Where can I even start with this post? There is so much to include because today is not only Thanksgiving, but also the 3-month anniversary of my arrival in Xiamen AND my 100th blog post! Like I said, it’s quite the big deal.
First, I think I should give you a little background – this is not my first Thanksgiving in China. No, I was lucky enough to celebrate a wonderfully NQR (Not Quite Right) Thanksgiving in Jilin last year. Looking back at the journal entries I wrote during that trip, I was reminded of how great NQR can be. I didn’t get to celebrate with my family, but I was surrounded by familiar faces and beloved friends (American, Chinese, and Kiwi), including a baby whose birth I had been present for 6 months before. The family we stayed with is so generous and welcoming and the kids are darn cute sometimes, too:
During dinner, we explained Thanksgiving to Nigel [from New Zealand]. Lyte said it’s when Caitlin and Maria come, which was pretty much the most adorable thing I’d ever heard.
It wasn’t just the people around the dinner table, but also my taxi driver, my DVD salesman, my machinist, etc. – all with colorful names like Goose Lady, Mob Boss, and MacGyver – who made me feel like I was surrounded by friendship and love.
We didn’t have a whole turkey, Mom’s mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, but we were certainly not short of good food. We had a Nepalese meal that we ate with our hands, a delicious multi-cultural feast of Mongolian barbecue and s’mores, hand-cranked ice cream, fresh whole-grain bread and butter from our cows, homemade bibimbap, and – the pinnacle of NQR Thanksgiving – turkey curry (we dubbed it ‘curkey’). I was also introduced to two of my favorite new foods – pumpkin soup and pingguoli, a hybrid apple-pear fruit. Yes, we certainly had a menu to be thankful for.
The purpose of our trip was a continuation of last summer’s SENEA project. Much of our goals concerned meeting new contacts and visiting new sites, but we also spent some time checking out our completed projects. We got to re-raise the original SENEA wind turbine and had the opportunity to walk into the greenhouse that I had spent so many hours drafting in SketchUp. We managed to complete everything we came to do, which was definitely an unexpected blessing – something always seems to go wrong when working in China.
After finishing our work, we were lucky (?) enough to be stranded in Jilin for another three days due to inclement weather. I say lucky because we were taken in by some new friends and got to spend the time relaxing (the 2-hour full-body massage stands out in my mind) instead of preparing for finals like our classmates were.
See? Last year’s Thanksgiving was definitely something to be thankful for, and this year was as well.
It started at 6:30 when I got out of bed. There was no water, and hadn’t been since the night before so I got ready without washing my face or brushing my teeth. A little bit uncomfortable, but I was grateful for the time it saved me. Also, it made me more grateful later when running water returned and I was finally able to clean up properly.
I went to daily Mass this morning for the first time. I gave my deacon a little bit of forewarning by texting him to check the time and location of Mass, just in case they wanted to go ahead and speak Mandarin instead of Minnanhua (the local dialect that I don’t understand at all), just this once. They did, and I was so grateful! I was also very grateful to the the woman who handed me a daily missal, open to the correct pages, which actually gave me a fighting chance of understanding what was going on.
After Mass, I had a breakfast of bread and butter – can’t even express the feelings of gratitude that arose within me at the first bite. I had two classes then, and was very grateful to find out that we are being given Christmas Day off. Grammar class was also cancelled for an entire week in December, which means I am considering several travel options.
For lunch, I got kungpao chicken delivered directly to my room, for the grand total of $1.30. Prices like that for good food (and room service to boot) can’t help but make you grateful. After an hour of phone calls in various languages, I was grateful to find a restaurant that could seat a group of 15 and cost less than 198 RMB (almost $30), the going price for Thanksgiving dinner at the big hotels in Xiamen.
This afternoon, I was grateful to find two friends who wanted to play Catan with me. Aleid won, but I was just grateful that my Chinese friend, Yong Zhi, liked the game. Another person conquered in the quest to bring Catan to the world!
This evening, I was most gratified to be joined by friends for Thanksgiving dinner. There was me, Aleid and Diederik (Dutch); Kristina (Slovenia); Liz (Belgium); Carlos (Spain); Eunjeong (Korea); Justine, Virginique, and Jeremy (France); and Yong Zhi and Hu Jing (China). We went to the Red Armadillo, a Mexican American restaurant nearby (I had been once before, with my Saudi classmates). The night was so stunning – cool but not cold, and exceptionally clear – that we ate outside. The atmosphere, food, and company all couldn’t have been more different than Thanksgivings at home, but I tried to connect it with tradition by going around the table and making everyone say something they were grateful for. I started by saying that I was grateful that, even though I was so far from home and family, I was able to celebrate with friends. Everyone else answered after me – they were grateful for the opportunity to be in China, for a dinner of Western food eaten with forks, and many of them for the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time. (Carlos was grateful that he wasn’t last, because it became harder and harder to come up with something to say.)
As for the actual food, it was pretty traditional. You know, I ordered three plates of cheesy fries for the whole table and I opted for the double-decker burger for myself. Others went for other customary choices, including pizza, quesadillas, and – of course – pizzadillas.
I was interesting celebrating Thanksgiving away from the traditions of home. What does the holiday really boil down to? At home, my dad and I would usually go to Mass while mom started cooking. The rest of us got to enjoy a lazy day while she prepared dinner, and then we would sit around the huge family table and eat. And eat. And eat. Anyway, after some thinking I decided that Thanksgiving is really about eating – A LOT – with people you love. Pretty amazing idea, huh?
