Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

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chinese thanksgiving oneThree days after Thanksgiving, I sat down on my computer and typed “why are there no turkeys in Asia?” into Google. This had been bothering me a lot. For the last two years, my Thanksgivings have been filled with odd turkey substitutes, strange stand-ins, as a Butterball turkey has become about as rare a delicacy as foie gras or steamed caterpillars. Last year, my girlfriend cooked me a fatty duck steak; this year, my Thanksgiving dinner was headlined by leg of lamb.

But that wasn’t all. Earlier in the week, pizza delivery had helped me understand the true nature of Thanksgiving. Nestle (pronounced like the chocolate) – my boss at the school in China where I work – had called a full staff meeting on Monday. “We know that Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she said, “and that this is an important holiday for our foreign teachers. To celebrate, the school will be getting pizza delivered for lunch.”

It was an awesome gesture on Nestle’s part. True to her word, there were six large pizzas waiting for us in the break room on Thanksgiving, all nicely laid out the same way I imagine the pilgrims set up their spread of corn, apple pie, and canned cranberry sauce. The Chinese teachers seemed excited, smiling graciously as we all greedily snatched up chicken wings and slices of pepperoni pizza. Miss Wang, who supervises the foreign teachers, snapped picture after picture, as though she was documenting something that would one day appear in a Chinese history book.

chinese thanksgiving twoChowing down on my third piece of pizza, I stopped to notice what was going on. All the Chinese teachers were there, drinking Coca-cola and munching pizza alongside the teachers from America. It dawned on me that this, as odd as it may sound, was what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. It was just like the corny stories we’d been taught forever, the Native Americans and the pilgrims all sharing food and celebrating. The same thing was happening before my very eyes, and it wasn’t even going to end with one side massacring the other and taking their land. Two races of people had become bonded, side-by-side, a big happy family, enjoying life together and gaining weight.

A Chinese woman with a huge smile on her face appeared, holding a digital camera. “Wow!” Miss Wang said. “We need to all pose together. This is the woman who runs the school website. She will take a picture of us.”

Focused on my fourth piece of pizza, I slammed the crust into my mouth and chewed on it while the website lady took a bunch of pictures. Part of me felt bitter about this, the photographs making me feel other, an outsider. Look at the foreign people eating their pizza, how precious! I mean, you don’t see me following Miss Wang into a Chinese restaurant and photographing her eating Kung Pao Chicken, do you? I started to wonder if this was in fact a real Thanksgiving or if it was just a photo op, something the school would use to promote itself. Were the smiles real or fake? Was the intention to graciously provide for us, or simply to create promotional material that would, possibly, help the school recruit better teachers who would, in turn, take our jobs?

I shrugged. The intentions didn’t matter – this was about people and everyone was having fun. Maybe the story of Thanksgiving is really just the narrative version of a photo op anyways, and if there were cameras back in the day, that first Thanksgiving would’ve been full of posing and posturing as well. I felt thankful that this wasn’t the case. All the old photographs I’ve ever seen of Native Americans make them look tough and mysterious. My impression of them as a people just wouldn’t be the same if there was, in existence, a snapshot of Sitting Bull with a big chunk of green bean casserole stuck in his teeth.

That doesn’t exist on the Internet, and neither does an explanation for the whereabouts of the turkeys in Asia. All my Google search brought up was a bunch of pages telling me why a turkey, as in the bird, has the same name as Turkey, the country. It’s because the British bought the birds from Turkish merchants, and believed they had been imported from Turkey (although they were actually from Madagascar). So it was all a stupid mistake on the part of the white man, exactly like calling the Native Americans “Indians.”

I guess a name is only a word, and its significance is what you make of it. Just like how Nestle and Miss Wang could happily call a bunch of pizzas in the break room “Thanksgiving,” or how I could call all the people eating beside me “family” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

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One thought on “Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

  1. Nice post. Because that is what Thanksgiving is about; a group of people sharing an experience, food, time together; not exactly blood family. Spending time with a group of people different from yourself and still able to enjoy it and give thanks.

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