Animated illustration of a diverse family eating thanksgiving dinner

Illustrations by Katy Dockrill

Why my Thanksgiving table is the best of both worlds

From cranberry sauce to red bean soup, how East meets West at my family’s holiday meals

At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, my family will dig into a big, juicy turkey… with side helpings of spring rolls, fried noodles and sashimi.

This multicultural mélange is typical of holiday gatherings on both sides of my Chinese-Canadian family. Whether it’s Christmas, Easter, Lunar New Year or a summertime barbecue, the buffet table groans under a hodge-podge of Asian and Western dishes.

Our Thanksgiving turkeys feature two kinds of stuffing—one with bread, one with sticky rice and Chinese sausages. There’s cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, and once we even had a sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows and pecans (thank you, cousin Lesley!).

Around that is an ever-changing selection of Asian dishes, like fried rice, grilled squid, sushi, mock meats, steamed chicken with ginger and green onion, Chinese vegetables and, last year, an entire roast pig. There’s often lasagna. Dessert is a mouthwatering, equal-opportunity mixture of egg tarts, mochi balls, red bean soup, Jell-O, macarons, cheesecake and tiramisu. It’s always a colourful and exciting spread, and you know what? Everything somehow works together.

These eclectic feasts are a natural extension of the East-meets-West diet most of my relatives have adopted, whether we were born in Canada or “back home” in Hong Kong or China. My parents came to Ontario in the mid-1970s. Their first experience of roasting a Thanksgiving turkey was at my mom’s sister’s house. Hours after putting the bird in the oven, they realized the appliance wasn’t working. They cut up the turkey for stovetop cooking—and that’s when they discovered the neck and giblets inside.

Animated illustration of hands see from above passing food around and eating

Despite their lack of know-how (something we still laugh about today), not having a turkey was unthinkable. They were in Canada—Thanksgiving is a Canadian tradition and they wanted to experience it, too.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so open-minded about different cuisines. I’ve read many stories from Asian-Canadians about how their culture’s traditional foods became a source of shame and embarrassment at school, derided by classmates as “stinky,” “weird” and “gross.” In the mostly white Scarborough neighbourhood where we lived, I was teased for being Chinese, but not for my lunches. It’s only recently that I realized why: my lunch box never contained Chinese food. (Instead, I got sandwiches, Fruit Roll-Ups and juice boxes.) When I asked my mom why not, she replied, “Because that’s not what I ate. I brought sandwiches, too!”

For her, packing Canadian-style lunches was about convenience—but it also says something about the way we approached food. When I was growing up, Cantonese dishes like beef chow fun, char siu and congee alternated with North American meals like spaghetti, Shake ‘n Bake and grilled cheese sandwiches (made with Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles, of course). Weekends meant chicken nuggets at McDonald’s and chicken feet in Chinatown.

Food is, of course, a huge part of our identities. You are what you eat, and I think it’s telling that my go-to comfort foods include both chow mein and cheeseburgers. As a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) who can’t speak, write or read Mandarin or Cantonese, I’ve often felt lost in the culture my parents and their generation navigate so easily—but I have no trouble enjoying its food, even with my lousy chopstick skills.

Earlier this year, on my mom’s side of the family, the “older generation” handed off a large part of the meal prep to the “younger generation,” citing, well, getting older. Us “kids” (many of whom have kids of their own) embraced this passing of the torch as a chance to change up the menu. Out came the sous vide machines and the home-made artisanal bread, the slow-roasted pork belly and the maple-glazed salmon.

It was all delicious—but none of it was Chinese. Our dining-table diversity is at risk! My parents’ generation learned to cook North American dishes as a way of embracing their adopted country. It’s wonderful—and very Canadian—to celebrate with foods from two cultures. If we “kids” want our potlucks to remain a shining example of East-West harmony, we need to explore our culinary roots and learn to make a few Asian dishes. I’ll start… Can anyone recommend a YouTube video? 

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