We are all counting down to Thanksgiving and recognize that in 2020 the celebration of this holiday will be different because of the pandemic. Some family members may be absent this year from the dining table because of various reasons related to COVID-19. In my mind’s eye, I see the dining table that is immortalized in the iconic painting, “Freedom from Want,” by famous American artist Norman Rockwell. This table is covered with all the food that the family has gathered together to enjoy.
The table that Rockwell painted is rectangular. Perhaps the table that your Chinese-American family gathered around was a round one, with a Lazy Susan in the middle. There is much symbolism in the Chinese culture related to the round shape of a table and the family gathering around it. After all, the Chinese word for “reunion” is “團圓”.
During my childhood, our family did not have a round table in our dining room. Now years later after having been seated for meals at a round table, I appreciate the shape of the table providing access to all dishes without having to ask that a favorite dish be passed down to me!
I think all 1.5-generation immigrants like me have memories of favorite Chinese dishes showing up during our Thanksgiving meal along with the turkey. Speaking of turkey, did your Mother make the stuffing with a Chinese twist?! Our Mom put chopped Chinese water chestnuts in her stuffing despite our complaints to have just regular “American” stuffing!
As immigrants, we all also have memories of being invited to the homes of our friends for a true “American” Thanksgiving. I vividly recall a time when we were invited to the home of our Father’s colleague for a Thanksgiving meal. They had placed little bowls of nuts around the living room to snack on before the meal. That was the first time we kids had ever tasted macadamia nuts! We ate up all of those nuts despite the glares from Mom to behave. Many years later when I had a chance to study in Hawai’i, I brought home some cans of macadamia nuts for Daddy to give to his colleague with thanks for such a wonderful memory.
I also recall how our immigrant family was truly bewildered the first time we were ever invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. The hostess was an older friend who had set a beautiful table with her best china, crystal and silverware. The sheer number of forks, spoons and knives was confusing to our entire family who were used to that one pair of chopsticks! The hostess, noticing my hesitation, quietly said, “Just work your way from the outside in; use the salad fork first.” Now, whenever I set my table for my guests that small but significant memory comes back to me each time.
Since childhood, I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving a few times away from family – one year, a potluck meal with dishes cooked by immigrant friends from all over the world; another time, enjoying turkey cooked by other American students studying Chinese in Taipei. Regardless of who is gathered around the table, regardless of what dishes are on the table, each Thanksgiving provides all of us with an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on what we are grateful for that year. This year will be no different.