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  • Jenny

Thanksgiving Then and Now.

I recently re-read a short essay I wrote in high school. I had titled it "An Asian Thanksgiving."

Thanksgiving then, over a decade ago:

Hand-made veggie dumplings, mapo tofu, spicy chicken, steamed meat-filled buns—Chinese dishes are sprawled on the kitchen island. Platters of brownies, cheesecakes, cookies and fruit envelope the outer counters. Right in the middle of it all, in the heart of that island, is a bulky, semi-dry…turkey? And next to it, a pathetic bowl of nearly tasteless mashed potatoes with no accompanying gravy, along with a pumpkin pie, plastic-packaged and labeled with a slapped-on, bright orange “Kroger” sticker (brought by the truly “rebellious” guests).

Our Thanksgivings: black hair and loud laughter. Small kids run around and scream; adults discuss Bible passages and sing hymns in a circle; pre-teens and teens sit around a TV to watch the most recent new release movies. We mentally prepare for a late night where we can feel somewhat “cool” for staying past midnight at a “party”. I am content, next to my two best friends. I look across the room and see Lizzy, my best friend’s older sister—intelligent, studious, and envied in the Asian community—reading a book the thickness of my Biology textbook. I catch grandmothers smiling at each other, sometimes awkwardly, when they do not always fully understand each others’ regional dialects. 

“Hey! Kids! Time to eat!” a mother shouts.

We no longer notice her strong Chinese accent. We do not even reply—instead, we gripe momentarily about having to pause Hairspray. It is time for an always-longer-than-necessary prayer, and finally feasting. I get up and look around…numerous Chinese, Taiwanese, American dishes. I even spot Costco brand, oven-popped quesadillas, and a hefty bowl of “authentic” Italian noodles, lightly showered with a questionable tomato sauce. My face illuminates with anticipation.

            A couple years ago, I wanted a turkey, even maybe a ham, some stuffing, high-class mashed potatoes, un-fried American vegetables, and above all, normalcy. I felt that there was no way I could be popular if I had this bizarre background, this kind of Thanksgiving dinner with ten other families.

            I circle the island twice, stacking my Styrofoam plate with as many delicacies as it will allow. I shoot a look across the living room to find where friends situated themselves.

Now I spend my time with these people: noisy mothers, ping-pong competing fathers, rowdy children, closest friends. These are the people that we care about most—the ones that help us, the ones we help.

Thanksgiving now, 2023:

What I didn't know then was I would spend Thanksgiving from 2010 onward the "traditional way." I would, through my (then boyfriend, now) husband's family, experience a Thanksgiving with all the "normal" dishes. Finally. Re-reading the essay is a heartache for my younger, teenage self yearning for normalcy, embarrased by my culture, all while trying to suppress childhood trauma and confusion and pain. Even my high school self writing the essay seemed to be justifying this atypical Thanksgiving I grew up with. A celebration of my Asian culture, yes, but not without craving acceptance.

As the years go by, I've learned that normalcy is relative. It's relative to what we know and have lived, and what our expectations are. Normal now... is having traditional Thanksgiving food while trying to hold it all together. It's trying to undo the diet culture we grew up with in the early 2000s and the mental battle all day of "can I simply enjoy this food without needing to compensate with a work out or restricting the next day?" It's finding coping mechanisms to reduce deep-rooted anxiety and mitigate panic attacks. It's enjoying wine and playing with the sweetest nephews and maybe having one glass too many when conversations and memories shift toward the darkness I've experienced. It's laughing and eating and watching Zach make his Instagram ice cream cake (which has decidedly become an annual tradition), yet having a relatively short fuse and inevitable mood swings.

This is Thanksgiving now. Grateful for those in my life and intense grief for the things and people I've lost. It is a yearly appointment with food and loved ones my two favorite experiences, but intensified with anxious emotion. I now finally eat "normal" Thanksgiving food, and now also have a level of freedom from the expectations I once held. Yet, it is an annual reminder of what I have and quite obviously don't have in this life.

I'm reminded that food is not the community, but instead one of the best facilitators of community. It doesn't matter what's on the table... real or microwave mashed potatoes. It is the people and emotion around the table that compose our journey and how we experience it. And I'm so incredibly grateful for the people around my table.

For those of you who undergo the most pain and grief and sadness around the holidays, I feel for you wholeheartedly. We will get through this season together.


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