American holidays often take on a new significance when they are observed in another country. Perhaps they are more meaningful in light of the fact that we have to intentionally set aside time to celebrate them; when it’s not a local holiday, we work harder to make it special.
Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday growing up—is especially unique for us in Hong Kong. Because it falls on a weekday, I inevitably work all day, almost forgetting that it’s a holiday. This year, as in most years, I gathered on Friday evening with a group of church members in a large flat belonging to one family. This potluck Thanksgiving feast is populated by a variety of individuals from, literally, all over the world.
One couple always cooks a giant turkey, which is typically the only traditional Thanksgiving dish on the table. Other offerings this year included Japanese sushi, Vietnamese and Filipino spring rolls, Indian curry, skewers of meat that look Middle Eastern, British-style Brussels sprouts, Mexican enchilada casserole, and—of course—a large bowl of steaming white rice. As I sat in a crowded corner of the living room, my plate perched precariously on my lap, I tried to eat by country groups in an attempt to make some gastronomic sense of what was on my plate. Green beans and a bite of turkey, then two spring rolls from various regions, followed by a morsel of rice and beef satay. I left with a stomach that felt full, though a bit confused.
For me, the real Thanksgiving feast comes on Saturday afternoon, as I join a smaller group of friends to prepare a more traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Actually, the work for this meal begins in the weeks and months prior to November. A turkey is difficult to locate in this city—not to mention outrageously expensive!—and requires some planning. A number of Western supermarkets cater to American and European expats, and thankfully these stores stock up on holiday products in the fall. Usually, we are able to purchase canned turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, packaged stuffing mixes, olives, pickles and other side-dishes. Candied yams are more difficult to come by, and are especially treasured upon discovery. (Note: the local stringy, purple sweet potatoes do not make a pleasant substitute for the sugary canned variety.)
Emails and text messages fly amongst us during the early part of November: “I found cornbread dressing!” or “Has anyone seen canned pumpkin lately?” The concept of expiration dates is tossed aside—we’ve stockpiled our special foods for this occasion, and, by golly, we’ll eat them no matter what. A packet of ranch dip seasoning that expired in 2007? Oh well. It’s worth the risk.
One year, the stores sold out of shortening days before Thanksgiving; for weeks, we all searched the land, in vain, for a can of Crisco. We shared what we had on hand, and discussed various substitution possibilities as pie-making season was upon us. Then we began to hoard the remaining cupfuls, treating them as valuable commodities, never squandering them in sub-par baking. A full year passed before shortening became available in Hong Kong again, during which I gained a newfound respect and appreciation for homemade pastry items.
On Thanksgiving, it’s usually my job to provide homemade rolls and the French-fried onions for the green bean casserole—the onions having been previously shipped to me (or, if I’m lucky, found locally), and carefully stowed away in the back of my closet for safekeeping. I’ve often wondered… if a fire broke out in my flat and I could only grab three items before fleeing, would I be able to get to the fried onions in time?
Upon gathering for the meal at my friend’s flat, we pretend it’s lunchtime on the fourth Thursday of November in Anytown, USA. The television is turned on—sometimes playing an old copy of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (the particular year that that parade took place doesn’t matter), or a pre-recorded football game. (Darn those Cowboys—they lost again!) The toaster ovens are in full use as the turkey and pies are cooked; the stuffing is warmed on the stove; casseroles are assembled, mashed potatoes whipped, and relish trays set out on the table. Kitchens in Hong Kong are typically quite compact, making the preparations a challenge. Nonetheless, my friend does a wonderful job of readying the feast, and we all enjoy recounting past family traditions and memories as our mouths water in anticipation.
At last, we gather around the loaded table, offer gratitude to our Lord, and dive in, heaping our plates with the delicacies. More people are in attendance than can fit around a standard Hong Kong dining table, so we sprawl out on furniture and chairs, or on the floor—as long as we can easily indulge in the delicious homemade dishes that have been absent from our palates for the past twelve months. Often, we invite non-American friends to share in our joyous eating, and it’s common for us to explain various customs and cultural practices associated with this holiday. One year, in order to celebrate our heritage, we challenged one another to a game of “write down all 50 states as fast as you can”; I was particularly humiliated to lose out to a Brit.
The evening comes to an end with pecan and pumpkin pies, atop of which sit mounds of soft vanilla ice cream or whipped topping. It’s not a true American holiday until someone points the spray can of whipped cream into their mouth and fills up on the airy, sugary substance, amid cries of “Eeeeww” and “You’re making a mess!”
We bid one another farewell, head to the MTR, and face another normal Hong Kong crowd with Cantonese ringing in our ears and people shuffling to and from work as though it’s an average day. No Black Friday sales to line up for, no leftover turkey sandwiches (we ate it all!), and no weekend football games to watch on television later. And yet, we have observed one of my favorite American holidays with a particularly grateful spirit—after all, those carefully-rationed fried onions may not be eaten again for another year!