Different Families, Different Traditions

Chinese Family Adds Turkey to Thanksgiving Feast…

Article and photos by Nicole Tan

The only time my family ever sat together for dinner was Thursday nights. Thursdays were, and always have been, the only day my father, who worked as a cook, was off from work. He would pick me up from school and ask me what I wanted for dinner. Regardless of what I would say, he would then take a detour with me to the grocery store a street from our home and buy either a paper bag of blue crabs or a pound of sea snails. He’d cook them up with ginger, scallions, and garlic while my siblings and I did our homework in the kitchen. My mother, who worked as a seamstress, would come home to dinner with strands of loose threads on her clothes and smelling like machine grease and sit with us. There was togetherness, but none of us spoke, drank, or got up from the table until we finished eating. They were old rules that stemmed from my parents’ own strict upbringing.

These old rules came to my mind again this Thanksgiving. My father, like always, was home and standing over the stove and oven. It was shrimp this time, not crab or snails. My toddler cousin was quacking to the tune of “The Five Little Ducklings” while his older brother circled the dinner table, waiting for the food. We shouted over the table, drinking juice, soda, and wine.

Thursday dinners for the Tan family often consisted of shrimp, crab or sea snails.

It was a Thursday like any other; yet, it was different. Before the dinner preparations were over, there would be a turkey. And, most importantly, there were the cousins.

As someone born into an immigrant Chinese family, Thanksgiving was an “American” thing. When I was younger, I asked my mother, after learning about the pilgrim’s Thanksgiving in school, if we were going to have a turkey. My kindergarten teacher had impressed on me that as immigrants, my family was like the pilgrims.

“No,” my mother responded, “it’s too expensive.” Her words were layered with meaning. At that time, we didn’t have the extra money to buy a turkey, nor did we have the money to spend on the extra gas to cook it. In retrospect, my mother probably did not even know how to use the oven.

The Thanksgiving turkey on the Tan family table was flanked by traditional roast duck and pork ribs

Something about what I said must have left an impression on my mother. We still didn’t have turkey on that Thanksgiving, years ago. But every Thanksgiving after that was just a little bit more special than other Thursday dinners. Our table never reached the level of the “American Thanksgiving” that I saw on television and picture books, but we would have dishes that my parents and grandmother would buy from a Chinese restaurant: char siu—honeyed roast pork, fatty roast duck, and sugar glazed pork ribs that always got stuck between my teeth.

All my Thanksgivings were like that until my mother’s family emmigrated to the U.S. Her younger brothers and sister brought their family onto soil that had already been loosened by my family’s efforts of assimilation. Together, our families were able to purchase a three-story communal house. We live together and help each other.

My little cousins, born of the same generation but more than ten years younger, view Thanksgiving differently than I did when I was their age. They start to bounce on their toes when the holiday comes around and they know they will have a turkey. In fact, this Thanksgiving we had two turkeys. There was a slight miscommunication between my cousin’s mother and my father, and we ended up with one turkey from a Chinese restaurant and one from the oven.

Both turkeys took up practically all the space on the dinner table. There was also roast duck and those pesky pork ribs, which I can no longer eat because I’m now wearing braces.

Thanksgiving always presented itself to me as a holiday for families to get together, share a dinner table, and appreciate what they have. To me, our Thanksgivings were never quite like that because those were always just our usual Thursday night dinners. I’ve now discovered Thanksgiving is just a little bit more special with turkey.

…A Young Mother Remembers Bygone Holidays

Article by Lorna Andino

The aroma of turkey, pernil (pork shoulder), rice and beans, lasagna, pastelon (a Puerto Rican-style lasagna made with plantains), homemade cheesecake and the family favorite, flan, wafts through the air, lingering in the living room where some of the family, young and old, are gathered. Music from salsa greats, such as Celia Cruz, La India and Marc Anthony, plays in the background; my aunt and uncle dance. Suddenly, the Latin vibe is interrupted by some rapper with his hardcore repetition of “I’m with the gang, gang, gang;” the teenagers have just taken over the music.

Other cousins reminisce about past Christmases while watching homemade videos of holidays past–a family tradition. Meanwhile, the aunts and grandmothers sit in the kitchen, watching over the food as it cooks, exchanging gossip mixed with a dash of “now add the sazon and the adobo.”

I still savor the smells and the laughter of those happier days.

My grandmother has been gone for almost 15 years. Two of my aunts have passed away since that last memorable Thanksgiving almost 12 years ago. Thanksgiving has been slowly diminished for the rest of my family. The most recent heart break was the sudden passing of my younger cousin, Joelle, a few months ago.

This year for the holidays, my mom and I prepared simple dishes like mac n cheese, potato salad and rice and beans the night before. I turned on the music and played some of those good old salsa tunes. “Aguanileeeeeeee,” Hector Lavoe sings his classic out loud. I see a sparkle in my mom’s eyes as she smirks at my attempt to bring back some of the spirit of what used to be one of the best days of the year. Taking a moment away from the cooking, I grab her hand and give a little two step, forcing her to follow my lead. My two daughters come into the kitchen and mimic us dancing. We all laugh.

The next day, we packed the food and drove down to Brooklyn. Thanksgiving, this year, was held at my brother’s small one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. The once-grand feasts we held with extended family have become small dinners with a few family friends. The grandeur of the holiday is now gone; but the image of my two little girls in the kitchen with my mom and me the night before is a reminder that for those who are still present, we can continue to make great memories.

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