When my Chinese friend Wilson was a grad student in Georgia, he always went to my family’s Thanksgiving party. Friendly, well-meaning, small-town folk eagerly welcomed him in and were thrilled to share their culture with him. Giddy southern ladies schooled him in the use of some of the ubiquitous southern colloquialisms, their favorite being “bless your heart.” Some of the men tried to talk to him about American football, but he was much more responsive to their conversations about hunting (a very exotic thing for a Chinese urbanite).
One of the more amusing moments was at the first Thanksgiving celebration he attended. One of the older ladies was talking to him about the various Thanksgiving traditions of which Americans partake. She then asked, quite curious, how Wilson’s family celebrated Thanksgiving back in Wuhan. Fortunately, Wilson didn’t have to think of a diplomatic way to respond, because her daughter, my aunt, quickly explained to her mom that the Chinese really don’t care what happened between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
But oh, if they could see us now! I’ve been to two amazing Thanksgiving celebrations this week, each featuring an impressive spread of dishes, the centerpiece of course being a nice plump turkey! And the best part is that I’m only half way done! We have two other feasts to attend, and one more low-key event in our apartment with two other friends. Here in Shanghai, Thanksgiving is a week-long event!
Call it a coping mechanism. It’s the fall season, with winter fast approaching. And you have this instinct as an American that everything’s supposed to be festive. But you’re in Shanghai. Your family is on the other side of the world, preparing for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year. And sitting in Starbucks, now that it’s decked out for the holidays, only does so much for you. So what do you do? Well, you get together with all of the other Americans who are aching for turkey, pumpkin pie, and community and you overcompensate. You have as many Thanksgiving celebrations as you possibly can!
Not only Americans participate, but many of their Chinese and foreign friends as well.(The poor Canadians only have that one night in October at a local pub.) So like just about everything else in Shanghai, Thanksgiving becomes a sort of international event.
But this post isn’t really about Thanksgiving, the holiday season, cultural exchange, or coping mechanisms. It’s about a word that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago: community. It’s what I’ve found here, what works so much better and so much more naturally here, than anywhere I’ve ever experienced. It’s what keeps me here, year after year.
My parents think I’m crazy. Well, at least my mom does. She can’t fathom why I’d choose to live in a place so alien to what I knew growing up. I remember when I was getting ready to return to China after three years back in the States. Some of my coworkers thought it was exciting, and even envied me. Most thought I was nuts. And I’ll admit, on days when I can’t even see the skyline from the office window, and the kids have to stay inside for recess because the air quality is so poor, I seriously doubt my own sanity for choosing to have our family live in this (although, to be fair, for the vast majority of the time, Shanghai is no Beijing when it comes to air pollution). But when it comes down to it, we always make the same choice. We choose to stay.
Sure, every major life decision you make is going to have pros and cons. No matter what, you’re going to be giving up something. But one of the main things that people back home imagine that I’m foregoing by living in China is actually what I’ve found here. There’s this idyllic image of small-town American life. Everybody’s friendly and knows everyone else. Things move at a slow pace, so there’s plenty of time to just enjoy life and spend it with those you care about. But, and I may get into hot water here, I just don’t think that’s true. The reality is that if you live in a small town in the States, and you’re lucky enough to even have employment, you are working all the time just to have enough money to pay your bills and eat. And you don’t have time to sit on your front porch, soaking up all the wholesome goodness of rural America. And even if you do find yourself sitting on your front porch, you’re not likely to greet friendly neighbors strolling down the sidewalk in front of your house like some Norman Rockwell painting; At best you’ll see cars whizzing by entirely too fast on their way to one of the only factories left in town that hasn’t shuttered its doors.
And here I am, living in one of the biggest, most bustling cities in the world, and my life here resembles more closely that traditional ideal than it ever would in the States. Here, my coworkers are my neighbors. They’re the people I worship with, go out to eat with, the people I bump into at the grocery store or the coffee shop and strike up a spontaneous conversation with. They’re the people with whom I celebrate Thanksgiving for an entire week. And here’s the thing: I actually have time to spend with them!
Here, my work doesn’t take over my life, and I don’t find myself so busy that I have to schedule time with friends a month in advance. It’s not uncommon, even during a weeknight, for us to order pizza on a whim and hang out with our downstairs neighbors while their daughter plays with Eden for a few hours. And the truth is that you’d actually have to put forth effort to stay isolated in a place like this.
Of course, it’d be great to see family during the holidays. And it’d be nice to spend Thanksgiving in a nice big house with good insulation and central heating, overlooking cotton fields and drinking sweet tea. But the year is longer than November through December, and life is more than holiday get-togethers. And while my daughter doesn’t have a yard to go outside and play in, she can walk downstairs and knock on the door of her friend’s house without fear of being abducted or run over because of the absence of familiar neighbors and sidewalks. And while turkey may be appallingly expensive here, at least we can all afford to chip in and do our part to make sure that Thanksgiving is special. All five to seven days of it!