Thanksgiving in China 2011

A Thanksgiving turkey that had been soaked for...

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Having lived in China for the past 20 years, one question I’m frequently asked is: “What about the United States do you miss most?” For my wife and me, the answer to that question is easy—the holidays. On the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or Labor Day, when everyone in the States is taking a long weekend and firing up the barbecue, it’s just another workday for us in the office.

One holiday that Carleen and I miss most is Thanksgiving. In many ways, Thanksgiving is the best of all U.S. holidays. Like Christmas, it’s all about family, but it’s not at all commercial like Christmas has become. It’s a time to be with friends and family, have some great food, relax and watch the Detroit Lions lose once again to the Green Bay Packers.

Despite this, Carleen and I have never made it back to the States for Thanksgiving over the past 20 years. Although it’s one of our favorite holidays, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is so short, that it doesn’t make sense to make the 26-hour round trip twice in two months. Given our druthers, we have always opted for being home for Christmas and New Year’s instead.

One of my most vivid memories of our early days in China is our first Thanksgiving, which we spent in the industrial city of Wuhan in the middle of the country. It was an intense period back then as we were learning about China, and we were so focused on building ASIMCO that we both tended to lose track of the holidays. Only by calling the office of one of our partners in the States the day before a long holiday weekend and finding everyone gone for the day, for example, might we realize that “Oh, it’s Labor Day weekend in the States.” For this reason, it was not unusual for me to inadvertantly schedule factory visits around the city of Wuhan on Thanksgiving Day in 1993.

As we boarded our plane in Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, only then did it dawn on Carleen and me that we were going to spend Thanksgiving in Hubei province — a depressing thought that was a bit of a downer for the entire flight. As we pulled up to our hotel, though, our mood brightened considerably. A large sign draped above the front door proclaimed: “Join Us For Thanksgiving Dinner.” Underneath, in smaller letters, it elaborated: “Turkeys Imported from the U.S.”

Encouraged by this unexpected greeting, I turned to Carleen, and in my best attempt at reassurance, said: “See, this won’t be so bad.” We didn’t waste any time making our dinner reservations, and we both looked forward to getting back to the hotel after our factory visits the next day.

Despite the hundreds of millions of ducks and chickens that are raised in China each year, turkeys have never caught on. Most Chinese have never had turkey, even though it is really not that dissimilar to chicken or duck, which are favorites here. Carleen’s theory is that the typical Chinese oven is not large enough to accommodate the much larger bird. That may be — I have never heard a better explanation. Whatever the reason, though, the fact that turkeys are not raised in China means that they have to be imported. And that is what our hotel was advertising.

During the next day’s factory visits, it was difficult to keep our minds from wandering to the turkey dinner that we were going to have that evening. You can imagine our disappointment when we arrived at the hotel restaurant, only to be told that the flight carrying the shipment of turkeys had been cancelled. Like millions of other Chinese that evening, we ate duck.

From that point on, Carleen was determined never again to miss a Thanksgiving Day celebration. Every year, we host Thanksgiving dinner for our friends at our apartment in Beijing. At first, Carleen had to order the turkey months in advance, but now many stores carry them and they are in abundant supply. The guest list has grown in size over the years so that we now cook two turkeys, and it has become somewhat of an international affair. Many of our friends in Beijing are from Europe, Australia, Japan, China or other parts of the world and have heard of Thanksgiving, but don’t really know what it means. We enjoy telling them, they enjoy hearing about it, and we all enjoy the celebration.

Later today, we will celebrate our 19th Thanksgiving in China, beginning with that first one in Wuhan. It’s been a tough year for many, but no matter the economic circumstances, we all have family and friends to be thankful. We’ll miss the kids and the grandkids back home, but Thanksgiving, whether celebrated in the United States or China, is always a good reminder of the many things we all have to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving from Beijing!

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One Response to “Thanksgiving in China 2011”

  1. Jack,

    Happy Thanksgiving from the UK (and wishing I was back in China!). My theory on the lack of turkeys in China is similar to Carleen’s. In reality most Chinese kitchens do not even have ovens, much less one big enough for a proper sized turkey!