This is the second Thanksgiving I’ve spent in Nanjing in my life, and my third (non-consecutive) in Asia. In 2002, I celebrated the holiday with a large group of American missionaries in Taichung, Taiwan (I was not a missionary myself, I was just invited in by kind souls who thought I might get homesick for turkey and gravy. They could not have realized that I was a vegetarian…). Then in 2004, I found myself passing the holiday solo in Nanjing, taking time away from writing a conference paper for some mashed potatoes and beer. I find I am no less thankful for black sesame filled glutinous rice balls now than I was back then.
This year, some of the other Americans at work are planning a big Thanksgiving meal, which will include all of us around this week (we have the week off), be they American or Chinese. I’m looking forward to it, though in the meantime I find myself once again taking advantage of the quiet day to write a conference paper. I’m not sure how authentic they’ll manage to make the food, but the traditional Thanksgiving meal does not hold a lot of appeal for me anymore since I don’t really like meat and I’ve discovered I’m allergic to dairy. The Charlie Brown version with popcorn and toast (skip the butter) is probably a bit more up my alley; a vegan version of all the holiday classics would be ideal, though on the surface it sounds sort of grim.
But of course, Thanksgiving has never been about food. We talk a lot about the food, we organize our day around the food, we worry over the food, we might even take pictures of all the food, but that’s not what the day is all about. Originally, it was a chance to celebrate survival; that by the grace of God, the settlers in America had made it through the long, cold winter. It was, to steal an apt phrase from the Beatles, an acknowledgement that “we get by with a little help from our friends.” In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, most of us gather with family and friends to observe it; it’s easy to be thankful for your loved ones when you are staring them down opposite a large bowl of buttery mashed potatoes. But it’s even easier to be thankful for them when they are 6,000 miles away, because that’s when you feel their absence the most. Being far away from your family on a day like Thanksgiving makes you realize how much you need them, depend on them, and love them… and how unlivable life would be without them.
I am thankful for many things this year. I’m thankful that I managed to graduate finally (I spent last Thanksgiving in front of my computer, preparing the final draft of my dissertation), that I have a great job that I enjoy, that I have this opportunity to live in China again, and that I have this groovy apartment with all the Western amenities I could possibly want. I’m very thankful that even though I won’t be home, I won’t be alone this year. But most of all, I’m thankful for the big, noisy family gathering that I’m going to miss: for all the people there, for the spirit of thanksgiving that gathers them together, and for the fact that there will be another one again next year, and the year after that, with or without me. I’m hoping for more “withs” than “withouts” in the future, though.