Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving in Taiwan

American holidays celebrated in foreign countries are always amusing. They are never quite what they ought to be, even though they seem to make a solid attempt at getting there. Here in Taiwan, I got to celebrate Thanksgiving multiple times: at school with my children, the day before with AIT and the day of with my roommates. We'll see if you can figure out which one was the most authentic. :)

Here in Taiwan, the average Taiwanese concept of Thanksgiving is some vague notion involving turkeys. At school, I wanted to devote part of my lesson to teaching about Thanksgiving - the history of the holiday and what it means to "be thankful." Since my book lesson for the two weeks was on "Restaurants," I figured that they sort of fit together (food? ok, so not really...). Now there are 750 Kaohsiung middle schoolers who ought to know the three minute basics of Thanksgiving.

Pilgrims came from England to America. They were cold, hungry and sick. Many of them died during the winter. The next year, they made new friends with the Indians who taught them how to grow food. That year, they had lots of food, and were all healthy and happy. Therefore, they had a big meal to celebrate and they thanked God for all of their blessings.

I have become an expert at simplified English!

Then we did an activity where all of the kids had to write down what they were thankful for. They could draw pictures (I showed them how to make hand turkeys - quite exciting), and then had to present before the rest of the class. Popular responses for: "I am thankful for_____" were "family," "friends," "Grace" (yes, I made the charts - the little brown nosers...), and "myself" (these were the children who did not understand the concept of "being thankful" - ah middle schoolers... one of them told me this was because his whole class was made up of megalomaniacs - yes, he did say that).

My favorite Thanksgiving moment at school, though, came from one of my English club students. He was supposed to write an article for newspaper about the First Thanksgiving. I would like to include here a few of the drafts I received from him. Hopefully, the "history" lessons here will give you a good laugh. Apparently, if you google "First Thanksgiving," all sorts of strange things will come up.

Thanksgiving, starring the most cooperative turkeys! The “First Thanksgiving” was on September 8th 1565, and coming from the obvious hint in the name it was the first thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a time for people to give thanks for the harvest and express gratitude to your close ones but over the years tradition changed to what is it now, and that’s having a nice time with your friends over lunch or dinner. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the 4th Thursday of every November. This year it will be on the 26th, so get ready for a big feast, if you ARE going to celebrate it that is.
Of course the one thing you cannot miss is the turkey (火機). Just watching the enormous turkey being brought out of the kitchen with the steamy air rising above it can make your mouth water. Though the turkey is one of the most important dishes, the mashed potato and corn bread also serves a great deal during the meal! The mashed potato (馬鈴薯) is a great dish to go with the warm and lip smacking gravy (肉汁) that is just something you cannot not have! The cornbread (玉米麵包) is also a scrumptious dish that has a sweet taste of corn mixed together with the flavor smell of the bread.
Almost everyone in America celebrates thanksgiving, but not a lot of Asians do. Maybe on the 26th you could try it out and see whether you like it or not, anyways, you’ll still have a great time! Happy thanksgiving!

After I corrected him that the First Thanksgiving was NOT with the Spaniards in Florida during the 1500s, this is the next draft I received.

Thanksgiving became a tradition in the United States since 1863, but it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1941. Thanksgiving was a religious observation to give thanks to God. Many people still celebrate thanksgiving as a time to give thanks to God, but some people celebroate it as a secular holiday too. On December 4, 1619, 38 English settlers came to Berkeley Hundred in an area known as Charles Cittie. The group’s charter wanted the day that they arrived to be known yearly as “day of thanksgiving” to God. During the first day, Capt. John Woodleaf held the service of Thanksgiving. Quoted from the section of the Charter of Berkeley Hundred describing the thanksgiving service: "We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

I had never heard of Berkeley Hundred or Charles Cittie before. However, I am now an expert, as I had to go and do background research to try to figure out where in the world he was coming from. Never have I so doubted my Pilgrim origins! Never fear, though. I straightened him out, and in the end, his article was quite presentable.


