How Thanksgiving helps Asian-Americans celebrate their culture and identity
The looseness to Thanksgiving makes it a great platform for Asian-Americans to celebrate and inject their own, sometimes complicated, identities
Kimchi stuffing, pumpkin sticky rice – there are no wrong dishes
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 3:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 7:11am
Charley Lanyon

Mina Park has a lot on her plate. As the chef and owner of Sook in Hong Kong, and co-owner of the recently closed but pioneering Baroo in Los Angeles, Park is at the cutting edge of modern global Korean dining. But this time of year her mind drifts from her work in food to her family table and preparations for her favourite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving can be a complicated time for immigrants and their children in the United States. The holiday’s very Americanness can be alienating. Most people anywhere in the world have at least some conception of what is expected for more global holidays, such as Christmas, but Thanksgiving remains a strange bird.

Even many multi-generational Americans find the holiday confounding: why does the nation pretend to like turkey one day of the year? What precisely is a pilgrim? And what do they have to do with pie?

For more recent immigrants, the holiday can serve to highlight their otherness, the seemingly insurmountable distance they still have to travel for true assimilation.

“I’m Korean-American, and during my childhood, my family moved often all over North America,” says Park. “My parents moved to the US from Korea right before I was born, so they weren’t familiar with American traditions like Thanksgiving. I distinctly recall being in primary school and being slightly mortified that we didn’t celebrate this thing called Thanksgiving.”

On the other hand, Thanksgiving is something of a great equaliser. If there is a central message – other than being “thankful” – it is that everyone in the US, with the exception of actual native Americans, are immigrants.

Park celebrates her Korean heritage by having kimchi at Thanksgiving. Photo: Alamy

For Park, what started as a source of mortification and confusion quickly became a sincere cause for celebration.

“I told my mom all about how Americans celebrated, and after that we started to have Thanksgiving dinner at home. It quickly became my family’s major holiday celebration and we always had a table covered with a roast turkey, stuffing and all the fixings,” Park recalls. “And because we are Korean, kimchi.”

Thanksgiving is, like the sentiment it claims to celebrate, a very welcoming holiday. In the Park family’s case that meant inviting other members of their community, such as Korean international students or colleagues of Park’s father’s who were alone on Thanksgiving.

Asian-Americans celebrate the holiday across the US. Photo: Alamy

The US holiday has mercifully few conditions. There’s no religious requirement; no ritual more involved than napping and maybe watching football. Not that it is without its own dearly held mythologies.

“When I was growing up, I was taught that Thanksgiving was a time when the native Americans and English colonists set aside their differences for one beautiful, shared seasonal meal,” Park says. “So, as a child, I imagined this as a time to share your culture and bridge cultural gaps. I was usually the only Asian in my schools so this was quite attractive to me.

“Of course, I eventually learned the truth about Thanksgiving,” she adds, referencing the diseases and historic genocide that the meetings between native Americans and Europeans ushered in, the wholesale slaughter, cultural decimation, and land theft that would follow.

When I was still in Hong Kong, I realised that many of my neighbours and friends had never celebrated Thanksgiving. I felt sad for them for being deprived of my favourite holidayCHEF MINA PARK
Like many modern Americans, especially immigrants, the hard truths about Thanksgiving require some serious reconceptualisation. “I decided Thanksgiving could still be an opportunity to take a moment to be grateful for my friends and family,” says Park. “Cooking for them is my way of showing my gratitude and love.”

There is a particularly American looseness to Thanksgiving that makes it appealing to people from all backgrounds. Even the traditional menu is ripe for experimentation: as long as you hit the classics of Turkey, stuffing, cranberry and pie, you’re free to go nuts. Kimchi stuffing, turkey mole enchiladas, pumpkin sticky rice – there are no wrong answers.

Park, who only recently moved to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, found herself in the position of a kind of Thanksgiving missionary when she lived in Asia. She did not want to stop celebrating just because she wasn’t in America and was eager to spread the gospel of the season.

“When I was still in Hong Kong, I realised that many of my neighbours and friends had never celebrated Thanksgiving. I felt sad for them for being deprived of my favourite holiday,” she says.

Park quickly discovered that the appeal of Thanksgiving was truly global. “I hosted a neighbourhood Thanksgiving party where I cooked all of the traditional dishes. Many of my friends brought over dishes as well, and of course wine.

The party became a tradition, especially for my neighbourhood in Hong Kong, and then grew beyond just my neighbours. Two years ago, I think I had about 200 friends celebrate at my place. Last year, I kept it more intimate and strictly to neighbours, so we were only about 80. To me, that seemed small.”

Fundamentally, Thanksgiving celebrates one of humanity’s true unifying tenants: a love of eating good food. This is a value that Asian-Americans justly regard as a birthright, and is perhaps part of the reason why Thanksgiving has developed into such a platform for celebrating Asian-American culture and identity in all its complicated hues.
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