Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks in China

(Just an aside: I have a degree in history. I know about the extremely inaccurate cultural narrative surrounding Thanksgiving. All I'm examining here today is a modern day expectation of Thanksgiving).

Today, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving abroad. Even in a city as massive and global as Shanghai, celebrating Thanksgiving felt like a small bastion of normalcy against the chaos I encounter every time I walk outside. It seems we are not alone in this feeling. NPR recently ran a series of stories on Thanksgiving as part of their Project Xpat series. Writers from Seoul, Chile, and everywhere in between chimed in on their Thanksgiving celebrations. Some had a traditional meal, while others turned to local cuisine. Some ate with fellow expatriates from across the globe, some with local friends, and some ate alone. Yet all the expatriates seemed united in one aspect: a deeper appreciation for what matters, and all they had to be thankful for.

Living abroad long term distills your thoughts to your most ingrained emotions and cultural instincts. Sometimes just purchasing lunch can seem like an uphill struggle. You draw comfort from what sources you can, and do your best to roll with punches when there is no comfort to be found. Some days are an adventure, some days are hell. Every day is intense.

Putting yourself in a situation where everything is new and nothing is certain is eye-opening and thought provoking. You discover things about yourself, and others. Combine that with a holiday like Thanksgiving, and you have the makings of something like Americans imagine Thanksgiving should be.

Our Thanksgiving day was simple. The Man (my fiance, travel buddy, and partner in crime) went to class until 5:30 in the evening. I did some dishes and read a little. The day was the coldest we've had, coming in around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

We have been looking forward to this day all week. The import grocery store offered delivery Thanksgiving dinner, but the outrageous prices meant we just ordered the pies. A turkey on its own was $140USD. We decided pan fried Spam was a delicious choice.

We began to cook in our little galley kitchen, where the heater does not reach, and we can barely get around each other to work. Our menu was close enough to traditional that we were giddy. Spam, mashed potatoes, green beans, dressing, cranberry sauce, and rolls. Immediately we encounter an issue. We have no can opener. We can't access half the food we bought.

The Man goes to three different stores looking for a can opener. All he can find is a bottle opener, and the cheap plastic snaps almost instantly. After some innovative Googling thinking,  the Man finagles the cans open with a hammer, a screw driver and some pliers. Dinner goes on!

We are lucky to have the import grocery store nearby. It is actually cheaper to shop there than at the "local" grocery store on our corner. One quirk of this supermarket, however, is their propensity for covering up all English language cooking instructions with a label of the nutrition facts in Chinese. No matter how large the object, or how much blank space it has on the packaging, the label WILL go on the cooking instructions.

While I struggle to peel off a label, I realize I have no measuring cups anyway. Reasoning that I can hardly mess up dehydrated boxed food that much, I pour some water out, set it to boiling and stumble through cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner. In the process I remember we don't have butter or salt either.

Despite all this, we pull off a decent dinner. In fact, the dishes are not much different from the dinners of our families... ignoring that none of it was done from scratch. When the only appliances in your kitchen are a rice cooker and a gas range, there is not much room for creativity.

We eat our dinner in our bedroom, on a table made out of an ancient wicker and wood door. The heater warms this room, at least.

It is the most delicious meal I've had in months.

This Thanksgiving I am poignantly thankful. I have found a piece of home in cans and boxes of dehydrated foods. I am fortunate to be on this wild adventure with my life partner. I have the power, through technology, to see my parents' and my brother's faces, hear their voices, and speak with them in real time. I am thankful for this bizarre, wonderful, interesting life I lead. I am thankful to China for reminding me what it means to feel grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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