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Thanksgiving with Chinese Characteristics

Me with the Manager of the Foreign Experts Dining Room

I wanted to share a special Thanksgiving memory today.

Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, with gratitude for the fruits of the soil that have sustained us through another year. It is also a time of gratitude for the other blessings of our life,  especially the family and friends with whom we celebrate. Sometimes it is the Thanksgivings celebrated far from those we love that have a special place in our memory.

As the current news is so filled with reports from China, I could not help thinking of  our 1989 Thanksgiving in Beijing, celebrated with other Americans, and a community of Foreign Experts who lived in the Friendship Hotel. This was the year of the exuberant Beijing Spring, followed by the monstrous Tianenmen massacre.

During my tour as a ‘polisher’ or sub-editor for Women of China magazine, a common descriptive phrase in our reporting was socialism with Chinese characteristics to distinguish China’s economic system from the Soviet system.  Nowadays there might be more talk about capitalism with Chinese characteristics, but times change.

The obvious truth is that any system or ritual when shifted and practiced in a different culture will inevitably be transformed. There is no such thing as a direct translation.

A brief word about Foreign Experts and the Friendship Hotel.  The hotel, really a walled collection of buildings, apartments, meeting rooms, shops, and infirmary, much like a college campus, was built by the Soviets in the 1950’s when they sent hundreds of Foreign Experts to Beijing to help build the New China.

By the time we arrived the Foreign Expert system was on the wane and most of the Hotel residents were Japanese businessmen and their families, but still there were professors and journalists from the US and Europe who took up residence in small hotel apartments. The apartments included a western bathroom, and a Chinese kitchen that included a two burner propane stove, a small refrigerator (which not many Chinese would own at that time) a sink and a small cabinet for dishes, pots and groceries.

The kitchen equipment was so minimal that most of us Foreign Experts didn’t cook very much. We joined each other for lunch in the Foreign Experts Dining Room where we enjoyed a limited menu and discounted prices, good Chinese beer, and endless conversations about what all the confusing events of that historic year meant to the Chinese and to the world.

In the evenings we often went out for Uigher noodles near-by,

For most of the year this was more than adequate and we enjoyed many wonderful meals while we made friends with people from all over the world. However, as Thanksgiving loomed,  something more was demanded.

Henry and I discovered an indoor market not far from the Hotel. We wandered through the big space while vendors caught and held out fish dripping and flapping for our inspection. We looked at vegetables, half of which we recognized. We laughed at the caged chickens that clucked and crowed, but we knew this was not where we would get our Thanksgiving feast.

First off, there was no turkey in sight, but it wouldn’t matter because traditional Chinese cuisine does not call for an oven. No bread, cakes, roasts, or roasted turkey.

Then we heard the Friendship Hotel could cater to its foreign guests and their native celebrations. We could order a roasted turkey, with gravy, to be delivered to our apartment for a festive meal!

We ordered the turkey from the Foreign Experts Dining Room, and  requested extra chairs and tables from the fuyuans, service people who took care of our building, and sent out our invitations. We were almost ready.

Kari Huus and me in Beijing 1989

Kari Huus was a new American friend. We managed to snag a portable electric oven, the size of a small microwave,  that made the rounds of the Foreign Experts. I don’t even know who owned it, but we claimed it and spent an afternoon making a rectangular apple pie. No pie plates in Beijing.

There were lots of apples in the open air market across the street from the hotel where we bought our vegetables, eggs and peanuts, and flour from the state store. Beijing is in the north of China where wheat is as common as rice is in the south. The Chinese don’t traditionally have baked bread, but they do have various kinds of steamed buns, jiaozi, the classic stuffed dumplings, long noodles and pinched noodles so flour is a common necessity.

Butter was not common nor a necessity. We had to buy Danish butter from the Friendship Store in the center of the city, but butter, flour, common cinnamon and apples are all it takes to make an American apple pie. And a circulating oven.

On Thanksgiving ten guests showed up breathlessly at our fourth floor apartment, American, Canadian. Swiss, British and German, each carrying a dish to share. Some brought sweet potatoes (a common street food in Beijing), already roasted in 50 gallon drums,. Others brought vegetables, extra plates (we were all transients in Beijing and no one had service for 12), bottles of beer, and some precious coffee for after dinner.

As we all sat down to a transformed ritual meal, what did we celebrate? For me, it was a celebration of laughter, miraculous new friendships that endure, and new understanding of a world more dangerous and complex than I had ever imagined.

Between the Rows  November 20, 2010

5 comments to Thanksgiving with Chinese Characteristics

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    I am glad you shared this marvelous memory. It highlights some of the many things to be thankful for that we take for granted. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Thank you for sharing that experience. A great read and a reminder to be grateful for the unlimited comforts that we have in this country. I hope this Thanksgiving provided you with the warmth of family.

  • Pat

    Lisa – There is nothing like being away from one’s usual comforts to make one aware of blessings taken for granted.
    Layanee – we were blessed with lots! of family this Thanksgiving, and hope you enjoyed the same delight.

  • BJ Roche

    Wow, Pat! In the WAYBACK machine!

  • Pat

    BJ – Getting out those pix made me misty! You’d love Kari!

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