So the day before Thanksgiving, AIT invited us all over to Chris Castro's (AIT/Kaohsiung director) house. Originally, we were led to

AIT, Education Bureau and Fulbright Taiwan people (left); Fulbright Taiwan director (Dr. Chen), AIT Kaohsiung director (Chris Castro) and another AIT/K guy (Mason)

believe this would be a small intimate affair. The invitations also specifically said dress "casual." However, when we found out that all of our co-teachers and principals had also been invited, we started to get a little suspicious. Since we went straight over to his house after school, most of us were in business casual from teaching, but a few had indeed taken the invitation seriously, appearing in shorts and t-shirts. Our suspicions were well-founded, for this was definitely an affair of state. All of AIT/Kaohsiung was there, along with all sorts of the other important people from the city - Education Bureau, bank managers, random American expats who head important industries etc. Chris's house (which was huge, beautiful and full of exquisite artwork; clearly designed to host State Department events) was packed with easily over 100 people. All of whom were in suits. We asked Chris to not write "casual" on the invitations next time when he meant "formal," and he told us that for the State Department, "casual" means suits and "formal" means tuxedos. Well, I suppose there is a reason we are all recent college graduates. :) It was certainly the most formal Thanksgiving dinner I have ever been to or wish to go to in the future. Thanksgiving is supposed to be super laid-back and casual -- jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts; hanging out with your family; watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in your pajamas, stuffing yourself with incredible food; playing boardgames and watching football. Instead, we had "mingle" with a bunch of suits and eat food catered by the local culinary school. While their food was delicious, it was not appropriate Thanksgiving food. My favorites were their cranberry sauce, eggplant and cauliflower dishes. The turkey was cooked Asian-style (if you have ever had Asian meat, you know what I am talking about) and the pumpkin pie was rather rubbery and minus the whipped cream... Not sure how you mess up pumpkin pie... But overall, it was a lot of fun with good food, just not Thanksgiving feeling at all.













Our apartment decided to cook our own Thanksgiving meal the next day. When I got home from school mid-afternoon, I was fairly bent out of shape and planning to just go to bed. However, Kristin walked in the door soon afterwords, laden with Christmas decorations and singing Christmas songs. She dragged me off the couch and to Carrefour where we engaged in last-minute Thanksgiving meal shopping. When Kaitlyn got home, we started all of the cooking and ended up with quite a cozy little meal: chicken (no turkey, but after the turkey the night before, I can't say I missed it), mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, salad, green bean casserole, stuffing and both pumpkin pie and a pumpkin cream cheese loaf for dessert. Then we put on "Miracle on 34th Street" and decorated our apartment for Christmas - putting up the tree, hanging lights and garland etc. I truly do love my roommates - they are all so great. :)













To round out our Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to have our very own ultimate frisbee turkey bowl on Saturday. We went out to a park down by the harbor and engaged in some exciting frisbee competition. Pilgrims versus the Indians. I was a Pilgrim, obviously. William Bradford and William Brewster are practically my next of kin. You see, their descendants married each other, then married a Squirrel who married a Johnson who had me. It's a bit more convoluted than that, but it works out somehow. When I was little, I always thought it would be cool to be a Squirrel... At any rate, we Pilgrims crushed the Indians. As I said before the game started, history always repeats itself. We sang a lot of "Pocahontas," even though we are all well aware that Jamestown and Plymouth were entirely separate colonies... Favorite song to sing while rushing the Indians: "Savages, savages, dirty little heathen." Haha I hope no one thinks less of me now. I must say, being in Asia is quite liberating. There is not such a push for political correctness over here. Asians have every single ethnicity, race, people group and country stereotyped, and not usually with the most pleasant of connotations. The joys of being a homogeneous nation-state and not having to worry about diversity (though this is not as true as they would lead you to believe, for Taiwan has a fairly significant aboriginal population, where each group has its own language and culture; still they are all Asian - nothing like the "melting pot" or "salad bowl" of America).

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