How to Explain American Thanksgiving Dinner to Chinese Family and Friends

Chinese Thanksgiving“Well, we have this big meal and eat things like turkey and cranberries…”

As I tried describing one of the most essentially American holidays of the year to my Chinese in-laws, I could already see their eyes glaze over with confusion and sense the questions forming in their minds. Turkey? Cranberries? Even though I expressed these perfectly in Chinese, the result was still gibberish because neither of them had ever seen a turkey or tasted cranberries in their entire lives.

Sigh.

When you’re an American like me, living abroad as part of a foreign family that doesn’t understand the importance of what we call “Turkey Day”, let alone what foods we traditionally eat, it can be frustrating. American Thanksgiving is part of the culture I grew up with. It’s something I’d like to share with my family in China – or at the very least, describe the holiday to them in a way that actually makes sense to them.

Fortunately, there is a way. Over the years, I’ve discovered that some of the most important things about Thanksgiving dinner have counterparts or equivalents in Chinese culture. You know, something your Chinese family actually knows and has probably tasted in their lives.

So if you’re struggling to explain American Thanksgiving to your Chinese loved ones, here are 5 suggestions that might just help you:

1. Roast turkey is America’s version of roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭)

"Dry for 5 hours cropped" by FotoosVanRobin - http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoosvanrobin/324209168/. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg
“Dry for 5 hours cropped” by FotoosVanRobin – http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoosvanrobin/324209168/. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg

Outside the world of China’s well-heeled expats and cushy five-star hotels, turkeys just aren’t a thing here. They’re not native to China – so of course, most people haven’t actually tasted one. Even using the appropriate Chinese word for “turkey” (huǒjī, 火鸡) won’t necessarily make it easier for people like Baba and Mama to understand what you mean.

Fortunately, Chinese cuisine includes roast poultry (Beijing duck, anyone?), so you could always start off by comparing roast turkey to China’s roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭). It doesn’t taste same (so this vegan has heard) but it’s in the ballpark.

What about stewed chicken (dùn jīròu, 炖鸡肉)? You usually baste roast turkey in the bird’s own juices, which is sort of like stewing chicken meat. You could even tell them what I’ve said before – that turkey is really just an oversized chicken.

P.S.: For those of you looking for a great Chinese-American turkey recipe, this soy sauce and honey-glazed turkey will satisfy Chinese and American palates alike.

2. Cranberries are like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā,山楂)

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Chinese hawthorn (image via http://baike.baidu.com/view/6877.htm)

How do you explain the sweet-tart goodness of cranberries to people who have lived all their lives without cranberry sauce or Craisins (those fantastic raisin-like dried cranberries that have become one of my favorite snacks ever in America)?

Simple – tell them it’s like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā,山楂). These sour berries are the quintessential fruit for tanghulu, delectable candied fruit skewers made popular in Northern China and now available in most Chinese cities. When Chinese hawthorn are warmed up and sugar coated, they taste surprisingly like cranberry sauce – a crunchier, less sauce-like version, mind you.

So guess what I’m cooking up for Thanksgiving this Thursday to substitute for cranberry sauce on the table? If you’d also like to try your hand at making candied Chinese hawthorn, check out this recipe.

3. Stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭)

Image via http://www.xiachufang.com/dish/512948/
Eight-treasures rice (image via http://www.xiachufang.com/dish/512948/)

In a China where rice, noodles and steamed buns rule, try explaining stuffing — seasoned Western-style bread mixed with things like carrots, onions and celery — to your Chinese relatives. I once tried listing off the ingredients to my Chinese mother-in-law; while she never said “That’s weird,” I could somehow read it in her puzzled eyes – eyes that have never seen or heard of Stove Top (the number one stuffing brand in the US).

