Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. I love the memories from when I was young and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered around a really long table in my grandparents’ basement for a feast. My first year in China my teammates didn’t really make Thanksgiving plans, and I didn’t get to talk to my family at the time we’d planned (thanks to a snow storm and dead battery on a cell phone, or something like that). I went to bed in tears and wished I would wake up and it would be June when I could go home. I learned an important lesson that year: Thanksgiving is important to me, and I need to have some plans to celebrate.
Those plans have changed from year to year. This year, I hosted many of the Calvin College students who are studying in Beijing for the semester to a Thanksgiving dinner in my home. It was great fun, and there were some challenges.
Seating area in my bedroom. I also made use of the balcony behind that glass door as cold storage because my refrigerator couldn’t hold anything else!
CHALLENGE 1: WHERE WILL EVERYONE SIT?
There are 19 students in the group, plus their professor and me. My apartment is about 800 square feet and the most I’d ever hosted was about 12 people. So first I thought carefully about how it might be possible to fit that many people in my apartment. I figured it was possible, but we’d be very, very cozy. It turned out a number of them had other plans and the group was 14 total. It was still pretty cozy–I set up some seating in the bedroom in addition to the living room. The food was set up on a buffet in the dining room and the drinks and appetizers were on my desk. It didn’t qualify for Pinterest level beauty, but we could be together, and that’s the important thing.
I think the dish on this table the students were most excited about was the salad. Salad isn’t common in Chinese food and the students don’t have good kitchen access, so many of them have been missing it.
CHALLENGE 2: GETTING A TURKEY
Turkey is not a normal dish in China, so you don’t just go to the supermarket and pick up a turkey. I got ours from an import grocery store, imported from the U.S. You have to order them ahead of time, so I went to the store about two weeks before I wanted to pick it up. They had one turkey in the freezer display, but they didn’t quite seem like they knew what they were doing when it came to ordering (and I couldn’t buy it yet because my freezer is not big enough to store a turkey). But they had me fill out a form with what I wanted and when. I went back to the store on the appointed day, and I wasn’t on the list. The clerk asked how big of one I’d ordered and how much I’d paid. I said I hadn’t paid anything, because the clerk I worked with hadn’t asked me. We went back and forth with me explaining (the best I could) what I had done. Eventually she said “wait a minute” and left to the back. During that time I was trying to brainstorm what I was going to say or ask if she came back and said they didn’t have a turkey for me. She had a turkey for me when she came back, so I got to walk out of the store with a turkey as planned. I think 2 weeks in advance is too early. Maybe next time I’ll hit the sweet spot between too early and too late!
I made a cheese ball, in memory of my grandma and because it sounded good to me and this was the crowd that would appreciate it–it probably wouldn’t be a popular with a group of Chinese friends who think cheese is a bit weird.
CHALLENGE 3: COOKING A FEAST IN A SMALL KITCHEN
If you read a guide to hosting Thanksgiving, it is always suggested to carefully plan how you’re going to get everything cooked. This is extra true when you have a two burner stove, a small oven, and about 4 feet of counter space. I had a detailed plan that included two crockpots, one of which I let cook in my bedroom, because that’s where there was space (and although I’ve never blown the circuit in this apartment, Thanksgiving day seemed like a bad time to start). I set up my ironing board in the kitchen to expand the counter space–the turkey had to rest somewhere and the serving bowls needed a place to sit. Although some people laughed at my detailed schedule, it was fairly effective–we got the food on the table more or less according to schedule.
Although there were challenges, they were fun to overcome. I was happy to get a chance to host and provide an opportunity for us to be thankful together!