Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kerry Garfinkel
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
“A wedding on Thanksgiving?” my sister-in-law shoots me a look of disbelief as she continues to scroll through her iPad.
I roll over on her bed, “Mom says I should go. For the food and free oil,” I say as I flatten the thick blanket beneath my palm.
“That’s weird, you should spend Thanksgiving with family”
“My history teacher said the same thing. But Thanksgiving isn’t a Chinese tradition”
“Still,” she sighs. “You Fujanese have weird traditions.”
“Do you guys also have these huge weddings with lots of distant relatives?”
“Really? I thought that was all of China,” she shakes her head more vigorously at this. “Just you people.”
“They are so meaningless. I have to attend all these random weddings so that those people will be obliged to pay hundreds of dollars to come to mine so that I’ll become rich at my wedding, and start my marriage off with tons of money.”
“Yeah, your brother and I discussed this before. So, plan to have two weddings,” she holds up two fingers. “One big, your family’s style here in New York, and then one in my hometown Chongqing, completely up to us.”
I decided that I will do the same in the future, but wow, do those two have everything planned out.
Dad tells me to go buy a Thanksgiving turkey from Whole Foods. The nod to the holiday is an adherent to a trend and the seizing of an opportunity to add an outcast dish to our normally fully Asian lunch table.
I am surprised that Whole Foods is even open, as Thanksgiving is an extremely American holiday. I am also surprised, though this time I really shouldn’t have been, to find all the whole, roasted turkeys to be already sold out. I wander around, into the meat and poultry section, thinking the product must’ve been relocated, before circling back, and finally noticing the empty insulated metal shelves where the organic packaged turkeys are normally sold.
I know Dad will want me to go back home turkeyless, to return the twenty-dollar bill he gave me so that he could instead spend the money on the Chinese roasted duck sold besides our seven-story apartment building. I do love that duck. The meat has this slightly gray tint and is covered in a thin layer of natural oil, resulting in a very juicy box of chopped duck if bought from the right store. However, I do not dare order the duck on my own. Dad always gives the butcher specific instructions on how he wants his meat cut. I am also unable to consult him because my phone is dead and currently being revived on my nightstand.
I return home, a Whole Foods trademark brown cardboard box with green stripes in hand. It contains exactly 0.88 lbs of shredded, oven-baked turkey, and thick, herbed turkey slices from the supermarket chain’s prepared food section. My parents make a face when I present my findings to them.
“So little… and not nearly as pretty as the whole turkey,” Mommy murmurs. They take it better than I expect. They do balk minimally when I tell them it totaled to almost fourteen dollars. That is a lie. It was only a little over nine dollars. However, I can’t let them find out about the giant rice ball I bought from Yaya Tea on my way to Whole Foods before I found out about the sold-out turkey that was supposed to mask my little indulgence.
At lunch, I do not eat a single bite of the turkey pieces, instead opting to stuff my face with the thick wheat noodles and amazing clam soup Dad made.
Mommy absolutely forbids me from wearing my favorite black hoodie.
“Who the hell wears black to a wedding? That is disrespectful to the couple!”
“We did. Many times. You wear black stockings all the time.”
“Never a blacktop though. At least wear something more colorful over that thing. Just wear that pink top I bought you!”
“No one will even recognize us!”
“If you’re going to wear that, just don’t go”
“Fine”. I turn back to my laptop. I will just get a head start on my holiday homework if I spend my now free evening wisely.
I barge into my brother’s room, immediately climbing atop the bed.
“What are you doing!” the couple squawk in horror. “Get down,” they both yell.
“I am… destressing,” I declare, flopping down on the cool, crisp, neatly laid out blankets. “And I’m not going to the wedding anymore”
“Huh? Why not?” my brother asks.
“Last minute change of plans,” I reply.
“Which one looks better?” I hold my fifth-grade graduation skirt over my waist. Roxanne looks up from the bathroom counter.
“I think mine is better, but your mother probably has a different opinion.”
I agree with Mom’s probably different opinion. My skirt is gorgeous. It is black, lacy, with peacock embroidery near the ends and sparkles.
I shuffle into my parents’ bedroom, “Mommy, which one looks better?”
“Both are fine. Hurry up!” Mom adjusts a few strands of her hair, gingerly applying her SPF lotion, before dragging the remnants down my cheeks. Mom is fully dressed, as she has been for the past half hour. Her fancy purple dress and stripe blazer almost convinced me to skip the event altogether. I cannot go there in a sweater and jeans with Mommy dressed like that.
“Your top already has lots of things, so a skirt with lots of decorations won’t look good with it,” my sister-in-law helpfully informs as I scurry past her again. “It’s your choice though,” she adds. She has a good point. I keep on her plain black skirt, which flares out a little towards the bottom. I then return the black skirts and jackets she let me try on, dumping the heap onto her bed.
I borrow a pair of silver earrings from her collection, happy to find that my earring hole has not sealed after my three earringless years of high school. They match the tassels of a similar color on the front of my pink top.
Help me apply foundation,” I demand, marching up to her again. “Just cover the red, pimply parts,” I add as she reaches toward my forehead with her beauty blender.
“You have to cover the entire face for foundation,” she said, exasperated. “Close your eyes,” she snaps, as she proceeds to work magic across my face.
