Thanksgiving, immigrants and Kentucky Fried Chicken

By Vivian Ho

In a beat-up, rust-colored sedan, my parents sat bundled up against the cold, their breath turning to frost.

My mother held in her arms a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a splurge for them at the time. My father, taking a break from his studies, eased their used car down the icy roads, out of the student slums and into a part of town where families were raised.

There, as snow fell lightly around them, they ate their fried chicken and watched the lights brighten each home.  

It was their first Thanksgiving as a married couple, and my mother’s first American holiday far away from her family in Taiwan. She had arrived a few months before to join my father in Madison, Wisc. as he pursued his doctorate, leaving behind the country she called home her entire life.

She was excited to see snow for the first time. She was happy to begin a new life with her husband. She was homesick beyond belief.

Thanksgiving is a holiday foreign to most Asian cultures, but one that made sense to my family. It’s a holiday centered around food, and eating together with loved ones, the backbone of almost all Asian celebrations.

It was something my parents understood, but could not have that first Thanksgiving 29 years ago. My father was just a student then, and money was tight. Their friends were mostly other recent immigrants like themselves who had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. And their family was thousands and thousands of miles away, in another time zone and on another continent.

My mother said that winter, she used to watch the planes flying overhead and pretend they were all going back to Taiwan. She pictured them landing in her country, and some other passenger returning to her apartment in Taipei that was fragrant with the foods her mother was cooking in the kitchen and loud with the chatter of her brothers and father talking in the living room.

In America, on a holiday meant for family, she could only watch the lights at strangers’ homes and dream of the life they shined on.

When I was 7, my second grade teacher asked my classmates to tell our favorite Thanksgiving memories.

One kid told a story about his uncles playing football with the turkey. Another talked about her aunt accidentally setting the oven to clean with the bird inside.

I kept quiet. As most things are for any first-generation American child of immigrants, my Thanksgivings were different.

After my parents’ first lonely Thanksgiving, they were taken in by a host family who introduced them to a more typical sort of dinner with turkey and all its trimmings. They had my sister, and then me four years later, and for a while we had traditions that I honestly can’t remember.

When we moved to Michigan when I was 3, we were on our own, and my mom, who used to teach students how to make Chinese food and has never really needed to follow a recipe in her life, decided it was time to make our own holiday. But she never really thought about the challenges of cooking a turkey. We didn’t have dinner until 9 p.m. that year, and if memory serves, the only thing on the table was turkey.

Twenty-two years and in a kitchen in Massachusetts, our new home, my mom still hasn’t quite mastered cooking a turkey. But now, as one of those families in their bright homes, “When will we eat dinner this year?” has become one of our favorite Thanksgiving memories to tell, and one that shaped has shaped our family traditions.

A couple years back, to ease the whining of the hungry and cranky, my mother began plying us with snacks starting in the early afternoon — just in case the turkey wasn’t done until later.

This year, we gorged ourselves on cheese, crackers, prosciutto, smoked salmon, sashimi, nachos and ice cream and were honestly only just a little bit hungry when my mom declared the turkey cooked at 8 p.m.

The dinner itself has come a long way from KFC in a cold car and dried, slightly charred turkey. My parents, who never truly understood stuffing and still really don’t, gave in a few years back and started picking up boxes of Thanksgiving sides from Boston Market to accompany the turkey. I didn’t try cranberry sauce until I was in my teens, but we started picking that up, too.

My mom added a green bean casserole to the menu soon after that, and I was put on mashed potatoes duty soon after that. Now, what we order in for Thanksgiving dinner is minimal.

My mother had a packed house this Thanksgiving. Both her daughters brought home their significant others. My sister’s friend Bill, who had been tricked into helping me move into and out of every dorm room when I was in college and has therefore secured himself an invitation to each and every family meal from here until eternity, was also there.

There was no squeezing into the kitchen table this year. We laid out our feast on a long, cherrywood dining room table with extra chairs my parents were forced to buy years ago when six place settings stopped being enough. Now the kitchen table is for mahjong, a four player game with a revolving cast of alternates.

We started the tradition of mahjong when my boyfriend and I flew back to Massachusetts in July for him to meet my dad for the first time. My sister and her fiance joined us, and my parents pulled out their new fancy mahjong set that they bought in their last trip to back to Taiwan.

