How Many Disasters Does It Take to Make the Perfect Thanksgiving?

I think it must take about five, because that’s how many disasters we had during our Thanksgiving dinner, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. So, for your reading entertainment, this is the story of our Chinese Thanksgiving…

I was a bit sad when I woke up at 6:30 AM on Thursday morning, because I’ve never had to work on Thanksgiving before. But I drew a strange comfort from the fact that it technically wasn’t Thanksgiving in America yet; it was only 5:30 PM on Wednesday in the States. Justin and I walked to class together, making a quick stop at a convenience store on the way to grab breakfast. I treated myself to some sweet buns filled with bean paste, a snack that I really didn’t like when I first arrived in China, but I’ve gradually acquired a taste for it. Then we parted ways, Justin heading to his classroom and I heading to mine, prepared to teach my students a little bit about Thanksgiving. My lesson included a very brief, simplified history of Thanksgiving, which can basically be summed up in, “King James was a mean king, so some of the Yīngguórén (British people) decided to run away from home. They got in a boat and went to Měiguó (America), where they made friends with the Native Americans and ate dinner together.” I included a lot of pictures in my PowerPoint, and mimed certain actions like running away with my bag slung over my shoulder and eating dinner. The students laughed at me a bit, but they seemed to get the general idea, and they were very jealous when they found out that all of the American students had the week off for Thanksgiving. However, the Chinese had a week off of school in October for National Day, so I think it balances out. I also showed my students how to make thankful “hand” turkeys, something that every American elementary student does at some point or another in their academic career. This was my students’ first time with this activity, so even though they were a bit old for it, they still seemed to enjoy it. They also liked the idea of eating Thanksgiving turkey; I think they may have half-hoped that I was about to pull a giant turkey out of my bag to share with them, just like I did with bags of candy for our Halloween lesson, but no such luck. There are no turkeys in China. I think it may be a bird native to North America only, and the Chinese are not going to pay to have it shipped overseas, that’s for sure. Justin and I were amused to discover that the Chinese word for turkey is 火雞 which is pronounced “huǒjī,” and literally translates into “fire chicken.” Here are a couple of pictures of my students and their huǒjī:

During the lunch break between classes, Justin were unfortunate enough to encounter disaster #1…

Disaster # 1: Worst Thanksgiving Lunch Ever

Justin and I met up on the second floor of the cafeteria, near the fried rice station. We were both getting tired of our usual fried rice with chicken, so Justin ordered us a new dish. He recognized the character for “beef” in one item description on the menu, so he pointed to that and said he wanted two of them. Ten minutes later, we were served one of the most disgusting lunches that we’ve ever had. It was a dark gravy mixture with unidentifiable chunks of a jiggly, jelly-like substance all poured on top of a bed of white rice. There may have been tiny pieces of beef mixed in, but they were difficult to find amongst all of the pieces of jello, which a student informed us was actually a form of tofu. I tried not to gag as I realized that my lunch plate resembled a can of Alpo that one might feed a dog, but never a person, on Thanksgiving, no less! Justin looked really depressed as he pushed his food around on his plate with his spoon, not really eating more than a few bites. I couldn’t help but giggle as I held up a spoon full of the nasty gravy substance clinked it with Justin’s spoon in a grim kind of cheers. “Happy Thanksgiving!” I said, as I held my breath and swallowed it down.

After our afternoon class, Justin and I cancelled our Thursday Chinese lesson so that we could make a trip to the grocery store to do a bit of last-minute shopping before our big dinner. We had decided to invite five students over to our apartment to help us celebrate Thanksgiving, and we wanted to make sure that we had plenty to eat. Because of China’s lack of turkey, we decided that we would celebrate this year with duck. Our friend Cherry accompanied us to help us order a duck that was already cooked from the prepared foods section of the Zhebei Supermarket. We ordered two of them, just to be safe, and Justin made a last-minute decision to get a small, spicy chicken as well. Here’s a picture of Justin after making his purchase:

