7 AM. Thanksgiving Morning. Shanghai. A group of young American ex-pats huddled at the foot of a dock on the Huangpu River. We stamped our feet and blew into our hands, steeling ourselves against the chill dawn mist drifting off the river.
Finally, the boat arrived. And there it was, boxed and shrink-wrapped. We had ordered it online a week ago and now we held it in our trembling hands – a turkey, pre-cooked and ready to heat and eat. The heart, soul and gizzard of our expat celebration. We had succeeded in cobbling together a Thanksgiving dinner in China.
We were all recent college graduates working at the same education start-up. We had come to China for different reasons. Some of us (me included) were sinophiles. We had studied China for years, learned Mandarin, and saw ourselves writing for the New Yorker or working with the state house. Some of us were wildcards, who, seeking adventure after graduation, seemingly spun a globe with eyes closed, placed a finger and ended up here in Shanghai. Most of us had been in Shanghai since June.
We weren’t sure how long we would be abroad. We were all young, just starting to figure our lives out. We partied hard at night, worked tirelessly during the day, and took Chinese lessons on the side. We were all becoming disillusioned at that point, as it became clear that our bosses didn’t want us to edit the college application essays of the Chinese high school students we worked with, but to write them.
As Thanksgiving rolled around, we realized we were also all lonely. Even though we all came from progressive backgrounds and knew people who aspired the travel to the ends of the Earth, we were outliers. Most of our friends had stayed put. They didn’t have the same itch that we did. They were all home for Thanksgiving. And here we were, spending our first Thanksgiving after college alone in a foreign country halfway around the world.
With this mindset, celebrating Thanksgiving became absolutely essential. Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays, about inclusiveness, generosity and warmth. These are qualities we Americans pride ourselves on, even if we sometimes struggle to demonstrate them. Celebrating Thanksgiving in China was not only a comforting ritual, but an affirmation of the most positive aspects of American culture. On that day, we needed to be the most American we could possibly be. Nothing else would do. It was the least we could do after abandoning our family and friends for the mystique of an unknown land.
So we huddled around a computer and debated the benefits of various cooked-to-order turkeys (procuring a raw turkey in China was impossible). It would cost over 500 dollars, but that was a small price to pay for a taste of home.
In the days leading up to the holiday, we talked mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, mulled cider, pumpkin pie. We trawled the wet markets, digging through piles of misted vegetables for the most hearty, blemish-free specimens. And we assembled a team to pick up our turkey at the dock at 7 am on Thanksgiving morning.
On Thanksgiving day, our raggedy group of orphans gathered at an apartment in Pudong, the newer section of Shanghai across the river from the city proper. Living abroad builds strong bonds and at that point, six months in, we already felt like a family. We wore thick embarrassing holidays sweaters and rushed around the kitchen chopping vegetables side-by-side, stirring gravy, carving the turkey. Our surrogate family had already established its own rhythm.
After loading up our plates, we sat around and talked about what we were thankful for. It was clear that China had changed us all. We were thankful for procuring a turkey. For the weather, clear blue sky unsmudged by smoggy pollutants. For our latest adventures – hiking in Hong Kong or riding camels in Mongolia. For finally using that difficult Chinese grammar structure in a sentence. Our threshold for things worth giving thanks for was both bigger and smaller than it had ever been: the small everyday victories of living in a foreign language; the bigger triumphs of traveling in a foreign land. Most of all, that day, we were thankful for the comfort and companionship of our little group.
We didn’t know at the time how close we were to the end, that our jobs would terminate abruptly once the college applications were submitted in January. At that point, we were presented with a choice. Commit for another year or go. We all went.
I spent only eight months in China, but taking the leap and living abroad, gave m and my Shanghai family the opportunity to mature and change in ways that usually took years. Hunting a turkey on the Internet and summoning a pumpkin pie from NYC were small slices of the feast. Adapting to life in a foreign country, building a community of new friends and learning to feel at home on our own – these were the truly important lessons of China, worthy of heartfelt thanksgiving.