In the years past, we struggled to find a Thanksgiving activity. None of us really care for football, and my mom was always in and out of the kitchen. For a few holidays, we had sudoku races — my mom would print out puzzles and we’d see who would finish them fastest.

But the mahjong this year was perfect. Everyone was included and everyone was in the same room at once, eating, drinking and basking in the smell of cooking turkey over the quiet clink of the mahjong tiles. I realized later that it was perfect because we finally had enough alternates for the four-person game — we finally had enough people.

The tall of my mother’s first Thanksgiving sat heavily on my mind this year, even before I committed to writing this piece about our holiday traditions. I’ve heard the details time and time again — my mother, like me, never shies away from telling a story — but it wasn’t until recently that I could understand it, after I moved across country from my family two and a half years ago to chase my dreams.

As a journalist, I can’t ever really go home to celebrate holidays on the actual holidays. For example, our Thanksgiving this year was actually the weekend before Thanksgiving and our Christmas this year actually two days before Christmas.

That has meant a lot of lonely holidays on my own, knowing that throughout the city, families like mine were gathered together in brightly-lit homes, eating home-cooked food and just enjoying being together. My first Christmas Day away from my family, I picked at undercooked ramen at my desk and thought about the airplanes my mother dreamed of so many years ago.

During this past Thanksgiving I kept thinking about my parents in their old rust-colored car that cold night 29 years ago. I thought about them sharing only a bucket of chicken alone as I listened to my family fill the air with the boisterous cries of “hu!” declaring a winning hand in mahjong.

And I kept thinking about the question my teacher asked me when I was 7.

Back then I knew my Thanksgivings were different but I never understood exactly why. But in a full, loud house with boys as well as daughters, and chatter and food and plenty of activity, I realized what we were missing — what made me different than my classmates.

We had turkey and traditions, but we really didn’t have family. I had no manly uncles playing football with inappropriate objects. I had no roughhousing cousins causing mischief, or domestic aunts helping my mother out in the kitchen.

And neither did my parents. They had left them behind in pursuit of a better life, in pursuit of a life with my sister and I.

I realized that for the past 29 years for my parents, each holiday wasn’t just about creating a family tradition — it was also about creating a traditional family, one that would be enough for years to come, years of just the four of us.

I wanted this piece to be a gesture to my mother, to show her that our family has always been enough and will always be enough – and even more so now, that it’s growing to include the boyfriends and Bill and all of our other close friends.

But when my boyfriend to start taking photos of our holiday to go with the piece, my mother clammed up in a way a woman not much older than I am now would clam up while admitting that she had KFC for Thanksgiving dinner.

“I don’t want photos,” she whispered to me, gesturing to the dining room and a dinner that would make any red-blooded American family proud to call their own.

“Our plate settings are not presentable,” she said, her voice still low. “You see the gravy? You’re supposed to have a special server for that. We only have this bowl. I don’t want people to see that.”

I wanted to cry then hearing her say that, because I understood. It was why I stayed quiet in the second grade.

Our Thanksgivings will always be different, and that’s just what it is. Our food, over the years, has become authentically American — for chrissakes, there’s a casserole. But we’re playing mahjong, and we have no gravy boat.   

I wanted to tell my mother that we don’t need a gravy boat and we never have.

For just a minute, I saw her as she was 29 years ago, watching the lights of other people’s holidays from her beat-up old car. A part of her tugged her home, to Taiwan, to her family, to the airplanes in the sky. Another tugged her toward the lights in the homes, to my sister still just a fetus in her belly, to the man sitting beside her.

I wanted to tell her that our family will always be enough — that gone was the part of me that tugged back to that 7-year-old who sat quietly in a classroom, feeling emotions she couldn’t yet name. That 7-year-old now has so many stories to tell, the first of which is this one, of a family of four that came so far in just a few decades.

I wanted to tell her all of that, but instead I kissed her on the cheek, and asked my boyfriend to stop taking photos. We sat down and ate too much, then returned to the kitchen table to play mahjong until it was past midnight and my mother had gone into her study to respond to e-mails.

And even though I knew my father was asleep upstairs and we had to be quiet, I yelled my victories loud for my mother to hear.

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