More Than Turkey on the Table: An Asian American Thanksgiving

Photos: Flickr

This Thanksgiving, we celebrate and show gratitude for the diverse experiences of all American communities. Advancing Justice | AAJC staff shared their Thanksgiving stories, and show that for the Asian American community, Thanksgivings are blend of modern American and immigrant traditions.

“Growing up, my family always hosted Thanksgiving Dinner in Maryland. We’d have all our aunts, uncles, and cousins over. We always have turkey and mashed potatoes in addition to Chinese dishes like jellyfish, curry fish balls, and beef brisket. My dad is in charge of making the jellyfish, which he prepares with garlic, red vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. My twin and I make the mashed potatoes. The following morning, my mom takes the leftover turkey to make a smoked turkey congee. We only have the congee once a year, and it’s everyone’s favorite annual tradition.” — Bessie Chan-Smitham

“Roast duck and sticky rice with Chinese sausage was our traditional Thanksgiving meal. This is the Thanksgiving of my childhood and was a favorite of mine. Like with an American Thanksgiving (where stuffing is one of my favorite dishes), the sticky rice was what I filled up on (although roast duck is quite amazing as well!).” — Terry Ao Minnis

“For us, as vegetarians, Thanksgiving was about sentiment more than turkey. We got together as a family, and ate. A lot. But we didn’t have the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. It was more about being thankful for our blessings.” — Niyati Shah

For many immigrants, not having family nearby means creating a community of neighbors and friends.

“Those new to the Filipino food bandwagon may not be familiar with halo-halo, a dessert whose name literally means “mix-mix,” but for me “halo-halo” captures the essence of how my family celebrates Thanksgiving. We didn’t celebrate the holiday when I was little and my family had only recently arrived in the United States. Once I started school and started learning about American Thanksgiving traditions, however, I came home filled with questions. To placate me, my mother prepared a Thanksgiving celebration of Filipino food augmented by Cornish game hens, which were her stand-in for turkey.

As we grew older, I and the other children brought more traditional American foods to the table. Turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and stuffing joined steamed whole fish, lumpia (our version of eggrolls), pancit (noodles) and rice on the table. Our holiday table has been and will continue to be a mix of food from our parents’ home country and their adopted country.

Similarly, those gathered around the table were a special “mix-mix” too. Like most immigrants, we didn’t have extended family nearby. We didn’t grow up surrounded by relatives. But that didn’t mean that we weren’t parented by aunts and uncles, or that our playmates weren’t our “cousins.” My immigrant “family” is one we defined for ourselves — in my case, the handful of Filipino families that lived in my hometown and surrounding communities in rural mid-Michigan. In addition to my biological family, I consider myself blessed to also have my immigrant family — family that now includes a growing third generation. I am grateful for all of my family — biological and otherwise — and for the mix-mix of food and family that we celebrate each holiday season.” — Marita Etcubanez

“When I was younger, my Thanksgiving traditions consisted of a blend of American norms with a Chinese flair. With the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV in the background, I spent the morning helping my mom prepare a dish or two for a potluck later in the evening with multiple of our family friends in attendance. With most of my parents’ blood relatives still living in Hong Kong, most of my family network here in America consists of these family friends who my parents have known for so long that they are, for all intents and purposes, family — such is the norm for many immigrant families. These Thanksgiving potlucks would include the essential turkey, but surrounded with a myriad of dishes such as a Chinese sticky rice that one of my uncles has made for years. Never having liked turkey, I would always look forward instead to this sticky rice, an indulgent dish peppered with sausage, dried little shrimp, and green onion. This juxtaposition of ‘traditional’ American Thanksgiving foods and Chinese customs enriches the holiday for me, embodying the real point of the celebration — to reflect on that for which I am grateful, and to spend time eating all my favorite foods with my close family.

Now that my sister and I have grown up, Thanksgiving Day has become more of a quiet affair. In recent years, we started having hot pot for dinner — a popular choice for Asian dinners in the winter. It consists with a boil pot of hot water/stock in the middle of the table on a Bunsen burner, surrounded by raw seafoods, meats, and veggies. Each person has their own chopsticks and ladles, and prepares each item of food they want to eat themselves, by dipping it into the hot pot and waiting for it to cook, right before their eyes! The heat of the steam and the warmth of being around family is a great feeling for the onset of cold that Thanksgiving weather brings.

I am thankful that I have been able to spend Thanksgiving celebrating in different ways through my childhood into my adulthood. Integrating my Chinese heritage into my family’s assimilation into American norms in this way is just one symbol out of many over my lifetime that represent how my very identity reflects this blend of cultures.” — Andrea Lau

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb @kjbagchi

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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