seeing all of our relatives under one roof, hopefully during a period when they’re actually getting along. But Thanksgiving with friends is not worth less than Thanksgiving with family—it’s just different. A friend explained a traditional Thanksgiving in his family to my roommate from France, who was unfamiliar with the holiday. “Almost every year, my sister gets hysterical and almost cries because she wants us to all sit together at the table and start eating at the same time,” he said. At our table, eight millenials—six Americans, one Canadian and one Frenchwoman—sat together, started eating at the same time and said what we were thankful for. 

Some of us had only met that night, but over this communion of improvised American food and under the watchful eye of a sturdy Pekingese named Mooshu, we foreigners formed a bond as, outside this cozy courtyard room, vendors continued selling chestnuts, people packed and pushed into subways, and the world generally continued as normal on the streets of Beijing. A Thanksgiving away from home will never feel traditional, but the substitute can serve its purpose as well as the original does. 

During this holiday season, I can’t stop thinking about a song I learned in third grade called “Albuquerque Turkey.” The last stanza goes, “And my Albuquerque turkey/Is so happy in his bed/’Cause for our Thanksgiving dinner/We had egg foo young instead.” The lyric is striking for a couple of reasons: One being that a family in China would definitely not have egg foo young for dinner if they owned a pet turkey, and the other is that I’ve never seen egg foo young in Beijing. But mostly, I’m thankful that even in China, I got to have turkey instead of egg foo young, and with great company to boot.