Sweet, musical laughter intermingles with Mandarin chatter. It is Thanksgiving and I am squeezed between six black-haired women around our kitchen table. They are scooping spoonfuls of stringed pork and mashed vegetables, dipping their fingers delicately into small bowls of cool water, wetting the edges of wonton strips, and sealing shut a thousand-year-old tradition: making dumplings. I listen as their voices snake in and out of scents of stir-fried beef and soy sauce. I only catch snippets since much of the language has already escaped me. They gossip and giggle like girls, their faces dusted with flour. Unable to join in, I concentrate on my finger circling and wetting the edges of the dumpling.
I think of my friend Xiao Lee (who proclaimed herself Alexandra) and wonder if she is wrapping dumplings at this moment. A few days ago, she informed me that she too was “having another one of those Chinese parties.” Her voice had tripped on a note of disdain and her flat, tanned nose crinkled in disgust as she thought of the “Asian-ness” of it all.
“I don’t understand why I have to eat duck,” she’d complained. “Why can’t we just have turkey and mashed potatoes like normal people?”
“Um, yeah,” I nodded. I understood where she was coming from: the confusion of being a first-generation American, the first link broken from an eternal chain of Chinese ancestors. Drowning in a rippling sea of blond locks and blue eyes, I often felt like the odd one out even in a shuffle of jet black hair so similar to mine. I was stuck in a crevice, torn between a yearning for assimilation and my Chinese culture. Yet, I was lost when it came to Alexandra’s resentment, prevalent among my Asian peers. I remembered freshman year when racial terms like FOB and Twinkie began to litter my ears.
“Where were you born? China? Oh, then you’re a FOB, Fresh Off the Boat. And you? Born in America? God, you’re such a Twinkie, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” Strangely, it was Asians who seemed to take pride in insulting each other. They observed their parents’ rituals, listened to their awkward accents, and snickered maliciously behind their backs. All this left me perplexed; although I was unsure of where to place my loyalties, I was far from resentful. So what if I’m proud, I wondered defensively. What’s wrong with being both Chinese and American? “I can barely speak any Chinese now,” Alexandra had bragged. My eyebrows had arched in surprise and I felt pity for her pride.
Suddenly, my mother’s stew begins to boil and she rushes over while my puppy nips at her heels. She lifts the lid and waves anxiously at the steam, as if trying to bat away an invisible fly.
“Hurry, Lisa!” she calls in Mandarin, beckoning for me to tend the stew as she rejoins the dumpling fest. I peer into the steaming soup and swirl it slowly; I’m mesmerized by the hurricane of tofu, spinach, peas and pork. It swirls faster until it becomes a confused bubbling mass, mirroring my thoughts. Like the peas, I feel trapped in a large uncompromising stew, lost between two cultures. Though I long to be accepted by my peers, there is another part of me that would do anything to be a part of my family’s time-honored traditions.
When I was younger, I used to watch my mother grating spices for a dinner of asparagus, tofu and catfish and I’d wonder if we could ever just have a hamburger.
“Are we having a party for Thanksgiving this year?” I had asked once.
“Thanksgiving,” my mother had mused. “There is no such holiday in China.”
“Really?” I asked, puzzled.
She laughed, her black curls bobbing, “Why, of course! There were no Pilgrims, no Indians in China! Only in America.”
“So then why do we celebrate?”
She stared deeply into my brown eyes and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. “We do not truly celebrate it, we simply enjoy Thanksgiving.”
“The dumplings are ready!” my mother hollers. Her voice echoes through the house, snapping me back to the present. She directs me to transport the dishes from the counter to the table. Rice, eggplant, noodles, fish, beef, broccoli, snow peas, and tofu: dish after dish is carried to the table, a feast fit for a king.
Finally, the most anticipated two dishes arrive and children and adults scramble to the table, led by their excited, twitching noses. My mother carefully sets down the steaming dumplings followed by the majestic marinated duck. There is a moment of silence as everyone takes a deep whiff. Then, without warning, everyone begins digging in; no prayers, no thank yous to the Heavens or references to the Pilgrims, just enjoyment of food and the presence of our loved ones. Chopsticks clink against the plates, rice grains drop onto placemats, and tiny fish bones are spat out onto the flowered napkins. Turkey? Duck? What does it matter? I look at my plate, pick up a juicy Thanksgiving duck leg and take a large bite, savoring its sweet saltiness.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.