Thanksgiving is not a holiday in China (or anywhere outside North America). Thursday was just another work day. That said, a lot of my friends posted Thanksgiving things on social media and I also saw Thanksgiving sales online. I think that sometimes, Chinese Christians think that Thanksgiving is a church holiday that they are supposed to adopt, when it is really an American cultural holiday. And marketers in China will use anything for a sale. There are probably also some Black Friday sales, despite the fact that the worlds biggest online shopping day was a scant 2 1/2 weeks ago. But most people don’t do anything else to celebrate. The Mid-Autumn festival is a Chinese holiday where people try to return home and then the big winter holiday is Spring Festival/Chinese New Year.
So how do you celebrate an important American holiday when you live in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? In Beijing, you actually have lots of options—you can ignore it, go out to an expensive Western restaurant, or make your own feast with friends and any family you have here in Beijing. I was part of a make your own feast with my friend who directs Calvin College’s semester in China program, the Calvin students, and a couple Chinese friends.
To start, I had to get to Wayne’s house, which is on the opposite side of Beijing from me. I was bringing more food than I wanted to drag on the subway, so I decided to take a taxi. This turned out to be more of a hassle than it should have been. I had trouble flagging one down, which is unusual in my neighborhood. Then, the traffic was horrible. It was sort of stop and go most of the way there, and it took me about 2 hours to get there when it should have been 45 minutes—1 hour. On the taxi ride home, the taxi driver said that there are some international meetings and the main east-west road that goes between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City has strict controls on it, and somehow that makes all the rest of the traffic in the city horrible. This sort of traffic happens in Beijing, and there’s nothing much you can do about it.
But I did finally arrive. This group of students is really fun! I brought veggies and dip to snack on in the afternoon, and they made a dramatic “oohhh” when I brought them out. They were also excited about the chocolate turkeys my mom sent from the U.S. that I put at each place setting. For me, it reminded me of when I was a kid and one of our traditions was that my mom and sisters would work with my grandma to make something for the place setting every year, like apple turkeys or paper pilgrims. Since these turkeys came from the Holland Peanut Store, they carried almost as much nostalgia.
We had a pretty traditional dinner, including turkey. Turkey is not a common food in China, so you don’t just go to the grocery store and buy it. Actually, some Chinese people are surprised that you can buy turkey in China. You have to go to a store that specializes in imported foods and order and pay for it ahead of time. Wayne took care of this for us, and their oven is big enough to roast a turkey. I haven’t tried a turkey in mine—I think it is big enough, but there would not be much extra space.
This was my plate of Thanksgiving goodness—turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, green beans, carrots, and bread. There was also cranberry sauce, but I forgot to get it out of the refrigerator until after I took the picture. Cranberries are another item that you have to know where to look to buy, although I do see dried cranberries in Chinese supermarkets sometimes.
And for dessert, we had pie. I made apple and pumpkin. This is not the prettiest pie I have ever made, but it did taste good. The students were also really excited about the pie. It is really fun to cook for such enthusiastic people.
Pumpkin pie from scratch, including making my own pumpkin puree because I am too cheap to buy the imported cans. One can is about $5USD and I cooked 2 pumpkins to get the equivalent of 4 cans for $2USD. Cooking western food in China teaches you to be resourceful, not to depend on boxes or cans, and how to substitute one item for another.
Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t just about the food—it is also about the people. These are some of the Calvin students and two local friends who were excited to celebrate with us. They enjoyed the turkey, although they were expecting to see it whole on the table like in the photos, but it was already carved when they arrived. One also asked where the head was, because in China chickens are sold, cooked, and served with the head.
I am thankful this year for friends! “Give thanks to [the LORD] and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever” (Psalm 100:4-5).