Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Do you have a Thanksgiving-day ritual? Watching the Macy’s parade, maybe, or fighting with your siblings over who gets to open the can and dump out the quivering cylinder of cranberry sauce? My traditions involve the ritual consumption of exactly one Brussels sprout, just to make sure I still don’t like them; taking a post-meal walk; and compelling everyone to read the story of my first Thanksgiving away from home.
A Tale of Two Turkeys
Even though it was speaking English, I wanted the voice in my head to go away.
“You’re forgetting something,” it murmured as I stepped off the train in Shijiazhuang, in China’s Hebei Province. “Didn’t you have another bag?” it asked, more insistently, as I dodged touts and money-changers on my way to the bus stop outside the station. By the time I was boarding the local bus that would take me to my friend Sarah’s apartment, the voice was bellowing like a Red Guard. “Hey, you left something on the train!”
Halfway to the teachers’ college where Sarah taught English, 175 miles southwest of Beijing, my day flashed before my eyes with sudden clarity. I remembered waking up in the women’s dorm room at the Qiao Yuan youth hostel in Beijing. The long room full of closely spaced cots had all the ambiance of an orphanage. The beds’ occupants weren’t real charity cases, though, just frugal European and American backpackers like myself, new university graduates taking a travel deferment on adulthood.
I remembered taking a bus to Tiananmen Square. The Beijing bus had been so packed that sardined riders in front passed their one-mao bills hand-over-hand to the fare collector perched in the back.
I remembered walking from the square to the friendship store on Jianguomenwai Boulevard. There had been crunching locust-tree leaves underfoot, and the crisp air smelled like coal dust and candied crab apples.
I remembered picking up a box of Australian chocolate cookies and an over-priced, under-fed frozen turkey from Hong Kong. I remembered tucking the bird under my arm like a clammy football and trotting off to the central station, where I just made my train.
I remembered getting on the local bus in Shijiazhuang, feeling strangely light in spite of the frame pack on my back and the daypack slung across my chest. It was then that I understood what the nagging voice in my head was talking about: Out there in the darkness, chugging through the Chinese countryside, nestled cozily in the overhead storage area where I’d stashed it so a conductor could sweep up sunflower-seed shells and cigarette butts, was my Thanksgiving dinner.
Brandishing the cookie box before me like a protective shield, I knocked on Sarah’s door. “Hi, I brought cookies!” I yelped, hoping this would make my friend forget our deal: Sarah had promised that if I found a turkey, she would find a way to cook it.
Sarah considered my maniacally proffered gift. She also eyed my suspiciously light baggage. “You forgot something, didn’t you?” she asked. I replied the way anyone who’d just ruined her first Thanksgiving away from home would have: I burst into tears. Sarah responded by doing the very last thing I expected: She laughed until she needed to sit down.
As soon as we both could speak, we agreed that it was too late to do anything that night. Sarah, in fact, seemed to feel that although we’d lost a turkey, we’d gained a great holiday-gone-wrong story that shouldn’t be spoiled with a happy ending. I however, tossed and turned on the couch for hours feeling like the world’s biggest turkey myself. I’d spoiled Thanksgiving. I’d wasted a piece of meat that had cost more than most backpackers spent in a month on food. If I ever returned home my mother and grandmother, who between them effortlessly orchestrated a 10-dish dinner every Thanksgiving, would undoubtedly disown me. And that’s assuming I was even allowed back into my home state of Massachusetts. I slept fitfully that night, haunted by visions of puritanical authorities in buckled shoes sentencing me to wear a scarlet letter for the sin of Absent-mindedness.
Early the next morning I set off on a borrowed bicycle, armed with directions to the train station and a command of Mandarin about as reliable as the local electricity: adequate as long as I didn’t ask too much of it, but flickery, and prone to abrupt shutdowns.
Conversational circuits blew almost immediately at the station information booth. “You left what on the train?” the attendant asked incredulously, “You’ll have to go talk to security,” she snapped, and slammed the window shut. The brownout continued at security. “Did anyone turn in a frozen turkey?” I asked the matron at the desk. She sighed and rummaged half-heartedly through a box of thermoses, ceramic mugs, and other train detritus. “No, no turkeys here,” she said. “Try the information booth.”
