Famine and Gratitude: thoughts on Thanksgiving – Kristin Chang


My hometown doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. In a city of pho restaurants and Chinese groceries and one H-Mart that brags it’s open 365 days as year (the sign in 5 languages), everything is open on Thanksgiving. No one takes a break or eats turkey or bakes pies, and when I was little, I was ashamed of this. I imagined towns that lit up for Christmas, windows where trees sagged with ornaments and popcorn garlands, white snow everywhere. The only time I’ve seen Christmas lights on my block was when the SAT prep center on our street corner arranged a string of red lights on their roof in the shape of an “A+”, as if advertising for the planes that pass overhead.  

Now that I’ve grown up to understand Thanksgiving is a celebration of genocide and colonial legacy, I’ve learned to see our utter indifference as a kind of defiance. But when I was little, I dreamed of living inside the Macy’s commercials that played on our TV: the commercials of kids wearing pilgrim hats or dancing with wreaths or sitting around a table, the turkey glowing obscenely. In elementary school, I begged my mom for a Thanksgiving feast, so she gave me one. To my horror, there was no turkey or stuffing or mashed potatoes so buttery they glistened.  Instead, the night she shooed me out of the house to “prepare” for my first Thanksgiving feast, my brother and I returned to find our house teeming with cousins and grandparents and family friends, and at the center of it all, a massive simmering pot of spicy, oily Sichuanese hotpot broth. And crowding around our round glass table was every raw food imaginable: squid balls, fish tofu, fensi, egg noodles, fish flanks, fatty beef, bok choy, dong tofu, taro roots slices paper-thin, shrimp fat as my thumbs, imitation crab meat, Vietnamese meatballs, water spinach.  

I nearly wept with frustration. “I meant turkey!” I said, and my mom just shrugged: “Hotpot, turkey, what’s the difference? It’s only one word off!” (Turkey in Chinese is huoji, and hotpot is huoguo. They really were just one character off.) But I was mortified. And yet, year after year, the tradition has stayed. Our annual hotpots have gotten more elaborate and more peopled, until one year we had three different pots (my brother had fashioned the other two out of parts of a bunsen burner and rice cookers) with three different broths, each oilier than the last.

This year was no different: a new family of recently-immigrated cousins, enough raw fish to fill a sea, and everyone launching passive aggressive insults in 3 different dialects.  My brother and I scramble to keep up with the conversation.  We speak Chinese, but we don’t speak it the way our extended family does: switching in and out of dialects, veiling insults, reminiscing about Indonesia in the seventies and Taiwan in the sixties and China in the fifties.

And after dinner, after every last oil-coated, broth-soaked thing had been eaten (the rule in my family is that no one gets up until everything – even a stray piece of ginger – is eaten), there’s always an aggressive round of gambling. Mahjong with the aunts and mothers and girl-cousins, poker or blackjack with the boy-cousins and my brother. When I was younger, my brother would bully me into giving him my hongbao money, which he’d immediately lose to my cousins in rapid rounds of Texas Hold ‘em. Meanwhile, I was always too afraid to play mahjong with my female relatives, who played so fast and so meticulously (always multitasking or eating at the same time, always gossipping) that I never even tried learning how to play. This year, though, was the first year I played with them, and to my horror, my cousin immediately tried to explain the rules to me in English, very literally and very nonsensically – “Take out your flowers!” “Make stick!” “Treat die!”

When I was younger, my brother and I would have made fun of their English, would have flaunted our perfect accents, our Americanisms, the ease with which we could speak to store clerks and bus drivers, how easily we could read street signs and instruction manuals. Now, though, my English felt like a source of shame. Still, I felt honored by their effort. Eventually, as it always does, the conversation flowed back into Chinese, and the gossiping became increasingly raucous.  Everyone asked me about school, and I responded that Sarah Lawrence was pianpi – a word I’ve never known how to say in English. Literally, it means remote. But it also means something else – something more like kinless.

As we shuffled the tiles, the clack of enamel making my whole chest ache, I realized how much I missed the ritualistic, collectivist nature of Asian family. It’s true, we criticize each other endlessly. We never say “I love you.” The men gamble too much and the women will spend hours dissecting your appearance (the verdict: I looked tired, my brother was getting shorter, and why did my mother decide to dye her hair that color?) but we are safe with each other. One year, I tried to get my family to play Clue instead mahjong, something that I knew how to play; but instead, I spent an hour trying to translate “wrench” and “Professor Plum” into Chinese until everyone gave up trying and someone brought out the iconic red mahjong tablecloth.  