If only I had realized that China already has a stuffing-like dish called eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭). Granted, the sweet, rather than savory, flavors reign in this dish of sugary glutinous rice stuffed with all sorts of colorful dried fruits, seeds, and nuts. But many versions of Thanksgiving stuffing include dried fruits and other “treasures”. So just tell your Chinese family and friends stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (xián de bābǎofàn, 咸的八宝饭), where we use bread instead of rice and vegetables or spices as the “treasures”.

By the way, here’s an ingenious recipe that mediates a truce between Western-style stuffing and eight-treasures rice called sticky-rice dressing.

4. Pumpkin pie is like a pumpkin-flavored gāodiǎn (糕点)

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Mung-bean cakes, a Chinese dessert or gaodian.

No Thanksgiving Day – or explanation of a Thanksgiving Day – is complete without a little dessert. But here’s where it gets challenging, because desserts as Americans know them – you know, death by chocolate and the endless fluffy white frosting and whipped cream – just aren’t in traditional Chinese culture.

Fortunately, Western-style bakeries serving up pastries, cakes and loaves of bread have exploded all over China, which means a lot of people – especially the younger set – know what you mean when you’re talking about cakes and pies.

It’s the older generations — people like my mother-in-law and John’s grandma – you have to worry about. They’ve probably never even set foot in one of these bakeries.

Still, China has plenty of home-grown pastries or gāodiǎn (糕点), such as mooncakes (yuèbing, 月饼) and mung-bean cakes (lǜdòugāo, 绿豆糕). For the elders in your family, you could call pumpkin pie a sort of pumpkin gaodian (nánguāgāo, 南瓜糕).

5. American Thanksgiving itself is like China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至)

Winter Solstice Dinner in China is a lot like Thanksgiving Dinner in the US.
Winter Solstice dinner with the family in China.

I’ve heard lots of people equate Thanksgiving Day with China’s Mid-Autumn Festival because both holidays occur in the fall and stress being together with family. But honestly, it’s a terrible comparison for lots of other reasons – especially in terms of food.

To celebrate China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, people eat mooncakes. Meanwhile, to celebrate American Thanksgiving Day, people feast on turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and everything else until their stomachs can’t bear it. Food and family both take center stage in Thanksgiving – something you can’t say about China’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

My suggestion? American Thanksgiving equals China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至). Not only do both of these holidays bring family together and involve huge feasts, they also share a very important characteristic – they both kick off the holiday season in their respective countries. While American Thanksgiving signals the start of the Christmas season, it’s China’s Winter Solstice that reminds us Chinese New Year is just around the corner.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an American Thanksgiving dinner of my own to prepare for here in China. To those of you celebrating, happy American Thanksgiving Day!

How do you explain American Thanksgiving dinner to your Chinese family and friends?

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18 thoughts on “How to Explain American Thanksgiving Dinner to Chinese Family and Friends

  • November 24, 2014 at 8:15 am
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    I just love John’s expression in the first picture – he looks ready to get the feast started!

    As for me, I usually just invite my in-laws over for turkey dinner. Since my husband and I moved into our house (and I got a full size oven), I usually host a huge Christmas feast and my in-laws first enjoyed turkey with all the trimmings for the first time during Christmas. I remember my brother-in-law posting several pictures on facebook of the turkey as it was the first time he had ever saw the entire preparation process (with an oven) in his life.

    Reply
    • November 25, 2014 at 10:49 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Constance! Boy, I am just JEALOUS that you have a full-size oven in your house. I so wish I had something like that. You must cook up quite a feast for the holidays!

      Yeah, John was pretty psyched about having turkey that year (or, really, any year). Turkey has actually become one of his favorite meats!

      Reply
  • November 24, 2014 at 8:23 am
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    2 years ago I invited a Chinese friend whom was at my university for the semester to spend Thanksgiving with us. He was reminded of Winter Solstice and also CNY. I hope he enjoyed the food, because I can’t remember, haha!

    Reply
    • November 25, 2014 at 10:50 pm
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      That’s so sweet of you to have invited a friend to spend the holiday with you!

      Reply
  • November 24, 2014 at 8:25 am
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    Good tips!

