Thanksgiving in Beijing

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Perhaps an American friend or two has already begun yammering at you about it: the fourth Thursday of this month is Thanksgiving Day. This year it falls on November 26, and American grocery stores are stocked with fat, frozen turkeys, cans of pumpkin, cranberries, and other Thanksgiving essentials.

Americans in Beijing, once deprived of such luxuries, no longer need face the day of thanks with nothing but a roast duck and egg-fried rice to substitute for turkey and pumpkin. Unlike in the past, Beijing now has Thanksgiving all sorted out. This is known as a time for family and friends to gather together, but many expatriates live in small apartments that aren't well suited to holding large gatherings, their kitchens can not cope with the scale of preparation a proper turkey dinner requires. Fortunately, several local restaurants have organized Thanksgiving spreads with all the trimmings to comfort the homesick.

For those who have the space to celebrate in a traditional way, it's important to make the effort. Barbara Moore Toronto, a self-described "domestic CEO" of a family with five children, told the Global Times, "Thanksgiving to us is a stay-at-home-to-be-together holiday, so I would like to cook for family and friends by myself and keep this tradition."

In Toronto's home, tradition starts early. Barbara calls the kids' teachers a day in advance to make sure the children can have the day off of school. On Thanksgiving, their father takes them to go ice-skating and then all return home to help set the table. This gives the family time to enjoy each other's company while still letting Barbara focus on the cooking. She has been determined to cook the main courses by herself ever since she first came to China 14 years ago, when finding the right ingredients was a far greater challenge.

For the turkey, "the first year I got it from the German Butcher; they were local turkeys and they were not very delicious. After that, I sometimes got them from my friend who worked for the U.S. embassy, and then after that there were some supermarkets starting to sell imported turkey. The first three years or so were really difficult." She purchased everything else in the U.S., including cans of pumpkin for pie and cranberry sauce, and brought it all back to Beijing in her suitcase.

Now, Thanksgiving chefs have plentiful options. "This year, I ordered a turkey from the supplier, which saved me almost US$30," Barbara said. More than ever before, there are more grocery stores in Beijing selling turkeys and things needed for Thanksgiving cooking, even the local BHG Market Place. If you don't need a whole turkey, you can buy turkey legs throughout the year in foreign grocery stores like Ito-Yokado.

Barbara's home includes an oven that can cook a turkey big enough to feed 20 people. She'll usually bake at least five kinds of pies for their traditional post-dinner "pie feast." The guests who join the Toronto's family bring their own desserts to share.

Barbara said, "People come here to get together because they can't be with their families on this special occasion. Spending them day with friends and having fun helps make up for it in a way." For this year's celebrations, Barbara has already prepared invitations for guests that encourage them to bring their friends.

Barbara employs an ayi who gets a day off on Thanksgiving, but she comes to help clean up the house and the leftovers on the following day. Ever since working with Barbara, she has "fallen in love with the Thanksgiving lunch. She loves the turkey and the mashed potatoes," Barbara said. "It's different from Chinese food, but also great."

This imported holiday is a great opportunity for Chinese gastronomists to taste Western delicacies as well as to take time to show gratitude to one another.

Sha Lei, 26, working at the Publishing Department of Law Press China, told the Global Times, "We celebrated Thanksgiving day three years ago, in our multifunction hall, with singing performances and presentations of awards to sta. who have contributed a lot to the press, such as hardest-working staff, earliest arriving staff, and so on. Afterwards, we had turkey together." According to Sha, it was the first and only Thanksgiving celebrated by the press.

While they no longer go all-out with their festivities on that day, "After that, we developed a custom of organizing similar activities, with performances and expressions of gratitude between staff. But we never had turkey again." Sha was not particularly disappointed. Apparently, he did not develop much fondness for the "stupid bird," though at least the tradition of giving thanks, the true essence of the holiday, has rubbed off on him.

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