Now that I’ve finally learned how to play, I’m no less their “meiguo jiejie” (American sister), but I always still belong.  I told them how I’d taught white kids at Sarah Lawrence to play mahjong at the Chinese cultural night, and my mother and grandmother burst out laughing.  “Bai ren!” they gasped, as if that were a punchline. “I hope you beat them all.”  When I told them I had (which wasn’t a lie, for once) my cousins took turns giving me high-fives. “Meimei beat the laowai,” they said in Hokkien, and it was a perverse pleasure to hear my family call white people “foreigners” in this country they have claimed.      

Still, at the end of the night, I’m always left feeling somber. Inevitably, as much time as we spend making fun of white people and gossiping and cracking sunflower seeds with our front teeth, there’s always the lingering presence of trauma disguised as nostalgia. My paternal grandmother, who I call nainai, lived with us for nearly my whole life. This year, I was shocked to return home to see her walking with a cane – this woman who, according to legend, walked for ten days straight without food during a Buddhist pilgrimage in Kaohsiung (heavy emphasis on “legend.”)  Nainai was born in a small village somewhere in Sichuan province, where hotpot was basically invented (China’s province of spicy peppercorns and chili-fried fish). She always forgets how old I am; to her, I’m perpetually the child she raised while my parents worked. She keeps a folded photo of three-year-old me in the back pocket of her polyester pants, and sometimes she takes it out and shows it to me, as if I need to be reminded of my own face.  Whenever she asks, I always consider lying to her. “I’m 12,” I always want to say. I want to be the age I belonged to her, the age I was like her own daughter. But instead, I tell the truth. “19,” I said.

When I was 19, my grandmother said (all of us listening, because when the eldest speaks, you listen – you wait for her to get seated before you’re allowed to sit down at the table), The Great Famine had begun. In 1950s and 60s Sichuan, there was nothing to eat. We ate mice and lard, she told us, and I put down my bowl. Her eyes grew distant. My brother and cousins started snickering – they were used to these kinds of stories, the same civil war stories that we heard every year. This year, though, I heard them as I had when I was 10 or 11, when all I wanted was a pet hamster and nainai would look at me gravely and say, “if you got one, I would kill it and eat it.”   I laugh thinking about it now, but at the time, I felt that I had injured her in some way. And now, surrounded by food, nainai sitting crookedly because of her bad back, I wanted to really listen for the first time in years.  

Before she boarded one of the last refugee boats to Taiwan, she was one of the last few unmarried women in her village. She got into fistfights daily (over mice or lard, we weren’t really sure), but there was still never enough food. People in the village had begun eating their own shit. To feed her father, she started boiling the bark of their breadfruit tree. Stray dogs and cats were such precious meat that a “sighting” sent the whole county into a frenzy. But she was lucky.  She lived, and she left.

On the boat, she met my Yeye, a young soldier born south of Shanghai. My nainai’s family had been close friends with a landlording family, and when the “classicide” began, she had watched all her friends hanged or shot or beaten to death in public. That was before the famine, before (purportedly) a village girl had gotten trampled and smothered to death when the other children found out she had lice and clambered to eat the bugs off her scalp.  My yeye’s family didn’t have connections to land, but he was accused of harboring “imperialist contraband” when he tried to purchase Japanese medicine for his dying father.  He fled as fast as he could. They were told that Taiwan was an island of food, so abundant in tropical fruits that even the sea breeze was sweet. They were told that the birds in Taiwan were so fat they fried themselves, and that fishermen didn’t even need nets to fish, they could just reach into the water and pull the fish out in handfuls. Of course, it was all a lie.  

“Taiwanese people were even poorer,” my nainai said. “They were so poor all they ate was bolo xin.”  (The inedible “hearts” of pineapples, which are usually discarded.)

“In America…” She started but didn’t finish. Always, the story ended before America. Before it could get worse.  “But let’s eat now,” my mother said, and put an end to the stories. My grandmother reverted back to criticizing me: “Eat everything, meimei. You know, Guangdong people will eat anything! Let me tell you…” my mother cut her off before she could unleash another tirade on Guangdong people. That would be another hour.

There is always more that we don’t say. But that’s the rule: China and Taiwan and Indonesia are in some ways safe to talk about. As much as they are sites of trauma, they are also sites of nostalgia, of survival. Our lives now are more uncertain. So we never speak about my cousins’ unemployment or learning English or expired visas. We never talk about what we mean to each other.  What it means to be full now. I think of the mice my nainai carefully roasted and rationed.  I think of the food she eats now, only soft things that she can swallow. As I helped her out of the seat, I realized just how frail she had become. And yet, still, I can imagine her as a young woman, newly 20, crammed low in a boat, her own village a distant fire. I think of all the times, when I was young and my parents were working shifts – my mother gone all day and all night – when nainai asked me from her beige kitchen: “ni chi le ma?”

Thanksgiving is the only time of the year I get to ask her if she’s eaten. And before we eat, as all the sons and daughters wait for her to lift her chopsticks and begin, I realize we are already so full.  


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