An immigrant Thanksgiving

Growing up with the stigma of a turkey-averse people

Published November 26, 2009 1:02AM (EST)

I’d suffered so many indignities already, being the child of Chinese immigrants. Weird fried rice instead of pizza at my birthday parties. Piano lessons every weekend, like some cliché out of "The Joy Luck Club." Fine. But why, Mom? Why can’t we have turkey for Thanksgiving?

I fought that fight for years, pouting and stomping and crying. But if there are two things I can say about my family, it’s that they love food, and that they are bloodlessly pragmatic. "So what if everyone else eats turkey?" she would say. "It doesn’t taste good. It’s so dry."

"Because this is a holiday, Mom. This is what we’re supposed to do!" I would shriek, every word hot with the disappointment of a child whose parents never lost their accents, never taught us the rules of baseball, never gathered us around to play board games like the other parents did on TV.

One year, right after what my aunt called White Kids' Day, when all the white kids come to your house looking for candy, I geared up again. At school I was making construction paper cornucopias and drawing turkeys out of the outlines of my pudgy hands, smiling at pilgrims with impossibly large hats. My turkeys were always smiling at the pilgrims.

It had been a good year. My parents' business was doing well. They even bought a summer condo in Florida -- two beds, pool, near the beach, easy access to the choicest retirement communities -- though they ended up working so much through the summer we never went. "Good news!" my mother said one night, coming home from work. She was beaming. "We’re going to Florida for Thanksgiving!" I didn’t even get a chance to fire my turkey salvo. I sank. "It’s cold now. People go to Florida in the summer," I said.

We flew on Thanksgiving day, because it was cheapest. My parents, ever scared, terrified that we would miss a flight, always insisted on getting to airports half a day early. And so we sat in the gate, our bags stinking with Chinese food we just had to bring, just in case there would be no Chinese food in Florida. We sat through the throngs of people flying to their real Thanksgivings in the morning, then thinner and thinner crowds, until it was dark, and finally time for us to board.

I fell asleep. I slept through the flight, I slept through the car rental, I slept through the drive. My father gently nudged me awake. "Jai Jai," he called me, meaning Little Son. "We’re here," he said. My brother and I helped him with our bags, and when we got out of the garage I noticed the air. It smelled good. It never smelled this good in New Jersey. And I heard the ocean, sounding like the highway out behind my cousin’s house, but nicer, quieter.

My mother was cleaning already by the time we got to the door of our apartment, really working that broom, sweeping away colonies of dead bugs. South Florida fauna is no joke. It’s like we were vacationing in Biosphere 2. There were bugs on the floor, bugs in the sink, bugs folded up in the towels. My mother is horrified by bugs, but there she was, dealing with them happily and soaking the sinks in Dettol. "Go see the balcony!" she said to me. "You can see the ocean and the pool!"

I stood outside, smelling that air again, suddenly realizing how warm it was on my skin. I looked at the ocean, enormous and dark, and at the little blue pool underneath me, glowing. I imagined swimming in it, and started tapping my toes on the floor.

"Jai Jai!" my father called. "Come eat."

We sat, under the single functioning light bulb, and right away I frowned as my mother brought out bowls of rice, some of the food from home, and a plate of vegetables she stir-fried with Spam, though I did like Spam. So this was our Thanksgiving dinner.

But then she did something strange. She opened the oven. She never used the oven. She took out a foil tray. "What’s that?" I asked.

"I went and got this for you, and brought it with us on the airplane," she said, walking toward the table. "It’s your favorite."

She set the tray down. Printed on the paper lid I could see heavy black letters under a red roof. "Pizza Hut!" I squealed. She peeled back the lid. "Spaghetti and meatballs!" I jumped out of my chair and wrapped my fat little arms around her. My father smiled, chewing on his Spam.

"Thank you, Mom!" I said. "Thank you!" And we ate our dinner. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

MORE FROM Francis Lam

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Immigration Thanksgiving