So how do you describe what a turkey is, when the only thing you have as an example is a golden baked bird that came in a tinfoil dish with a tinfoil covering? If you’ve never seen a picture of a turkey, wild or domestic, let alone the real thing, how would you even begin to understand what it is and how it is different from the chickens, ducks, and geese you see every day? How would you describe its head when it’s missing? What is it that makes the turkey so “special” for Thanksgiving?
I haven’t thought much about what a turkey is, or why we have them for Thanksgiving, or been asked to describe one since probably about 1969 or 1970 when I was in Lincoln Elementary in Murray, UT. Yet here I am in China at a Thanksgiving Party with many native Chinese that have no idea or concept of a turkey. So I try to reach back into the cobweb of memories to figure out how to describe something that seems so obvious to me; so America, yet it is something that isn’t completely American. Is it really that difficult to describe? Do I, as an American, take for granted that the culture of Thanksgiving and turkeys that has been part of the America and the United States since the very beginning of our recent North American recorded history? The answer is a resounding, YES! to both questions.
I wouldn’t have thought about whether turkeys were something that people wouldn’t understand. I am here to tell you that a turkey is not something that my friends here understand. The Chinese language has many short comings in my opinion, but those short comings are sometimes a strength. The turkey has several Chinese names.
In Chinese, it is called huoji (火雞 / 火鸡) meaning “fire chicken” for the color of the head. Other names in Chinese include qimianniao (七面鳥 / 七面鸟) meaning “seven-faced bird”, tujinji (吐錦雞 / 吐锦鸡) meaning “cough up a brocade chicken” and tushouji (吐綬雞 / 吐绶鸡) meaning “cough up a ribbon chicken” due to their red wattles. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
But it we just relied on the rather descriptive names given to the bird in Chinese is that sufficient to describe it? What about a domestic turkey versus a wild turkey? There really is a huge difference between these two birds even if you don’t just think about the color and plumage. How about where they come from? Is the right answer they are wild and you can hunt them in the Spring and Fall? Or is the answer that they are raised by the thousands in ventilated barns where the food is plentiful, the temperatures controlled, and 9 months get you a baby turkey that weighs about 20 pounds? How much do the parts we don’t see on the table weigh, for we know that a turkey isn’t that golden brown beauty that I am tearing and cutting apart to make turkey meat, it has a head, feathers, feet, and insides. There is so much I know but so much more that I don’t. I freely admit that I know more today about turkeys than I did yesterday, since I have now done a little research. I am certainly inquisitive and there is nothing worse than knowing that you don’t know.
I hope that everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving. This is the first Thanksgiving that my wife and I have spent alone together. When we were first married we would attend Thanksgiving with one of our families, when we were living in Florida, California, Hawaii, and Arkansas we had our children with us and even had family visit during some of those Thanksgiving celebrations. To make things worse since, we are living in China, it is a work day. Not that there are really any holidays here in this country that we have experienced so far, we have been on holiday and touring for the Autumn Festival and the National Day Holiday that have occurred so far. Both of these holidays we went on road trips so it wasn’t like we were at our home and those were really the “holidays” that we have enjoyed all of our lives.
We are fortunate in many ways being in the situation that we are here in China. We live in the Expert Village with the other foreign experts. Since the majority of us are from the US we are feeling a little out of sorts as the holiday season begins and we really want to try to have the holiday spirit that we hope will make us feel more at home. I am grateful for my wife and the wives of my colleagues that decided that we should have a Thanksgiving dinner. The group that was here last year had a party but because they were living “on the economy” (basically rented apartments out in town) the attendance was less than stellar. Why would it be anything else if you have to make this big endeavor to get someplace for dinner right after work.
This year is different as we are all basically neighbors. There are many more of us here this year and we are all basically living next door to each other so the plan is to have a big party on the second floor of the restaurant. Westinghouse is going to pick up the birds, which is great for a number of reasons; the turkey isn’t in high demand in this country and the ovens that we are provided are not big enough to even do a roasted chicken let alone a small turkey. The turkey dinners that are available in town include several pounds of mashed potatoes, stuffing, carrots, roasted/steamed pumpkin, and vegetable gravy. The wives are invited to bring their own favorite dish and make it a potluck affair. Shaw is going to provide the drinks. I am not sure who will end up spending more (turkeys vs wine, beer, and sodas) but I am sure that Friday at work, yes no Black Friday frenzy to worry about, will have some folks nursing hangovers.
