I was doing some editing and it occurred to me that I never posted this chapter. It seemed timely since Thanksgiving is a few days away...Enjoy! Oh, per usual, it is rough, particularly the dialogue. I really like the exchange about Tibet with Driver Jerry. I also really like my memory of childhood Thanksgivings...I cheated here and plucked it from my first unpublished memoir:).
Giving Thanks in China
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around life was good. The neighbors had finally finished their renovation – only two half-empty cans of paint remained in a corner of the foyer. Grace was starting to recognize some sight words – we had a long, long way to go before Junie B. but we were on our way. Willy had come to terms with holding my hand when requested – it had actually become like second nature for him to grab my hand as soon as we’d leave the building. I had begun to meet a nice mix of people outside the clutches of Kristin McBride – thankfully not all expat ladies were as crazy as she was. And Rob, well, he worked his ass off all day, every day – but he loved the challenge, so it was all good.
I wanted to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner – a distinctly American feast – but how was I supposed to make that happen with an EZ bake oven and a stove with two burners?
After a few short moments on the internet I’d discovered a catering company and ordered a turkey with all the accoutrements right down to the pumpkin pie – for a cool $250. It was a small price to pay for a little piece of home in China.
While we waited for Rob and Driver Jerry to arrive, I stepped out onto the kitchen balcony and took in a deep breath. I was smacked in the face with a damp wind that carried a new unwanted scent – industrial waste. Summer in Shanghai smelled like sewage, but when the weather turned cooler it smelled like a cross between burning coal and burning rubber.
No matter. It was officially the holiday season. It was a time to celebrate friends and family. Though we were thousands of miles from our families, we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving with our new family: Xiao Li, Driver Chen, and Driver Jerry. They’d helped us through those rough first few weeks in China. It was time for us to show our thanks to them.
As I rested my elbows on the cool metal railing watching the cars whizz by and Chinese people go about their business, oblivious to the American holiday, I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood Thanksgivings.
Endless gray Mid-Atlantic skies, the smell of burning leaves and pumpkin pies baking, and the forceful heat coming off of the wood-burning stove.
I could almost hear my brothers and me laughing as we jumped in a fresh pile of leaves, then the inevitable argument over who would rake the next pile. And me being the youngest- I raked a lot of leaves.
The vision that was my grandmother: hair perfectly coiffed, make-up just right, an apron to match her plaid Pendleton slacks and cashmere turtleneck sweater, as she moved with grace through the kitchen never once breaking a sweat or showing a sign that she was tiring after spending the entire day in the kitchen.
The sound of the football game blended with the gentle snores of my grandfather as he slept off yet another perfect Thanksgiving dinner with his hands folded, resting on a brass belt buckle.
I could see my mom and brother, Daniel, dancing the jitterbug without music playing in the kitchen, trying in vain to get me to join in on their fun. My brother, Herb, in a plaid flannel shirt and shit-kicker boots playing pool with my step-Dad who’d be sitting on a barstool resting his chin on the tip of the pool cue patiently waiting his turn.
It occurred to me that Grace and Willy would have a completely different memory of their childhood Thanksgivings.
“Hey!” I heard Robby shout from below. I peeked over the railing and waved. “Dinner ready? I’m starved.”
“Yep, just been waitin’ on you guys.”
There we were. Chen sat silent, his shoulders hunched forward as he chewed his food slowly. He sipped on some jasmine tea that I’d bought earlier in the day. Xiao Li giggled and ate a decent portion of food. She even drank a beer. They both appeared to like their first turkey.
Jerry was his usual self. Chatting non-stop and asking me and the kids questions in Mandarin.
“Jenny-fer, I think your Shanghainese is very good, but I think your Mandarin is very bad.” Though Mandarin is the official language of China, Shanghainese is a dialect spoken by the Shanghainese.
That statement would have thrown me for a loop in the first few weeks of life in China, but I’d learned enough by now to know that he meant it as a compliment. The Chinese don’t mess around with ambiguous speech like native-English speakers. They say it like it is - a trait I’d grown to appreciate.
“Oh, thanks, Jerry. Yeah, to be honest, I have no idea what language I’m speaking…I just kind of repeat what I hear when I’m out and about.”
“It makes you sound uneducated, like a shop keeper or a farmer.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense because I communicate mostly with Xiao Li, Chen and people at the markets.”
“You should find a friend on the internet that can help you learn Mandarin and you can help him learn English. This is a very pop-oo-lar way for Chinese people to learn English.”
“Maybe I will,” I lied.
I was pleasantly surprised that the turkey and fixins’ were decent. It was no Mom Mom Thanksgiving, but it was probably better than what I could pull off even in a real kitchen.
Robby sulked a little. No football to watch on TV.
“Robert tells me you will go to Thailand for Christmas.”
“Yes! We are very excited.”
“Will you make any plans to travel around China?”
“Well, we’ve been to Hangzhou and Suzhou…and we’d love to go to Tibet.”
“Why are all the foreigners so fascinated with Tibet? All the foreigners want to go to Tibet. I do not understand.”
That’s a loaded question.
“Well, I imagine it is probably very beautiful.”
“Oh yes. The central government invests so much money in Tibet.”
“Really? That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that.”
“Oh yes, so much money to Tibet. I do not understand why.”
Word this carefully.
“Well, what do you think about the situation in Tibet? I mean, a lot of westerners believe Tibet should be as we say, ‘free’.”
“This is a matter of politics. It doesn’t concern the people.”
Interesting way to look at it.
“You know, Jenny-fer, before China took over Tibet the Dalai Lama and his monks kept the Han Chinese as slaves?”
“I did not know that, Jerry. Hmm. That’s interesting. It’s definitely not part of the typical Tibetan narrative.”
“Narrative? What is this word?” He took his vocabulary book and pen out of his pocket to write it down.
As I spelled the word for him I continued. “Story. Narrative just means story…that isn’t part of what we’ve heard about Tibet. We’ve just heard that Mao took over and many, many people died during the Great Leap Forward.”
“Yes, but not just Tibetans died in the Great Leap Forward…many, many Han Chinese people died…big famine.”
The conversation continued. I wanted to desperately to learn from Jerry. After all, he was Chinese. He could teach me more about his own country’s history than what I could garner from books written by westerners. But we westerners - with our arrogance - believe the Chinese people have only been brainwashed. We believe they don’t know their own history.
I tried to fall asleep that night but I couldn’t. I couldn’t help but ponder this notion of brainwashing. The reality is that we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that our way of life is somehow better than everyone else’s way. Was it responsible for me to start believing the Chinese version of the story?