After that, we headed home and started preparing for our party. We were a little bit nervous about how the guests would react to each other, because we had invited an assortment of Chinese friends who all knew us, but didn’t necessarily know each other. Justin compared our motley group of guests to The Breakfast Club, and we tried to figure out which character each person most closely resembles. We thought Cherry might be Claire (Molly Ringwald’s character), the pretty, popular girl. Catherine, though she’s a girl, might resemble Andrew (Emilio Estevez) because she’s a busy, social girl who wants to do well in school and make her parents proud. William might be Bender, the bad boy/ladies’ man who has trouble reigning in his tongue, and Mickery would be Brian, the nice, brainy kid who spends a lot of time studying in the library. Finally, the Prince of Tennis (who we usually just refer to as “Prince”) would be socially awkward Allison, because he is shy, strange, and a little inept when it comes to being cool. You can see how we wondered how the social dynamics of this dinner would ever work, but like The Breakfast Club, I think their differences made our dinner much more interesting and enjoyable.

Before we knew it, our guests were arriving and we were making introductions and sitting down to eat dinner. Catherine, of course, ended up either knowing or knowing of everyone we had invited. I’m not surprised, because I’ve never met anyone who Catherine had trouble getting along with; she is so friendly to everyone! Mickery kept steering the dinner conversation toward more academic subjects, asking questions about English like, “What exactly is the difference between the word ‘find’ and the word ‘discover’?” and “What methods of studying should we use to best improve our English?” William kept teaching Justin Chinese pick-up lines, and Justin was eagerly practicing them, trying to get the pronunciation just right and ignoring my glowering looks from across the table. Whenever William wasn’t offering Justin pearls of dating wisdom, he was shamelessly flirting with Cherry, who kept nervously giggling and dropping her chopsticks. The Prince stayed quiet for much of the dinner, only occasionally making an awkward comment or a joke that wasn’t very funny (though Mickery was good-natured enough to humor him by laughing). At one point during the dinner, Cherry told a long story (all in Chinese) that had everyone, especially the boys, completely enthralled. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I could tell that it must be a very gruesome, terrible story, because of the concerned looks on everyone’s faces. At intervals, Mickery would make a disgusted face and say (in English, for my benefit), “Oh, that’s terrible! I can’t believe it!” and the Prince kept giggling inappropriately at all the wrong parts. At the end of the story, William turned to us and said, “She is a very good storyteller, this one,” pointing to Cherry, who grinned and accidentally dropped a piece of duck into her lap.

Halfway through our dinner, we encountered disaster #2.

Disaster #2: The Kitchen Explosion/Power Outage

The macaroni and cheese, by far the most popular dish on our dinner table, was all gone (how those Chinese students managed to eat pasta shells with chopsticks, I’ll never know). We had a second box of Velveeta in the cupboard, and we decided to get it out and cook some more. I also wanted to replenish the creamed corn, which was just about finished. I started boiling some water on the stove and heating another bowl of canned cream corn in the microwave when there was a brilliant flash of light and a puff of smoke, and the whole kitchen went dark. Everyone still sitting at the dinner table shouted out at once, wanting to know what happened and if I was alright. William took one look inside the kitchen and seemed to know what had caused the power outage. He said, “You cannot do two at once (pointing to the microwave and stove). The power is too much. Do one first and then the other next.” He went into the living room, found the fuse box, and reset the kitchen power for me. I was able to finish microwaving the creamed corn, but the stove refused to power on again. Oh well, so long stovetop. If past record is any indication of the maintenance we’ll receive on our stove, we might end up getting it fixed by May.

