For reference, I am Chinese. Growing up in South Florida, many of my friends often referred to me as a “banana”- yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. Upon meeting me, it’s obvious I’m Asian; however, my Cantonese is lousy and I have an unhealthy relationship with pizza and hot wings. Despite my very Chinese parents, I’m guessing this has to do with me being born and raised in the U.S.
Every Thanksgiving when my friends and neighbors scattered off to their dining tables, most had signature pies, green bean casseroles, sweet candied yams, and of course, a traditional golden, brown turkey from the oven. Friends and family would all sit around a table, laughing and boasting about how creamy the mashed potatoes were.
My Thanksgiving pasts?
Heaping bowls of rice, fungus resembling hair with mushrooms, clear noodles, and of course a traditional chicken. Boiled, sliced, with it’s head staring back at me from the platter. Oh, and soy sauce, plenty of soy sauce for dipping. My family that hovered around a folding table in the middle of a living room comprised of at least a dozen elderly relatives. My mom, brother and I were the only ones under the age of 60 (my father worked Thanksgiving Day).
Sitting in a living room crammed full of older Chinese relatives yammering in Cantonese was not exactly fun for a little girl. Not that the food wasn’t delicious. I just didn’t have much to do. I’d sit and watch everyone scoop rice and try my best to answer if anyone spoke to me in Cantonese. Among the clamoring of chopsticks and conversation, I'd often brake free to sit on their matted, green shag rug to watch a football game on the wooden console TV. My mind would wander off, wondering how sweet yams tasted with a touch of brown sugar and tiny marshmallows on top. Or what was a “casserole” exactly? And did people actually cook stuffing inside of a turkey?
I never knew these things.
When I moved out of Florida, I left to become a travel nurse. Deep within my 3 suitcases, I had a pair of chopsticks and a single noodle bowl I moved with every 12 weeks. I’m not sure why I packed them, but I did. Perhaps it was the solitude of being alone, or the lack of decent Chinese food where ever I traveled. But over time, I found myself yearning for the smells, flavors, and linguistic chaos of those holiday gatherings. I began collecting soy sauce packets from my take-out orders. I’d cook myself a pot of rice, turn over the lid to watch the steam rise, and drizzle soy sauce over the puffed grains to catch the smell of it sizzling along the bottom of the pan.
In recent years, my husband (not Asian) and I have had our own traditional Thanksgiving meals. We’ve spent hours thawing and cooking a turkey. I’ve slaved over piecrusts, fillings, and every type of potato.
Oddly enough though, I've never been able to shake the feeling that something is missing.
Of all the family who sat around that folding table 20 plus years ago, only a few of them remain. Most of them have passed. And sadly, I never had a chance to really communicate with them well. Nevertheless, the memories of their chopsticks insisting food onto my plate, the shuffling Mahjong pieces, and all of their warm smiles will stay with me forever.
It is these memories that surface every year on this holiday; moments that have shaped my own meaning of Thanksgiving; recollections that continue to strengthen my roots.
I can only hope to provide my daughter with her own memories of Thanksgiving. Perhaps she can be my little “egg,” white on the outside, and a little yellow on the inside. Maybe starting this year, with some turkey, stuffing, and perhaps a little rice and soy sauce on the side.
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