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An Ode to an Asian American Thanksgiving

Forget the dry-ass turkey and bring on the crispy duck

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Words by Cyrena Lee

America loves the ceremony of Thanksgiving—colonialist history be damned.

But before your mind jumps to the usual cliché scenes of an autumnal harvest meal with a giant, glistening roast turkey as the table centerpiece, there’s another iteration of Thanksgiving to be celebrated. Forget the cable-knit cardigan wrapped around your shoulders, forget tossing a football around outside, forget the dry-ass white turkey meat, and forget the boring, bland mashed potatoes. Think instead of abalone, sticky rice, glass noodles with cabbage and pork, crispy duck, fish head tofu soup.

Enter the Asian American Thanksgiving.

We just stuffed our feelings and faces at the kids table while the adults’ lips got looser and louder as the bottle of Maotai got drained.

We all have a slightly different version of how this celebration manifests itself in our homes. In my family’s take, there would always be a frenetic hustle around my eldest aunt's house: the TV would be blaring, competing with eight hands rustling mahjong tiles together, the startling staccato sounds of Chinglish, and the sound of chopping coming from the kitchen. There, my aunts would be stationed at various tasks: chopping garlic and onions, rinsing vegetables, hand-mincing meat, preparing the rice, steaming live crabs. My fourth auntiedeemed the best cook out of my mother’s family of seven sisters and one brotherwould have her apron on, sleeves rolled up. Her brows would furrow in steeled determination, forehead glistening with perspiration as she deftly tossed the fiery wok over the gas stove, making dish after dish after dish until it was time to feast. We never said grace before eating; in fact, there was little in the way of conversation at all. Instead we just stuffed our feelings and faces at the kids table while the adults’ lips got looser and louder as the bottle of Maotai got drained.

Writer Cyrena Lee’s Thanksgiving plate, with noodles, shrimp, veggies and more.

Cyrena Lee

A few years back, I posted a photo of my Thanksgiving plate, overflowing with chao mi fen (stir fried rice noodles), Chinese broccoli, oily tofu-stuffed meat, wood ear mushroom, red-braised beef with turnip, sticky rice, and spicy shrimps with garlic. One Internet friend commented at the time: “Shrimp for Thanksgiving? You really ARE Chinese.”

Internally, I thanked the commenter for their sharp observational skills and pitied their obvious jealousy over my “untraditional” Thanksgiving banquet. Only later did I realize that at the first Thanksgiving 400 years ago, between the immigrant Pilgrims and the native Wampanoags, they were likely feasting on seafood from the New England shores, on mussels, clams, lobster, bass and oysters. My Asian American Thanksgiving, it seems, performs authenticity even more than the “traditional” American Thanksgiving meal.

One year, writer Cyrena Lee decided to cook sticky rice for Thanksgiving.

Cyrena Lee

Now that I live in Paris, I try my best to uphold Thanksgiving traditions—and yet my French friends are confused by the fact that this year I plan on cooking sticky rice for the day. It’s an Asian American Thanksgiving, I explained. But then I wondered, what about other Asian Americans? To find out, I surveyed my friends and acquaintances alike for their own late November memories, and was surprised to find that every Asian American Thanksgiving celebration was a different interpretation, each as diverse as the number of different Asian cuisines around the globe:

Here’s to my friend Kenny and his family, who owned a Cantonese-style Chinese restaurant in Rhode Island. When he was a kid, every Thanksgiving they would close down shop and his entire extended clan would drive to Connecticut to the Mohegan Sun Casino, where the cousins would play in the arcade and the parents would gamble. They’d eat a Chinese banquet with shark fin soup, where most of the clientele were other Rhode Island Chinese restaurant owners. “At the time, I thought, ‘Why wasn’t I at home eating dinner with my family like my white friends?’ But looking back, it was fun,” he says.

Kenny and his family, who owned a Cantonese-style Chinese restaurant in Rhode Island.

Courtesy of Cyrena Lee

Here’s to my friend Dennis’ Korean mother, who made a turkey with stuffing and all the sides, but decided to turn the conventionally dry bird on its head with a stroke of fusion genius: instead of basting a turkey with melted butter, she would instead liberally baste the turkey in bright red gochujang and red pepper flakes. Their meal was a true mash up, with mashed potatoes served alongside homemade seafood pancakes.

Thu and her band of siblings...formed “a minor rebellion” one year when their mother tried to make a turkey instead of the traditional roast duck served with soy rice.

Here’s to my friend Thu and her band of siblings who formed “a minor rebellion” one year when their mother tried to make a turkey instead of the traditional roast duck served with soy rice. They would always celebrate with a massive meal that would sometimes feature anything from a kale salad to peking duck, and always goi ga, a traditional Vietnamese cold chicken salad with cilantro, fried shallots, nuoc cham, and cabbage.

Here’s to my friend Danny, who grew up in New York City and didn’t have his first Thanksgiving until his early teens, when his aunt and uncle decided to celebrate with Chinese food. Fried rice, glass noodles with napa cabbage, roast duck, and pork belly with taro, which evolved over time to include mashed potatoes, baked pasta and even a turkey. “Such a funny thing to think about now because it's just a turkey, but to finally get one for Thanksgiving as a kid was rather exciting,” he says.

“Such a funny thing to think about now because it's just a turkey, but to finally get one for Thanksgiving as a kid was rather exciting.”

Here’s to my friend Shuk-Yee, who “doesn’t understand why people like turkey,” and her Asian family that used Thanksgiving as an excuse to gather. Her cousins, aunts and uncles lived in the same town in Vermont and would have family dinners at their own family restaurant, Orchid Buffet. Being the only Asians in the area, they would eat a separate traditional Cantonese meal with lobster, abalone, a variety of meat, and veggies, alongside mostly white customers who were served turkey and gravy along with the normal Chinese buffet fare.

Being the only Asians in the area, Shuk-Yee’s family would eat a separate traditional Cantonese meal with lobster, abalone, a variety of meat, and veggies.

Courtesy of Cyrena Lee

And finally, here’s to my friend Leigh Anne whose Texas Thanksgivings used to stress her out more than she enjoyed. Venturing back home for a Korean Thanksgiving involved three kimchis with a side of body shaming and arguments. “Our table was a 70/30 split between Korean food and American food. The thing is…I don’t even know why we made American food when we know that ALL of us will just enjoy 100% Korean more. I think my mother started doing it when I was a kid so me and my sister would fit in with the white kids at school,” she says.

“I don’t even know why we made American food when we know that ALL of us will just enjoy 100% Korean more.”

Times have changed our collective Asian American Thanksgivings; we’ve grown older, started our own families, have moved away from home, and have been ever-evolving, in palate and in the ways we live. And even though no two memories of childhood Asian American Thanksgivings are the same, there is one strong common thread: Asian parents, newly and not so recently arrived immigrants, were finding themselves in a new country and taking the opportunity to gather their families however they could, to express their love and appreciation through food in the ways they knew how. Despite the fact that some of us Asian Americans may have never felt like our Thanksgivings fit into the traditional mold, we made our own unique traditions, and will continue to do so. We melded our imported culture to the local one, which perhaps makes it the most authentic and all-American Thanksgiving.

Published on November 23, 2022

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Words by Cyrena Lee

Cyrena Lee is a writer based in Paris. Her work has been published in Epiphany Magazine, Into the Void Magazine, Whetstone, and others. She has published a non-fiction book with Sterling Publishing, A Little Bit of Lucid Dreaming and has a forthcoming YA graphic novel from FSG.