After dinner, our two overachievers, Catherine and Mickery, had to leave to attend a nighttime study hall. If they hadn’t have left, I think disaster #3 would probably not have happened. Right after they closed the door, William wasted no time in announcing his suspicions about them to the room. “I think they might be secret lovers. Don’t you think so?” he asked, turning to look at Cherry, who responded by knocking over her cup of soda. “I think I make her nervous,” he told me in a mock whisper, as poor Cherry ran to get some napkins to clean up her spill. The Prince finally piped up by reminding Justin to deliver on his promise to play guitar for them, and Cherry excitedly got out her cell phone to take pictures. Justin played and sang some songs for a bit, and then gave William a miniature guitar lesson after William insisted that he must learn to play so that he could “win the ladies’ hearts.” I think it was Cherry who noticed that we had a bag full of Kongming lights sitting in the corner with our pile of souvenirs. She suggested that we light one in honor of Thanksgiving, and though we had been saving them to use when we returned to the United States, we agreed that it was a great idea.

A Kongming light is basically a giant, heart-shaped paper lantern that you send off into the sky after making a wish and writing a message on it. There is a little chunk of wax in the center of the lantern that you light like a candle, and once the flame gets going, the lantern inflates like a miniature hot air balloon, and it floats away. I think it’s a really lovely idea to write a message or a wish and ceremoniously send it off into the heavens, but I have to admit that it also seems a bit dangerous, too. Cherry told us that years ago the Chinese government put a ban on Kongming lights because there had been so many terrible accidents involving them, but apparently, in recent years, the ban has been lifted. William and Cherry both seemed to think that it was a good idea to light the Kongming light right there inside of our apartment, and send it off from the balcony (and the Prince just seemed excited about the prospect of setting something on fire), and as they’re the only ones with Kongming light experience, we followed their instructions. How could it go wrong, you may ask?

Disaster #3: We Nearly Set Our Dormitory on Fire

We allowed William to light the chunk of wax while Cherry, Justin, and Prince held the corners of the lantern, allowing it to inflate, and I took video footage of the entire thing. They precariously shuffled together out onto the balcony to let it go, and had barely gotten it over the railing when the chunk of wax tipped and fell out of its holder and down to the grass below, where it immediately caught fire and started to spread! We all ran as quickly as we could down the six flights of stairs. I was the last one to the ground floor, so I didn’t see who exactly the hero was, but one of the Chinese students managed to put out the fire before it reached the building. You may think we would have learned our lesson, but we were bound and determined to send off our Kongming light, so we grabbed a chunk of wax from another light and tried it a second time. We were successful, and we had the satisfaction of watching our Thanksgiving wishes fly away into the night.

Not long after that, our two studious dinner guests gave us a call and said that their study hall was over, and if the party was still going, they would really love to return. We told them to come on over, and we decided to teach everyone how to play the card game Ligretto. It is a fast-paced card game that I learned from my friends in Tallahassee and introduced to my cousins last Thanksgiving. My cousins really took to it quickly, and seeing as it’s a game mostly involving numbers rather than language, we brought it with us in our suitcases in the hopes that we would be able to play it with our new friends in China. After stumbling through a few rounds, they started to get the hang of it, and William really gave Justin a run for his money. They were nearly tied the entire game and they were both by far the most vociferous players. Though Cherry’s score was in the negatives the entire time, she really let out a squeal of frustration every time a round ended before she was ready. The Prince was a bit slow at first, but he snuck in a few wins catching everyone by surprise, and causing us to explain to him what the English term “ringer” means. As usual with Ligretto, the longer we played, the more intense the game became, with players slapping other players hands, cards flying off the table, and even playful accusations of cheating, which led to Disaster #4.

