The traditional American holiday is rolling around very soon – a great time for us to reflect on how we celebrated this occasion in Asia – including those of us who aren’t even American.
Recreating an American Thanksgiving in China
Thanksgiving still reigns supreme as the best American holiday for me and my husband, as I wrote a few years ago here at WWAM BAM. Leave it to my turkey-loving hubby, who discovered the mouthwatering delights of the bird when the two of us lived in the US, to resurrect this holiday in our household after we returned to China.
Every year we aim to do something special for Thanksgiving, even if it’s just takeout from a favorite restaurant in China.
But a few years back, nostalgia for Thanksgivings of the past — and the looming departure of two beloved friends — drove me to take some days off work to replicate, as much as possible, the flavor of the holiday for our friends, who had never celebrated before.
We opted for chicken out of convenience, but prepared it following the same time-honored recipe I had perfected years ago back in the US (and dubbed it “turkey-style chicken”). The spread also included a sampling of many American Thanksgiving favorites — stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and even homemade mushroom gravy.
Everything turned out divine — including the “turkey-style chicken”. But what I loved most was all the hours spent in the kitchen, checking things on the stove or in the toaster oven, while listening to favorite holiday tunes online. The experience recalled the joyful anticipation I always felt ahead of Thanksgiving, particularly years ago in the US, when I used to make dinners for my husband and our friends.
What delicious memories.
Peking Duck and Rager Pies – Thanksgiving in Beijing
Until I moved to China I had never celebrated Thanksgiving. By chance a lot of the friends I made were American and Thanksgiving was a big occasion. When we were students, we would celebrate by having Peking duck, as this was the closet thing we could find. In later years some restaurants in Sanlitun started to offer Thanksgiving celebrations, and of course nothing could beat a pumpkin pie from Rager Pies.
In the last few years we would celebrate at each others houses with enough food to feed an army and a whole night of singing and games. Although Thanksgiving is not a popular holiday celebrated in the UK every year, I still can’t help but make a pumpkin pie as a way to keep this borrowed tradition alive and as a way to give thanks to good friends who are now too far away to celebrate with.
My first (and only) Beijing Thanksgiving
Growing up as a British-German, Thanksgiving was never on the menu. And yet, I knew quite a bit about this traditional American holiday. Why’s that? Well, when all your favourite series have a Thanksgiving episode each year, you do pick up one or two details about it.
Who could forget the turkey on Monica’s head or the legen-wait-for-it-dary Slapsgivings of the How I met your Mother gang?
Even so, I never actually expected to be in a situation where I would be celebrating Thanksgiving. But my last year in Beijing (2018) one of my very good American friends organised the loveliest get-together at Home Plate (iykyk). They served up not just turkey but an entire roast pig!
Sadly, this was the one occasion for some reason that I did not take a photo of my food, duh. But what really stuck in my mind from the meal was the sweet potato crumble. I had never had anything like it before. I only knew the classic apple or cherry crumble really – which are favourites of mine but not very much “out there” as opposed to sweet potato. I loved the crumble so much, I actually made one for our last Christmas in Beijing a few months later – and it turned out great, if I may say so myself.
So, that was my first – and so far – only Thanksgiving experience, in Beijing of all places. I had the loveliest time and am still a little bit disappointed I have no American friends to celebrate with in Europe – yet!
On Skipping Thanksgiving
While I have participated in a variety of Thanksgiving events (in Mongolia and in Turkey) coordinated by fellow expats (primarily American and Canadian), I’m also OKAY to simply skip the event altogether. While we can create the foods and gather together with our self-made families abroad, it is not the same feeling for me as experienced at home. Throughout my years in the U.S., Thanksgiving meant traveling to be together with family, eating a lot, and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and football games before eating again (cold turkey and mayo sandwich!! YUM). It’s about napping in the middle of the day and perhaps going for a hike or walk.
Living abroad it’s been my experience that trying to “recreate” the setting, scene, and tastes of that homeland experience can be disappointing. It can be difficult to find needed ingredients and the seasons don’t always match what I experience in my birth country. For example, this week in Turkey it is in the 60s (Fahrenheit) and lacks the fallen leaves and/or falling snow which is what I would have felt at home in any of the four states in which I have lived.
Rather I tend to adopt more of a “when in Rome” attitude and assimilate into my host nation’s culture and holiday traditions as much as possible. For example, here in Turkey November 24th marks “Teacher’s Day” and it is a seriously respected and celebrated holiday. It just so happens that it falls on the SAME day as Thanksgiving in the U.S. for this calendar year.
Students will deliver gifts to teachers in the morning and there will be an assembly for all before students are dismissed for the day (just before lunch). All teachers–current and retired–are then hosted for a sit-down luncheon in our cafeteria–complete with tablecloths and proper place settings. Then on Friday evening all teachers and faculty are invited to a banquet hosted in a venue in the city (changes every year) where awards will be given for years of service (from 5 to 40 years!!) to the school, a beautiful and tasty meal will be served, drinks offered, and then we will dance the evening away to tunes played by a DJ. After missing this event the last two years because of COVID restrictions, I think it will be a grand time spent together with my colleagues and a wonderful way to celebrate the hard, but rewarding, work that we do.