Actually, another interesting aspect that comes up when celebrating Thanksgiving abroad is the sharing of two cultures, especially in culinary ways. I first realized this last year, when my American host was explaining the origins of the holiday to a Chinese friend. The pilgrims and the Indians came together and, by sharing their food, shared more than that. I think back to the meal of Mongolian barbecue last year, after which I brought out a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers, and several chocolate bars, and introduced s’mores to my Chinese friends . . . I’d like to think that meal was in this honorable tradition of that first Thanksgiving celebration. I think this year – people from 8 countries eating Mexican food in China on an American holiday – also follows the spirit of the holiday.
I would like to wrap up this post with a long (but certainly not all-inclusive) list of things I’m grateful for. Feel free to comment with your additions!
- Today. This is how I always start my prayers at night, thanking God for the day. Today the blessings are more obvious than usual, but there’s always something there to be grateful for – wonderful experiences or at least opportunities to learn from things that were less than wonderful.
- My family. I appreciate my parents more and more each day (especially after moving away to college), for the support that they have unquestioningly given without ever being pushy. My mother is incredibly creative and my dad has more common sense than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m also really grateful for the opportunities I’m going to have in January to show them China in all its rough glory – I get to order their food, which is pretty much the definition of power :) I also have a really great older brother who is, among other things, a very gifted photographer. Plus I have a ton of cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few grandparents that are also pretty awesome.
- My friends. I have been very fortunate in making so many wonderful foreign friends during my first few months here. Of course, I’ve also been blessed by the friendships from back home that have continued. I’m always so grateful to hear from friends that I crossed their mind for some reason or another, and to know that I am missed in some way. Even with those friends that I’ve lost contact with, I’m grateful for the things that we shared.
- Technology. I’m so thankful for all the ways I have of staying in contact with the above-mentioned friends and family – email, facebook, Skype, and especially this blog. I think my parents know more about what I’m up to than they do when I’m at home, and I know I’m in closer contact with some people because of it. If you’re still reading, thanks for staying around for 100 posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them!
- The Catholic Church. I’m so grateful for the experiences I’ve had during my life and especially these last few months, to experience God’s work in my life through the institution of the Church. While in China, I’ve seen how worship transcends language and cultural barriers, and enjoyed all the best that the Church Universal has to offer, while also witnessing the struggles of the Church Suffering. I’ve had to examine my faith and my beliefs under different and sometimes challenging circumstances, but I’ve also received encouragement from seeing others flourish in the same situation – witnessing devotion and even a new vocation.
- China. Living here is like an obstacle course, a challenge that brings out a different part of me. I’m grateful for the situations that I’ve been put in that have pushed me to do something I thought was impossible for me. I’m also grateful for the complexities and delights of the Chinese language, which I inexplicably find exciting, interesting, motivating, and – very often – humbling. Of course, none of this would be true without the Chinese people, who I have largely found to possess an incredible amount of patience and a surprising affability in the face of foreigners routinely butchering their language.
- Health. I certainly don’t possess the ideal body, but it’s served me pretty well. I’m so grateful that, despite minor bouts of diarrhea and the like, I have thus far escaped serious bodily harm here in China. (This feeling of gratitude is especially strong after successfully crossing a street.) It’s not just on this trip – last summer, despite vehicles driving off bridges, crashing in to barbed wire, and running over feet, we all went home no worse for the wear. Thanks be to God!
- SENEA. I definitely couldn’t talk about gratitude and China without mentioning SENEA (see About Me if you don’t know what this is). From first piquing my interest in China, to offering unwavering support during culture shock on my first few trips, SENEA is the reason I’m here now. Of course, it’s not really the organization; it’s the people. I’m so grateful for my mentor and all my friends who were involved, for all the laughs and lessons that we shared.
- Scholarships. Seriously, I have been very lucky throughout my higher education in that I’ve been supported by several organizations and institutions who believe that I have the potential to do something with my life. In addition to the donors supporting my education at TU and the Chinese government footing the bill here at XiaDa, I was fortunate enough to have the Goldwater and Udall scholarships help out with the Chinese language studies by making it possible for me to spend last summer just studying Chinese, four hours a day. Yes, believe it or not, that was a huge blessing.
- Good food. There are a lot of things I miss – good bread, plentiful cheese, lemonade, pasta, steak, mom’s mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, strawberries and raspberries, free Blue Bell ice cream, mudslide smoothies, Belgian waffles, any sort of pie or cake, ice, etc. But I also have so much good food to choose from here, which makes it possible for me to be happy most of the time by appreciating what I have instead of what I don’t have.
- Simple pleasures. I’m just going to list things here: dancing, music on my iPod, Nutella, my electronic Chinese dictionary, milk tea or anything else from Coco, hair-washing for $3, sunsets, Xiamen’s highways, sweatpants, any book I can get my hands on, thoughtful emails, getting where I want to go on a bus, text messages in Chinese that I understand, etc.
I really need to get to bed. Right now I am trying very hard to be grateful for the opportunity I have to compete in the 100-meter dash. Tomorrow morning. At 8 a.m. Think grateful thoughts . . . grateful thoughts . . .