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Thanksgiving without the turkey

Peking duck is a traditional Chinese dish often served with bing. Art by Sarah Ding.

When most everyone thinks of Thanksgiving food, they picture a shiny, glazed turkey, creamy mashed potatoes and some sort of casserole. This is what I imagine, though it’s been years since my family has carved a turkey, and I’ve eaten mashed potatoes maybe twice in my life.

Much like others who celebrate the holiday, I also associate it with spending time with relatives, but all of mine live on the other side of the world and probably forget this day even exists.

It was times like these I used to wish we could adopt more American mannerisms⁠, that my mom would decorate the house in ceramic pumpkins instead of refusing to roast a turkey because of the fatty smell that lingered and the hours that went into it.

I sometimes don’t understand Thanksgiving myself. Sure, I scribbled in the coloring book pages of turkeys in pilgrim hats and learned about Squanto the friendly Native American in elementary school, but I didn’t feel any connection to this very American holiday. My friends were always either excited to see their favorite cousins and eat pumpkin pie or dreading an awkward dinner with relatives who fought at the dinner table. My lukewarm reaction to my family’s way of celebrating⁠—a slightly more plentiful dinner⁠—seemed boring. It was times like these I used to wish we could adopt more American mannerisms⁠, that my mom would decorate the house in ceramic pumpkins instead of refusing to roast a turkey because of the fatty smell that lingered and the hours that went into it.

I remember my eighth grade algebra teacher sitting us all down the day before fall break and telling us this was his absolute favorite day of the year because he got to carry out an important tradition and see his family. As the saying goes, “tradition is just peer pressure from dead people,” and none of those dead people were remotely related to me. Not that I think anyone celebrates Thanksgiving because their ancestor hitched a ride on the Mayflower⁠—but there is no cornbread recipe passed down from my grandfather or yearly family reunion to take for granted. I half-heartedly filled out the thank-you card my teacher handed me, one of the dozens I had been instructed to write throughout elementary and middle school.

Although I don’t feel the spirit of tradition surrounding the holiday season, I do still feel an immense amount of joy. Over the years, the idea that it was okay to sacrifice a little convenience, time and money for the sake of celebration grew on my family, as did for me the fact that our holidays wouldn’t look exactly the same as others’. My mom started roasting a Peking duck with pillowy bing rolls⁠—a classic Chinese dish⁠—every year, and I don’t miss the turkey at all. She still complains about the smell, but it’s now important to her to keep this up, and she’s excited to spend the day cooking because it makes us happy.

Over the years, the idea that it was okay to sacrifice a little convenience, time and money for the sake of celebration grew on my family, as did for me the fact that our holidays wouldn’t look exactly the same as others’.

Another staple Thanksgiving celebration of ours is a string of potlucks hosted by various families in our Chinese community. I can always expect the same thing⁠—kids running around downstairs and playing video games, adults sipping wine and playing cards and the dozens of plates and bowls filled with steaming homemade food. Adults always insist I try whatever food they made, we consistently stay for at least an hour after we planned and every time, I sprint to the car ahead of my parents and hurriedly jiggle the handle, waiting to hear it unlock so I can escape the cold fall air. These dinners continue through Christmas, and I feel a little lonely every time the holidays are over.

It isn’t exactly like visiting family⁠—my broken Chinese isn’t nearly enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with the adults and the older kids sometimes think they’re too cool to show up. But even though our Thanksgiving isn’t the carbon copy of most peoples’ ideas of it, the same ideas of gratefulness, joy and good home cooked food still stand. I think the holidays can get kind of lonely for first generation immigrants who don’t have family anywhere close by, so the existence of so many others we can relate to and celebrate with is something I’m thankful for every year.

Are you going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year? Let us know in the comments below.

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