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Remembering My First Thanksgiving in China

Amy Young moved to China in 1995 to teach English for two years. Those two years turned into eighteen and teaching English herself morphed into helping hundreds live, work, and serve in China.

After a year of “lasts” —last Thanksgiving in America, last Christmas, last birthday, last this, last that—the “firsts” began.

It started off slowly. First Moon Festival. Quaint really as my teammate and I were invited to the rooftop garden of one of our school officials. We were served so many peanuts and seeds I started hiding them in pockets. Next came our first National Day. National Day was just that, only a day and not as big of a deal as it has become. At the end of the month, we noted our First Halloween, mixing a bit of what was familiar in with all that was new.

But then the weather changed and almost overnight my teammate and I went from wearing shorts to wearing all of our clothes at one time. Why did no one close the windows? And who thought restaurants with only three walls was a good idea? Would I ever feel my feet again? Who was the genius behind half a country without heat?

Packages began to arrive with paper turkeys, pumpkins, and pilgrims. If you thought The First Thanksgiving was a production, you should have seen the culture lecture my teammate and I put on for our students. Naïve and energetic, we wrote skits, required practices, and learned more facts than I’ll ever need this side of Jeopardy. (Speedwell, anyone, anyone?! How about this one, 51 dead after the first winter?!)

But Thanksgiving is more than a production, it’s a practice. A discipline really. A slowing down and feasting together. A remembering of how great is thy faithfulness.

A few problems arose when it came to the discipline and ritual behind creating that space. First, we had not yet gotten over the meat market traumatization our first week and the only food we had perfected was frying potatoes. So, eating more fried potatoes didn’t feel special, it felt like survival. Next problem, we had come to China, two intelligent women, without one recipe and no access to the internet. To review, we had potatoes, a few other veggies, salt, pepper, flour and something I had learned to order from the bakery called yellow oil, aka low-grade margarine.

All sounds charming. Except we weren’t on an exotic cooking show cooking with random ingredients—and skill—trying to win a prize. And we were freezing. And it was our first big holiday. And “our people” were on the other side of the world and “our new people” had been in our lives all of four months.

In discussing this and getting a bit depressed and woe-is-us, Mark, the only other foreigner we knew at that point, wondered if Thanksgiving evening we’d like to go out for Beijing Duck. He spoke Chinese and could order for us. “Yes, oh yes!” we practically shouted.

We taught that first Thanksgiving-in-China morn, had lunch with students, and went home for a short rest before joining in a sports meet. In a bizarre reenactment of The First Thanksgiving (in 1621, you’re welcome), we too participated in games, as we helped the English department to a victory in the tug-of-war. Other departments sputtered that our victory was due to our girth. Don’t invite amazon-like women if you don’t want them to bring it! We might not have been great cooks, but pulling on a rope, now that we can do.

We went home, changed, and biked to the restaurant. Mark ordered and as the waitress was leaving, he placed a small 8-ounce tin can on the table.

That is the moment I’ll remember forever as my bridge from “old normalcy” to “new normalcy.”

Eight ounces of a flavor and ritual that linked old Amy with new Amy. Eight ounces that contained memories and assurances. Power and simplicity in a can of cranberries. I may have been on the other side of the world with people I hadn’t known long, yet enough of the day was familiar. We were going to be eating a bird. It may not have been turkey, but it was meat that we did not have to purchase raw and figure out how to cook in a toaster oven. The spicy green beans were actually an upgrade. And we were with people we loved, sharing a meal, and remembering the many blessings we had experienced.

Isn’t that like God? To take something small and insignificant and use it. And so it will be for you. This year you may need to be reminded, not of an American holiday, but of China and people you no longer get to live and serve with.

I don’t know what will be used this year to remind you that you are still you, you are connected and matter, and that you have much to be grateful for. But I do know that God is still present, active, and full of love for you, love for holidays that remind us of life beyond ourselves, and love for the Middle Kingdom.

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Image credit: Famartin via Wikimedia.
Amy Young

Amy Young

Amy Young, MA, LPC loves a good story. She served in China for nearly 20 years (plenty of stories there!). As the founder and CEO of Global Trellis, her current story involves helping great commission workers have tended souls and expanding skill sets. Amy has written six books for great …View Full Bio

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