I pedaled dejectedly back to Sarah’s, trying to cheer myself up by imagining my dinner being discovered by one of the starving Chinese children American mothers like to invoke to make their kids eat, but it didn’t help.
Sarah seemed almost relieved that the bird had not come home to roost. But because I felt so terrible, she volunteered her semi-bilingual neighbor, Mr. Yan, to help me talk turkey with security.
Talking about turkeys, incidentally, has not always been possible in China. Mandarin has a well-established word for chicken: ji. But the more recent introduction of turkeys required a new word, and the neologism chosen was huo ji, meaning, literally, “fire chicken.”
My understanding is that the “fire” part is meant to convey something like the English prefix “mega,” or “deluxe.” All I have ever been able to picture, however, when I hear the phrase is a rocket-powered Henny Penny doing screaming barrel rolls over her henhouse, shooting flames from her tail like a MiG.
For this reason, the conversation with security quickly became one of the most surreal I’ve ever had in my life. “Can you describe the fire chicken?” asked the first security officer, who looked like he ate railroad stowaways for breakfast. “She says the fire chicken weighs about five kilos,” translated Mr. Yan. The corners of his mouth twitched, but he kept it together. “Where did you last see the fire chicken?” asked the second officer, almost completely successfully swallowing a smile. “She left it in an overhead rack in a hard-seat car on Tuesday night…right?” Mr. Yan said, glancing at me for confirmation. “Dui, yes” I nodded, as solemnly as I could, desperately fighting back an attack of the giggles.
The men soldiered through the rest of their discussion. I struggled to keep up, biting my tongue every time the words “fire chicken” jumped out at me. Afterward, Mr. Yan explained to me that he’d learned that the train I’d been on had changed course at Shijiazhuang and was now bound for the province of Inner Mongolia. My backward bird looked to be heading north for the winter. “I’m sorry,” Mr. Yan said as kindly as he could while trying not to laugh. “I don’t think they’re going to find your fire chicken.”
Thanksgiving day passed with no sign of the wayward bird. I moped through Friday and most of Saturday until finally the god of feathery edibles decided I’d suffered enough. Returning from an errand, Sarah and I skidded our bikes to a stop in the dusty, brick-strewn courtyard in front of her building and saw Mr. Yan beaming in the doorway. “Guess who called,” he said, trying to sound casual. “The train station. They found your fire chicken.”
An hour later I was holding my well-traveled turkey in my arms. It was still frozen. By the next morning, the prodigal little bird was thawed, stuffed, trussed, and wedged into a portable oven that Sarah had somehow gotten her hands on. The giant egg-shaped device looked more like a beauty-parlor hair drier than an oven, but it did the trick, and several hours later, Sarah and Mr. Yan and I sat down to an inexpertly carved but perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey. We served it doused in a lumpy giblet gravy, accompanied by powdery rolls, banana bread, gluey mashed potatoes, and litchi-fruit salad. We washed it down with Sprite. It was the most modest Thanksgiving I’d ever been part of, but I can’t think of a single meal I’ve ever been more purely thankful for.
A lot has changed since that Thanksgiving of 1992. Sarah got married and moved to New Zealand. (She also became a vegetarian--our ultra free-range turkey turned out to be the last one she ever tasted.) Sarah goes back to China periodically and reports that the Middle Kingdom we remember of bike lanes and old women tottering on bound feet has taken such a great leap forward that I wouldn’t recognize it. Certainly China wouldn’t recognize me, more amply padded than in my backpacking days, and showing some gray in the blond hair that Chinese children used to dare each other to touch.
Even our idea of Thanksgiving has changed. The cozy story I was raised with in Massachusetts, the one with the friendly natives and grateful pilgrims, has been supplanted-- in progressive circles, at least--by a more complicated tale of mutual distrust and limited contact. I accept this revised version, but it has always seemed to me a shame that that first Plymouth Thanksgiving didn’t work out better. Because as I learned in China, it could have. Every part of the story--the bumbling new arrivals, the face-saving locals, the improvised feast, the sharing of unfamiliar foods, the gratitude--it all could all have happened. I know because it all happened to me.
(Published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Dallas Morning News, and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2007.