Sunday, November 28, 2010

How I spent my Thanksgiving

How was your Thanksgiving? I hope you were surrounded by friends, family, the rich aroma of good food and the joy of love and laughter.

How was my Thanksgiving, in a country that doesn’t observe this particular holiday? I have to tell you: for a people who do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the Chinese certainly know how to give an expat things to be thankful for. I’ll start at the very beginning…

The first part of the day was spent in conversation with my brother Woody in Colorado, and his lovely partner, Liz. Come to think of it, Thanksgiving marks the event that finally brought Woody and I close: the death of our father, two years ago. Woody and I were not raised together and although we have known about each other for years, our family is so fractured that we have not kept up with one another at all. We met up at our father’s memorial service in July of 2009 and had a long heart to heart conversation; we’ve been in touch ever since. At that memorial service is when I met Liz for the first time, and since then she and I have become like sisters: talking and/or emailing nearly every day and learning from one another. Liz and Woody are two of my staunchest supporters in this China adventure… there! Another thing I have to be thankful for!

Liz, Woody and I spent over two hours on Skype Thanksgiving morning, and when my beloved Gabriel chimed in we conference called, and included Darrell, my son. That was the first time Woody and Darrell had talked since 1995 – see how fractured this family is? It sounded like they got along very well. It made my heart sing to hear these guys converse; the genuine liking and curiosity for one another shone right through. Another thing to be thankful for: family coming together after years apart.

Soon enough we all had other things to do: it was getting late in Colorado and Woody and Liz had to go to sleep, Darrell had to finish getting his kitchen ready because he was hosting Thanksgiving for Jenn and Garrett this year, and I… was STARVING! It was 2:00PM when I finally got off the computer and I hadn’t eaten anything all day! Besides that, I had decided to prepare as traditional a Thanksgiving meal as I could in China and I had invited Sam and even the detestable Victor over; they were due at 5:30.

I rushed to the kitchen and cut the head and feet off my chicken. It should have been a turkey, but there are no turkeys to be found in China, at least not of the poultry variety. I do have some students that qualify for the title however, it would be improper to roast them and they wouldn’t fit in my oven anyway.

But I digress… again!

Here, all poultry is sold with head and feet still attached so that it can easily be recognized as an authentic bird, not a mock-up of some kind of meat passing for fowl. Whereas that sounds comforting to know that you are actually kept in the loop of your fowl purchases, I am still a little uncomfortable cutting heads and feet from the portions intended for consumption. I’d just as soon buy a bird in a pretty package, all dressed up and with the innards tucked into a discreet, removable white bag. Yes, I see I’m still a little spoiled.

Next came the chore of spitting and roasting what should become the piece de resistance of my meal. As I’ve not used that particular function of my oven yet, I have to confess that me and the chicken danced around the kitchen a bit. It is a bit difficult to spit a flaccid, tough-skinned bird that has been oiled down. It seemed like the bird objected to being spitted and roasted while I strenuously insisted on it. I won and the bird went in the oven, turning round and round, making full use of the rotisserie function of my delightful little oven.

Now for a mad dash to the farmer’s market that is just off campus. I needed a few more potatoes for mashing, some corn on the cob and some of those wonderful tasting green beans that are currently in season. I also wanted a red bell pepper to mix with my pickled cucumber to make a relish for deviled eggs, and I needed some eggs to devil. Finally, a stop at the supermarket for a nice bottle of white wine to go with the dinner and I’m on my way home.

I have to confess: I enjoy cooking. And, in the environment I have to work with, I don’t do too bad a job of it. The single electronic hot plate I have to cook with decides it is done cooking whether you want it to be or not, so hard-boiling eggs and keeping the fire on under potatoes until they are done is really quite the challenge. Add to that the fact that I actually needed 4 hot plates – one for the potatoes, one for corn, one for eggs and one for steaming green beans, and I only had one, made it a logistical nightmare! Finally, factor in the granite countertops that chill everything you set on them, the additional nightmare of keeping everything warm while everything else cooks made me really rise to the challenge!

Quick check on the phone: Sam has responded to the invitation and will be here; Victor has not responded at all, one way or the other. Time check: 3:45. I have a little under two hours to pull this whole meal together, or embarrass myself completely. Of course I could still end up embarrassed if something doesn’t turn out right.

But everything was perfect! Sam loved the deviled eggs and adored the mashed potatoes; he had never tasted either before. He is not much of a meat eater so the roast chicken did not earn many raves (from him. I thought it turned out rather tasty for my first effort at roasting). I even had time to bake brownies for dessert, and he really liked those, too.

Sure, I’m a good cook and yes, the meal went without a hitch. But that’s not what made my Thanksgiving spectacular. What really made the day was all of the emails from my friends in the States, the conversation with my family and my students sending me text messages to wish me a happy holiday and telling me to not be sad because I was far away from my family. The phone chimed every few minutes with just such a message all afternoon and evening. In total, there were 43 messages full of care, well wishes and thoughtfulness. I answered every single one of them.

At 7:30, Stephanie and Martin, two of my Freshman students came by to invite me out for a drink (of tea). As Sam was wrapping up his visit, their arrival was particularly timely. I had no qualms whatsoever about abandoning my dirty kitchen and joining these delightful kids for a nice, hot pitcher of tea and some fun conversation. We got back just before curfew at 10:00PM.

The detestable Victor never manifested himself at all.

Do I have a lot to be thankful for, or what?

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