The RSVP identifies over 100 people who will be in attendance. Since it is a work day we will begin the meal much later than we normally do for a Thanksgiving meal, 6:00pm. About 4:00pm my carpool leaves with the intent of ensuring that the wives get some support in the final setup and preparations. I think they are relieved that we have come to help with the final setup. The meal baskets have just arrived and the ladies are sorting the dinner tins so that the food can be placed in the warming tables. A couple of us are asked to begin the process of making baked birds look like turkey meat. This is one of the tasks that I do enjoy about Thanksgiving, it is also one the few tasks in China where you can play with a big knife and cut things up without getting stared at like you are some kind of psycho (OK, so I am guessing a little on that one – wouldn’t dare try something like that as I might have to call the embassy to come and get me released from some communist Chinese prison).
We make quick work out of the first four birds before the crowds start to show up. One of the fun things about this party/dinner is that many of our local hire people are coming to the party. Local hires are people who have been hired by the company who are actually Chinese citizens and don’t live with us here in the Expert Village. Why is not really clear to most of us, as we currently occupy about 4 buildings with about 6-8 units and 2 buildings with 20 units. The customer occupies the remaining buildings (about 14 buildings). I believe that all the customer’s employees are Chinese citizens so why their people get to live in the Expert Village and our people don’t is confusing. This arrangement and segregation has been one of our major complaints about the situation here. I didn’t come to China to eat with American.
It isn’t often that we get to eat and spend time with these other people from our companies, even our lunches are served in a different area when we are at work. We live many miles from each other and have even less interaction with them than we would with a similar counterpart in the US. As we are disassembling the birds we have a number of friends and colleagues stop by and watch us “workin’ the birds”. We are the subject of numerous photos. I wonder now if being the subject of the photo was because of the birds (most birds are not baked like you would a turkey).
I will wander from the theme for a minute to give you an example of how fowl is prepared so you can contrast that with what you saw on your Thanksgiving. One of my least favorite dishes in this country is what I have come to call “wood chipper” chicken. Imagine breasting a chicken and then taking the rest of it and throwing it through a wood chipper and the chunks and pieces that come out get cook with your choice of vegetables. Lots of bones and very little meat; most of the meat has to be eaten with a lot of attention so that you don’t break a tooth or choke on a chicken bone.
Anyway, we were talking about being the subject of many photos. Our colleagues may also be interested in the photo opportunity because they don’t normally see us doing things where we get our hands dirty or it might be because they can’t believe that we (men) are actually doing something in the kitchen.
Since we have become such a show I ask a couple of questions to our audience about their experience with turkeys. Turkeys are not common in China, which isn’t really surprising but I didn’t realize that none of them know what a turkey is. They are in completely uncharted territory; I don’t think that they are surprised by anything that we had there. We are surprised by some of the items that have been potlucked, the sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and the seafood noodles do seem a little out-of-place. I find it funny when we are asked by colleagues if those are normal Thanksgiving dishes. I am not sure if they understand why it is funny.
This whole Thanksgiving meal idea is totally new for them; it was something that they do not have a point of reference for. We are asked many times about what the turkey is and what it looks like. Why a turkey and not something else that would “be easier” to cook. I realize that I don’t know or remember enough about turkeys to be much help in providing them with, what I would consider to be sufficient and adequate information. Do I really need to go into the story about the Pilgrims and Indians and the first Thanksgiving to help them understand turkeys or do I just need to describe the bird? Is it important that Benjamin Franklin thought it should be the National Bird (the Bald Eagle wasn’t his first choice)? I think that we created more questions than we answered.
What we are able to help them understand is that it is a bird, the ones we were having are little ones (or several little ones in this case) by comparison to US standards for a “party” bird, and they understand that they like the way it tastes. I am happy that we have given them an experience that is a little bit American. I am happy to have had another fun experience eating in this country and giving my colleagues an opportunity to question why someone would eat something like that. We have had plenty of those opportunities our selves in the past few months.
We have provided chopsticks for their dining pleasure but note that the knives and forks are getting the real work. How would you eat Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks anyway? Happy Thanksgiving everyone.