It was Fall of 2019 and Beijing was beautiful, with ripe persimmons hanging from trees like lanterns and golden gingko trees glowing in the park. But as the days grew shorter and the arctic chill set in, my spirits sank. Thanksgiving was just around the corner, and I longed for home. It was our first holiday away from the U.S. during our two-year assignment of living in Beijing for my husband’s job.

In the U.S., there’s a collective anticipation that revolves around America’s most celebrated holiday. Thanksgiving was just a regular workday in China, and I missed the hustle and bustle of shopping and comparing recipes with 300 million other people. I craved the traditional feast. But even if I could find a turkey, it wouldn’t fit in my apartment’s Easy-Bake-sized oven. I made reservations at a local restaurant that promised a full Thanksgiving buffet instead.

Surprise Thanksgiving reunion 

About a week before Thanksgiving, I received a text from a friend in Arizona whose daughter was living in Beijing and studying Chinese during her senior year of high school. She wanted my help engineering a surprise visit to see her daughter who would arrive on Thanksgiving. I’d never been to a surprise party, let alone masterminded a transatlantic dinner. I arranged a driver to pick her up at the airport, recommended a hotel, and invited her daughter to spend the afternoon with me “just for some shopping.”

A few other friends were joining us for Thanksgiving dinner, and as evening approached, I was like an air traffic controller, tracking text messages from all the incoming guests to make sure we arrived at the restaurant on time. So many things could have gone wrong that didn’t: flight delays, visa snafus, or traffic from the airport. My friend even had time to change into an elegant sequined outfit before walking into the lobby and surprising her daughter. Pulling off that covert mother-daughter reunion and sharing in their joy erased my loneliness and longing for pumpkin pie that year.

Turkey in a box

Our second Thanksgiving in China, we decided to eat at home and ordered a “turkey to go” package from the InterContinental Hotel. We were enticed by their ad featuring a turkey and all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie. Two other American families and a Chinese friend eager to experience the holiday joined us.

At the appointed time, a delivery guy on a scooter pulled up to our apartment and unloaded two large boxes labeled “We Turkey Beijing.” One box contained the turkey; the other was filled with side dishes and party favors, including pink heart-shaped sunglasses and glittery blue feathered masks. After all, no gathering in China would be complete without plenty of selfies.

Confetti and noisemakers completed the order. With a fall-themed tablecloth and fake pumpkins we bought online, our evening was best described as Mardi Gras meets Thanksgiving, Chinese style.

Celebrating in Beijing this year

Due to China’s zero-Covid policy, restaurants are often subject to unexpected closures. Many American expats, like Melanie Duhon prefer to celebrate at home instead. She found a turkey (not an easy task) and is hosting a Thanksgiving Day lunch for friends. Mashed potatoes, green beans and her family recipe for Cajun rice dressing will round out the menu. Her husband will have to settle for leftovers, since like most, he’ll be working during the day.

“I’m ok with being away from home,” she said. “I actually enjoy sharing the holiday with friends. Another Christmas away from home is going to be rough though.” The hassle of mandatory hotel quarantine upon returning to Beijing along with the difficulty of finding international flights make leaving China impractical for many expats now.

Cynthia Pham, a Vietnamese American living in Beijing, plans to attend two gatherings on Thanksgiving and two on Friendsgiving, the Saturday after the holiday. She’s making five apple pies, served with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, quite a luxury in China. Her Chinese and international friends will share dishes from their cultures. “The Beijing community has helped me incredibly in the past three years, and I continue to count all my blessings,” she said.

Apple pie. Photo: Kirsten Harrington
Apple pie. Photo: Kirsten Harrington

Restaurants serving up Thanksgiving

Even with strict Covid protocols, some Beijing bars and restaurants are looking to Thanksgiving for a boost in business. Home Plate, popular with Westerners for their Southern Barbecue, is hosting a buffet with smoked turkey, a roast pig and all the fixings. Lily’s American Diner, my go-to spot for grilled cheese and milkshakes, is offering a traditional turkey dinner for dine-in or delivery.

Some ethnic restaurants are trying to get a slice of the pie too. Qmex, a Mexican restaurant popular with expats, created a “Thanksgiving Sharing Platter,” with a turkey leg, extra-large meatballs, and Chipotle mac and cheese. Not to be outdone, Pebbles Mexican is serving tamales and buy-one-get-one margaritas on Thanksgiving. Most international hotels and many brewpubs have special menus as well.

Feeling thankful in Florida

Now that I’m back in the US, I’m looking forward to having Thanksgiving at home with my family this year. I have a 13-pound bird and an oven large enough to cook it, fresh cranberries, cans of pumpkin waiting to be made into pie and ingredients for my favorite artichoke dip. More importantly, my oldest son is coming home from college and my 83-year-old mom will be joining us. I feel rich with blessings.

We have a tradition in our family that started over 10 years ago when our sons were little. Every year at Thanksgiving each family member takes a few minutes to write down what they’re thankful for, and we collect these notes in a binder. Over the years we’ve been thankful for hamsters, church, friends and yummy food, to name a few. Living in China taught us that no matter where in the world you live, what you’re eating, or who is gathered around your table, there’s always something to be thankful for.