    I remember a delicious stuffed chicken a Malaysian friend cooked. She cleverly de-boned the chicken and stuffed it with a delicious sticky rice mixture. The only thing I remember in the sticky rice stuffing was the chestnuts.

    Reply
    • November 25, 2014 at 10:51 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Nicki! Ooooh, yeah, I forgot about those stuffed birds, you’re right! My husband shared a stuffed duck with friends in a restaurant here, prepared much as you describe for the chicken. He really loved it!

      Reply
  • November 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm
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    Ooh, neat! Although I’m familiar with American Thanksgiving treats, it was really interesting to read about the Chinese equivalentsーall new to me! That eight-treasures rice sounds delicious. 🙂

    Reply
  • November 24, 2014 at 6:07 pm
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    Your explanations for what American Thanksgiving is like are so creative (and the suggestions for what you can substitute). I can literally see your Chinese family’s “I finally understand what you’re talking about” expression on their faces.

    We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Austria, so I enjoyed getting a look into what Thanksgiving is like through your post. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Reply
    • November 25, 2014 at 10:52 pm
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      Thanks! Well, I guess you have to get creative if you really want them to understand…;-)

      Reply
  • November 25, 2014 at 8:30 pm
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    That all makes Chinese sense. Now could you tell me how I can explain the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas to Chinese? I haven’t been succesful, and my boyfriend even saw me in action as ‘Black Pete’ with his own eyes. (I can explain Sinterklaast to other westerners: Black Pete is like one of Santa’s little helpers… but that doesn’t make much sense to Chinese either).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas

    Reply
    • November 25, 2014 at 10:57 pm
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      Thanks Judith! Oh, Sinterklaas…you know, we used to celebrate that growing up as kids (well, a sort of Americanized version…we left our shoes out and in the morning would find gifts hidden in them). Gosh, I wouldn’t even know where to start! That’s a tough one. 🙁

      Reply
    • November 26, 2014 at 7:02 am
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      Zwarte Piet strikes most Americans who learn about it as something between odd and racist. David Sedaris wrote a great story of his own incredulity towards the matter called “Six to Eight Black Men” (unfortunately not officially translated into Chinese that I am aware of).

      Reply
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  • November 29, 2014 at 1:08 am
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    I don’t really celebrate thanksgiving, but this was a nice read. You were really able to describe it with the different Chinese dishes. John looks like he ready to eat in that first photo. I hope your Thanksgiving went well. You should update us soon on the dinner you prepared for your family. 😀

    Reply
  • December 7, 2014 at 9:00 pm
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    I’ve always wondered how to explain Thanksgiving to my Chinese Malaysian family. Though I’m from Australia and we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I grew up watching American TV and reading American books to get a good idea of it. There were a few times where Thanskgiving was mentioned in the schools that I went to too.

    Turkey as the American version of duck? I love that analogy. After all, when roasted, both meats look quite similar 😀 I love the eight-treasures rice and how you equated it to stuffing – glutinous rice tends to be a tad saltier and more filling than normal rice, and holds as a savoury dish on its own.

    Reply
  • December 8, 2014 at 2:21 pm
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    LOL I frequently have to explain Jewish holidays and how we celebrate New Years to people. I usually compare them to American holidays which does help out a lot. (Jewish holiday Purim I sort of compare to Halloween, Rosh Hashanah is Jewish New Years, and my family treats New Years as christmas.)

    Reply
  • December 20, 2014 at 4:23 pm
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    This girl is truly great at explaining American stuff to average Chinese people. You are better than Zhou Enlai the diplomat who used to explain to foreign dignitaries that 梁山伯与祝英台 was a Chinese version of Romeo & Juliet.
    hahah Pumpkin pie =/= 绿豆糕
    Cranberry=/= 山里红
    it makes me LMAO and at the same time helps me understand the stuff better because I never seen or tasted these things. People are actually similar all over the world so using simile is always the best way to explain things.

    Reply

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