Disaster #4: Broken Chairs

During one of the rounds of Ligretto, Justin jumped out of his chair to play his final card, announced “LIGRETTO” (meaning he just won that round) and then slammed himself back down into his seat, breaking his chair. Justin was a bit embarrassed and made a joke about eating a little too much dinner, but actually, breaking one of our dining room chairs is a pretty simple feat. They are really cheaply constructed; some pegs on the seat are basically wood-glued into the chair frame. His chair wasn’t the first that we’d broken since we’ve moved here. We searched for a replacement seat for Justin, and then we continued on with the next round of the game. During the next round, Cherry had a really good hand and was playing cards right and left, when her chair suddenly gave out from underneath her. Seeing as Cherry only weighs about ninety pounds, I was really getting frustrated with our cheap Chinese chairs, and I set off to find another chair while Justin and the Chinese students tried to repair the one that was broken. I looked around our apartment and saw that every chair was already sitting around the dining room table except for a chair in the corner holding our water bottle. It’s a typical water cooler that you would see in an office, with a tap for hot and cold. I’d never actually tried to lift the water cooler before, but I thought it didn’t look too heavy, and the others were all busy unsuccessfully trying to repair the chair….which brings us to Disaster #5.

Disaster #5: I fall and hit my head while simultaneously dousing the living room in water

I lifted the cooler from the chair, and a little bit of water leaked out from the side of it onto the floor. I stepped back to set the cooler down, my foot slipping in the puddle of water on the floor, and….you know what happens next. Although I’m a little fuzzy on the details of the following five minutes, myself. The next thing I knew, all of the Chinese students were in the living room looking down at me, trying to help me off of the floor, and I was feeling dizzy and confused and completely soaked in water. Apparently, judging from the makeup stain left behind on the wall, when I slipped, I hit my head and slid slowly down to the floor. Justin said that when he came in to see what all the noise was, I was lying sprawled out on the floor with a chair and a cooler on top of me, and water was everywhere. I was okay, just a little bruised and sore (and unfortunately, spending a night sleeping on a stiff Chinese mattress doesn’t have me feeling any better today).  Half the contents of the jug had spilled out all over the floor, causing a miniature river flowing through our apartment. The Prince found the jug itself, which had somehow ended up inside our office room. He tried to fasten it back onto the water bottle machine, but he didn’t know how to do it properly, so he ended up spilling the remainder of the jug onto the floor. Justin got out a mop and started trying to sop up the water, but needless to say, our party guests began to make their exit soon after that. I sure know how to clear out a room (and clean it—haha)!

Despite our five disasters, I had a really enjoyable Thanksgiving. Justin and I ended the day by watching a bit of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade streaming on the internet and Skyping with my extended family at my aunt’s house who were all in the kitchen, getting Thanksgiving lunch prepared. As Justin and I were lying in bed before falling asleep, talking about how our party had turned out, we both surprisingly dissolved into fits of laughter just reminiscing about all of our recent disasters. “Did you see how the Prince kept laughing at all the wrong parts of Cherry’s story?” Justin asked, making me laugh so hard I had tears streaming down my face. “Or what about when everyone’s chairs just started randomly breaking?” Justin said. “Stop it!” I wheezed, my stomach aching from laughing so hard.  “What about when William was playing that song on the guitar. Can you believe he was being so flirty with Cherry?” I said, in between gasps for air. “I believe it,” Justin said, and we were silent for a moment. I thought maybe he had fallen asleep, but then he suddenly started laughing again. “Rachel,” he said, struggling to breathe, “I still can’t believe you were sprawled out on the floor like that. What were you doing?”  “I told you,” I said, laughing even though it hurt, “I was going to switch out the chairs…” but I couldn’t even finish my sentence for laughter. I had tears streaming down my face again, barely able to breathe. Why was something that was so painful only an hour ago so funny now? Maybe I hit my head a little too hard…all I know is that this is one Thanksgiving I will never forget.


4 thoughts on “How Many Disasters Does It Take to Make the Perfect Thanksgiving?

  1. Oh my goodness!! That is one crazy Thanksgiving! I read this post to David and we were both laughing so hard!! Glad you are okay though!

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Happy Thanksgiving a bit late. We cruised to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving this year, but our trip was nothing compared to your Five Disasters–sure hope your head is ok! I know God is using you both through this experience and look forward to buying a copy of the book you can publish when you get back! Love you lots! Take care and I look forward to your next post!

    Aunt Debbi

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