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The True Meaning of Turkey

Photo: Jennifer Causey

I can still see it: my third-grade teacher hanging up a picture of a cartoon turkey, the poor thing running like mad, bird sweat flying off its bird brow, pilgrims and Indians chasing after it waving muskets and axes. Man, what did they teach us in grade school? Well, first, the lie that the original Thanksgiving was a turkey dinner (history says it was more likely venison and lobster). And second—more intensely, more personally— that eating turkey on Thanksgiving was what normal people do.

Photo: Courtesy of Francis Lam

That’s what my friends did. That’s what the kids who weren’t my friends did. That is what everyone did. So every year, come November, I would campaign (i.e., whine uncontrollably): “Mom, can we please have a turkey this year, pleeeeeeeease?” But, see, my parents came from China. The cliché is that the Chinese will eat anything—frogs, snakes, Domino’s pizza—but that’s not actually true, because my parents would not eat a damned turkey. “It’s too dry,” my mother would say, matter-of-factly crushing my dreams. (She’s a vegetarian, and even she knew this was true.)

Not having grown up with Thanksgiving, my parents really didn’t feel the pilgrims-and-pumpkins spirit, but they were sweet enough to try to meet their desperate-to-fit-in kid’s emotional needs without having to reduce themselves to eating a turkey. Like the time we had spaghetti and meatballs from Pizza Hut—Alright! My favorite food!—and I was momentarily blind to their ruse. Or the time we had a steak, because what could be more normal than a steak? Or the time they caught wind of the idea of stuffing and we had just the sausage stuffing. Very delicious. And very out of character. But it was not a big dumb bird.

The cliché is that the Chinese will eat anything—frogs, snakes, Domino’s pizza—but that’s not actually true, because my parents would not eat a damned turkey.

Until finally, one year, my mother relented. “I got you turkey,” she said, with a big smile on her face. Turkey! We’re going to have turkey! Dinnertime came. The table was set with bowls of rice and stir-fried greens, a few other dishes, and a pot of soup. Suspicious, but OK. Then the oven door opened, and out came the platter.

My mother got us turkey. Not a turkey. Turkey. As in slices of turkey, from the deli counter at the supermarket. I sat in front of the warmed-over ex-cold cuts, and my parents happily ate the other dishes.

View Recipe: Chinese-American Thanksgiving Meatballs

I tell this story sometimes and laugh. It’s funny. And it’s funny because it is so not-normal, so charmingly “un-American.” But then, sometimes, like now, I tell this story and I realize something: For my parents, moving away from their families, their friends, their culture, and everything and everyone they knew was about coming to a place that held the hope, one day, of abundance. That’s what our supermarket deli counter offered, in the form of piles and piles of precious meats, ready to slice, so that’s where they got the turkey their son wanted so badly. That is what America is for them, and that is what they are thankful for.