I was not looking forward to this Thanksgiving, like at all.
Not because I don’t like the holiday (I truly believe its the most underrated of the holidays. It has the festive cozy feeling of Christmas without the added pressure, plus it's mostly about food, so what’s not to like?), but actually because its normally so important to me.
Because, how do I put this without dissuading everyone who reads this from ever traveling to the east—China kind of has a way of ruining things for you that you used to love back home. It's not that China is bad, just that things are so different here if you try to recreate or recapture moments you will fail, or at least fall short. Everything is a little bit (or completely) different i.e. road laws, etiquette, toilets. The more you accept this, and the happier you will be. You learn to appreciate the little reminders of home, a lot. For instance, I was at kind of market owned by a woman who’s kind of legendary in the city for supplying ex-pats with foreign comforts (She’s called the “Avocado Lady” due to she was one of the first people to bring that produce to the city—avocados have to be just about the least Chinese food there is) and I saw in her fridge stocked with a truly impressive variety of foreign cheeses—there honest to God, real Philadelphia Cream Cheese. I am not exaggerating here, I got kind of choked up. Its not that bagels and schmear are or ever were that important to me, but in that moment that tub of saturated milk fat was the epitome of everything western that has been missing from my life.
This has happened with other random instances in the past month. In a McDonald’s, in the airport of Chengdu, Jingle bell rock started playing and it was like being run over by a semi truck of nostalgia. In the typically healthy way of dealing with problems, I’ve been doing my best to shove any kind of homesickness and nostalgia (particularly regarding the holidays) deep, deep down so I don’t have to deal with it. So far this strategy has been pretty effective, but then every once a while my love of Christmas cheer comes crashing through to me like some kind insane holiday Kool-aid man filled with eggnog and then out of nowhere I’m struggling to not start blubbering about ornaments and cookies just because I saw some twinkle lights in a bar.
So this time of year when by now I am usually fully committed to cutting out snowflakes and pinning frosting recipes on pinterest, I have kind of been avoiding. Based off what my Halloween was like (going to bed at 7pm in a youth hostel on top of a freezing mountain) my expectations for the holidays were at an all time low. However maybe due to just how little I was expecting, Thanksgiving was actually a pleasant surprise. The program was nice enough supply a couple of staples like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, but for the rest they asked the students to bring dishes that were special to them. I was originally only making this Italian focaccia bread my family has every year, but my roommate was the one in charge of the dinner and it was clear there was a lot more that needed doing. By the time it was dinner three of us had made two kinds of roasted vegetables, creamed corn, baked macaroni and cheese, salad, and fresh bread in a tiny-tiny kitchen with one oven that you have to light with a match.
But when meal time finally rolled around we were feeling pretty damn pleased with ourselves. And while everyone was sitting around the tables together, eating mashed potatoes with chopsticks because we ran out of forks, it felt special. Maybe not the same atmosphere as I’m used to from back home, but still important. I did miss things that I’ve now come to expect from thanksgiving, like getting to do a running snarky commentary on the Macy’s parade with my sister, taking a walk around the neighborhood with my mom while we wait for the cinnamon rolls to rise and sharing an extremely modestly portioned glass of wine with my dad after dinner. But those memories have more to do with the people I was with than the occasion itself. And those people will still be there when I come back, but for the time being I need to appreciate the new experiences that come from being here. Almost a whole semester has passed, and it’s becoming increasingly clear how fleeting my time in Asia is. There will be more arguments with my siblings over who sits where in the future, but I know that this experience right now is something I will never be able to recreate no matter where I am.
However I will continue to celebrate every time I find a store that sells dairy products made from actual milk. Because cream cheese and Ben & Jerry’s may not be Chinese, but I need whatever reminder I can get to tide me over for the next five months dammit.