“There. Wow, you look so much better. My foundation is just a bit pale for you.” She caresses her cheeks. She swipes her beauty blender down my neck, “just keep your turtleneck up,” she says.
“It’s not obvious that I have foundation on though, right?”
“Nope,” my older brother calls from the bed. He is staring miserably at a prep book while cocooned in his blankets. She nods in agreement.
I saunter back to the bathroom, praying that I do not resemble a ghost. The mirror provides a happy surprise. I don’t think my face ever looked more fabulous.
Mom and I are onboard a cute white Chinatown van by 5:20. Our fare was three dollars each. I planned to complete my English reading on the ride. I am glad Mom refused to carry my copy of Go Set a Watchman in her purse. I can just barely make out the pink ruffles on my collar.
“Are we late?” I ask Mommy.
“No, we are very early. The wedding starts at seven,” she replies. This means an additional hour of starving before the ceremony starts. Why are they all like this?
We arrive at 5:45. Brooklyn is frigid. I am thankful that Mommy made me wear my thickest winter coat. She isn’t sure if the wedding we are going to is on the first or second floor of the venue. She calls Aunt, Mom’s cousin from her father’s side, who is currently powering through a freezing trudge to get here.
“Why are there so many people at Fujanese weddings?” I ask Mom, watching strangers stream into through the doors, bringing with them a gust of sharp wind each time the door swings open. “Are all Chinese people like this too?” I want to hear her take.
“Yes, all Chinese people are like this,” Mom replies.
“They all have weddings with this so many people?”
“Well, they are all somewhat like this. But us Fujanese people are fancier,” Mom replies, “so our weddings are very grand and dignified”
I never thought about it that way. Fancy, grand, and dignified are such nice words.
Our event is on the first floor after all. The servers who taped up a sign of the bride’s name, with an arrow underneath it, pointing towards the back. I only recognize one of the Chinese characters: the character of the surname I share with the bride.
Aunt arrives just before 6:00. She takes five red envelopes from a stand on the check-in table. “We can wrap these later,” she tells Mom.
“Take some more,” Mom whispers back. I haven’t seen Mom buy a packet of red envelope in years, and Mom’s reused supply of them in her drawer has dwindled, and require some serious restocking.
Mom and I blindly trail behind Aunt, who walks heavily in front of us, bobbing from left to right. She is carrying two large containers of oil, one in each hand, in addition to her purse, and the leftovers from the dinner that she asked the servers to box up in takeout containers. “I swear,” she heaves, “he jiu gets more and more inconvenient each year.” He jiu translates to attending a wedding, but literally, it means drinking wine.
I wish I had thought to get some leftovers for Dad. My brother and his wife are out celebrating with her cousin tonight, leaving Dad to spend Thanksgiving night alone. I mentioned this to him before leaving for the wedding, and he brushed it off with little reaction. I don’t think he knows enough of the holiday’s history to feel lonely tonight. Heck, I knew the history and it didn’t bother me too much.
“Hurry up!” Aunt calls back to Mom and I. “We’ve got to get out of here quick.”
“Don’t worry, it’s still early,” says the stranger smoking and walking next to me. I assume he’s a relative who just happens to be heading in our direction.
“This is the time where all the people on the news get ganged up on,” Aunt says, just as the rest of us catch up to her.
“Are we taking the subway?” I frown as I spot a station up ahead. The Chinatown van is a much more unique experience.
“Yeah,” Mom replies.
We see the N train leaving just as we climb down the stairs to the platform. The middle-aged man with us has disappeared.
“We would’ve caught it if you didn’t fumble so long for your MetroCard,” Mom says to Aunt. Aunt lets out a weary sigh as she dumps her red plastic bags of oils and food onto a shiny metal bench. Mom made me carry two gallons of oil as well, and I am slouched and limping by the time we reach the middle of the platform. I recall that Aunt is three years older than Mom.
I inspect the ingredients list of the oil, wondering if they were the awesome, super expensive oils that Mom cracked them up to be. The ingredients are as follows: GMO soybean oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil.
I do not regret the night. The food was fulfilling, despite being the same dishes served at every other Fujanese wedding I’ve been to, even served in the same order, and at the same time: around eight o’clock, when the venue is filling with the rumbles from empty stomachs. The bride and groom this time had a surprisingly sweet, non-stereotypically Asian love story. They had been together for six years and even had children.
Perhaps most excitingly, I look more beautiful tonight than any other moment in my life, though my eyes were red and puffy by the time I arrive home. The first things I hear when I open the apartment door are Dad’s snores from my parents’ nearby bedroom, accompanied by the loud giggles coming from my brother’s room on the other end of the hall.
“Do people celebrate Thanksgiving in China?” I ask, breaking the short-lived silence.
“I don’t know,” my brother replies, still staring intently at his worksheet. He is studying in my room, to keep an eye on me, and make sure both of us remain focused on our work.
“Like what do Chinese people associate most with Thanksgiving?”
“Discounts?” he laughs.
I hunt down my sister in law, who is eating grapefruit slices in the kitchen. “Do people celebrate Thanksgiving in China?”
“Then why did you look at me weird when I didn’t spend Thanksgiving with Mom and Dad?”
“Because you guys are in America.”