carving narratives

a taiwanese thanksgiving

I was six years old, sitting in one of those soon-to-be-familiar dark navy plastic chairs, the ones that would hurt my butt for the entirety of my elementary school days. It was almost Thanksgiving, and my teacher read aloud for us a picture book that mapped out all the stereotypical requisites for this American holiday: a massive turkey, elaborate table settings, and picture-perfect family. Afterwards, we had our own makeshift Thanksgiving feast during class, complete with archetypal American dishes like pumpkin pie and green bean casserole.

At this age, I first discovered what Thanksgiving was “supposed” to look and taste like. I had lived through six years of my life without knowing about these traditions, but the school’s crafts, stories, and movie reinforced the images in my young, impressionable mind, planting the seed of expectation.

Later that week, I waited in anticipation for the extravagant, model Thanksgiving celebration that matched the image I’d formed in my mind. To my (temporary) dismay, it never came to be.

We didn’t have a massive turkey—we had Peking duck. We didn’t have elaborate table settings and fine china—it was set as it would have been for any a regular dinner. We didn’t have a picture-perfect family gathering either—it was just me, my mother, one set of grandparents, and my uncle and aunt.

Truthfully, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the standard American celebration that I thought everyone was supposed to have. I remember asking my mother, with eyes that sparkled with self-pity, why we didn’t have turkey or stuffing or casseroles (despite the fact that, to this day, I am still not clear on what a casserole is).

My grandparents grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, which took place between 1895 and 1945. As such, they were required to learn the Japanese language and adopt certain parts of the culture. My grandpa loves Japanese culture, especially the food. Homemade sushi has a special place in my heart; it’s a recurring favorite at my family gatherings. We set out plates full of “sushi guts,” which include tamagoyaki (sliced sweet omelet), cucumber, imitation crab, fish roe, and avocado. The seaweed is roasted on the stove before being cut into little squares for each person, and this would give our homemade sushi a phenomenally better taste and texture than pre-made sushi. It’s a unique and fun way to make your own food, a special family tradition that I can’t get from a typified Thanksgiving celebration.

Each aspect of my family’s Thanksgiving reflects some aspect of our Asian roots, and our small gatherings create an intimacy that allows for an easy-going, unassuming atmosphere. Our culture and togetherness more than compensate for our lack of Thanksgiving’s conventional ornamentations.

My six-year-old mind demanded that everything fit into my preconceived image of a Thanksgiving celebration, but my will could not withstand the sights and smells of a Taiwanese family celebration. My disappointments dissolved like the steam that rose from the hot pot, a stainless-steel centerpiece of sorts that was both a source of food and entertainment—I would make silly faces at my reflection, which stretched itself into clownish images that smiled back at me. The hot pot sat on a bed of leftover newspapers (very aesthetically pleasing), a frothy concoction of vegetables and fish cake. My favorite part would be placing the raw meat into the bubbling stew, impatiently waiting for it to turn an acceptable shade of brown, and ladling it out for my family members. Grandparents are served first, of course, because elders are always given priority based on Taiwanese table etiquette. It gave me a sense of importance, and what child doesn’t love to play kitchen anyway?

When you are taught in school, from a young age, to glorify a certain image of celebration, it can be difficult to accept anything otherwise. You wonder why your family has ethnically different food, why more than half of your family is across the Pacific Ocean and cannot celebrate with you. It’s confusing for a six-year-old who does not necessarily understand the preciousness of her own cultural background. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate my family’s “alternative” Thanksgivings—the sense of familiarity and intimacy lends itself to something infinitely more valuable and personable than what I originally wanted, which was a Thanksgiving that matched what I saw on TV and in books.

Of course, it is not my intention to disparage the archetypal Thanksgiving dinner. Each family has their own, valid form of celebration. As an Asian-American, I fully embrace the way that my Taiwanese culture influences and molds the way my family celebrates this American holiday.

My mother and uncle came here when they were 11 and 12, and they faced a lot of difficulties. First off, my grandparents told them they were coming to America for a Disneyland vacation. Once they were on the plane and about to take off, their parents revealed that this trip would not be temporary—they were moving to California at that very moment, and it was already too late to say goodbye properly to their friends back at home. They didn’t dress the same or talk the same as their other American peers, and they faced racial discrimination for that everyday. Their white classmates would make fun of them, and there was a distinct intention to ostracize them for being “different.” The girls at my mom’s school turned the lights off in the bathroom and locked her inside until a teacher had to come and let her out. At my uncle’s school, they would throw open ketchup packets at him during lunch. They didn’t fit the American definition of “normal.”

My mother and uncle used to be shamed for being different, and I don’t want to perpetuate that ethnic erasure by demanding a “more American” holiday. Looking back, I would never want to alter my Asian-American way of celebration to fit the standard, because it is a unique and special product of my family’s history and traditions. There’s a triumph in my family’s ability to assert a cultural presence in a fundamentally American holiday, to carve a space for ourselves and make our own narrative.