Translating a US Thanksgiving to Family in China – Pub’d in China Daily

China Daily published my column titled Translating a US Thanksgiving to family in China, where I share my memories of trying to explain this favorite American holiday of mine to my Chinese in-laws. Here’s an excerpt:

“Well, we have this big meal together with family, and we eat things like turkey and cranberries …”

As I tried describing Thanksgiving Day, one of the most quintessential holidays in the United States, to my in-laws in China, 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 they had never seen a turkey or tasted cranberries.

So I attempted to translate the holiday through more familiar Chinese counterparts.

I described the roast turkey as something akin to Beijing duck. I equated the sweet-tart goodness of cranberries to Chinese hawthorn in the candied fruit skewers of tanghulu. I called stuffing a savory version of eight-treasures rice. I likened pumpkin pie to the pumpkin cakes, or nanguabing, popular across their province of Zhejiang.

I compared the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the yearly Spring Festival Gala on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

And I characterized the entire celebration as an American version of winter solstice in China, as both holidays emphasize food and family and herald the start of the holiday season in our respective countries.

Yet as much as my in-laws nodded and smiled in acknowledgment, I recognized that even these explanations were a poor substitute.

It wasn’t just that some of the food didn’t have a clear analog in Chinese culture, such as mashed potatoes with gravy or the traditional green bean casserole sprinkled with crispy fried onions.

No words could ever fully encompass the Thanksgiving celebrations I had known in the US.

You can read the full column here — and if you like it, share it. And for those of you who do celebrate it, wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving holiday!

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2 thoughts on “Translating a US Thanksgiving to Family in China – Pub’d in China Daily

  • November 24, 2018 at 2:07 am

    Some cultural gaps are just impossible to bridge regardless of anybody’s heroic efforts to mitigate and introduce. I’m sure that some of your in-law’s treasured celebrations are just as irrelevant to a trans- oceanic transplant deep down inside, although you certainly will put on a good front to go with the flow.
    I remember hearing from immigrant relatives of significant Chinese occasions such as autumn festivals, eating of moon cakes for the celebration etc, which really didn’t do much for me. Those greasy cakes entice me probably just as turkey would to your in-laws.

    • November 26, 2018 at 4:35 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Dan. I agree, not every cultural gap can be bridged, and sometimes what we cherish might not always hold the same draw for others from another culture.


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