Thanksgiving in Beijing

A group of Americans overseas are surprised by a down-home Thanksgiving

By: By Jim Calio

(c) Peninsula Beijing 2009

Peninsula Beijing

It was snowing lightly outside in Beijing, but inside we were warm and toasty. We had just taken a cooking class in the Peninsula’s kitchen, and we were preparing to head for the dining room to eat what we had made. On the way, we saw the executive chef waving a turkey leg at us from behind the counter of the hotel’s restaurant.

“Are you Americans?” he asked with a decidedly American accent.

We told him we were, that we were in Beijing for a week and that we’d just made some dumplings with two of his other chefs.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he asked. “Why don’t you let me cook you a Thanksgiving dinner, American-style, right here in the heart of Beijing?”

We agreed, and thus began our first — and so far only — Thanksgiving in China.

It was 2006, and there were six of us: me, my sister Lori, my wife, Lisa, and my two stepsons, both in their early thirties. The older, Josh, had married a Chinese woman he had met while working in Guangzhou, and he and Phim were now living in Qingao, about 500 miles southest of Beijing. They had been visiting us in Los Angeles, so we all flew back to China together. My sister had flown in from Boston.

Aside from the thrill of going to China, the trip was also a chance for us to meet Phim’s parents, our new in-laws. They lived in a small town outside of Guangzhou where Phim had been raised. Her parents had never been to Guangzhou, let alone any other big city. In fact, they had never flown on an airplane, so it was with some trepidation that their son, Phim’s brother, bundled them onto a flight from Guangzhou to Beijing, where Phim and Josh met them at the airport.

Phim’s father had been in the People’s Liberation Army, so the first thing he wanted to do in Beijing was visit Mao’s Mausoleum, which for him was like Americans seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. He was awestruck, and happy.

Together, we all did the usual sightseeing — we took a van out to the Great Wall, we walked around the Forbidden City and we took a pedicab tour of the byways and narrow alleyways of some of the hutongs that had survived Beijing’s headlong building boom. It was a reminder that as fast as the city — and China, for that matter — was modernizing, there were still stark reminders of the country’s incredible and ancient past.

We also hit the local markets, where Lisa and my sister became experts at haggling, a practice unknown to most Americans and distasteful to many. But it’s the way of doing business in China, and they quickly caught on, arriving back at the hotel with lots of goodies bought at bargain basement prices, or so they said.

The idea of Thanksgiving dinner had not even crossed our minds until the chef proposed it that day in the Peninsula’s restaurant. But it seemed like a good idea and probably went a long way toward allaying any feelings of homesickness on the part of anyone who had never spent a holiday away from home. I had been to China many times, but for most of the others it was a first.

We also invited two friends who lived in Beijing to join us. One was British and the other Japanese, and both were performers with the Beijing opera.

Late on Thanksgiving afternoon, we all gathered in a private dining room off the Peninsula’s main restaurant. The table had been set with festive decorations. We arranged ourselves around it and waited for the first course.

Phim’s parents and our Japanese friend weren’t really familiar with the American Thanksgiving holiday, especially the tradition of eating turkey. So before dinner we found a cookbook and showed them a picture of what they’d be dining on, both in the wild and in cooked form.

As we sat down, the courses started coming out of the kitchen, but unlike what were are used to in the U.S., everything came all at once. It was Chinese-style serving, and it unnerved my wife who began to get up to tell the waiters that, no, we wanted to the courses brought out one at a time, and in order, like we were used to at home. I knew she wanted to make things perfect for her in-laws, who she was meeting for the first time.

I grabbed her arm. No, I said gently, let them do it they way they want. We’re in China; this is how they serve in China. She reluctantly agreed, so in the next few minutes we had everything in front of us on the table — turkey, stuffing, vegetables, cranberry sauce and all the fixings, everything except the desserts.

Josh was especially pleased to see the traditional meal since he hadn’t been home for Thanksgiving in years.

The wine flowed, toasts were made and we dug in, chattering away and enjoying our meal. I couldn’t help but wonder at the ecumenical day that Thanksgiving dinner in Beijing had turned out to be, with people from the U.S., Japan and China all sitting down together for a traditional American holiday 6,000 miles from home.

I never found out why the chef had waved us down with a turkey leg that day. I later learned that he was from Texas and he had been at The Peninsula as executive chef for several years. Maybe he was a little homesick himself and decided that the best way to alleviate that feeling was to cook a traditional American holiday dinner for a bunch of visiting Americans.

Whatever the reason, we were glad he did.