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Posted on Sun, Nov 22, 2009 : 6 a.m.

Creating our own multicultural Thanksgiving traditions

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


My son, Nico DiDi, anticipates the delicious taste of Eastern Accents' Malaysian curry.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang | Contributor

My neighbor Lisa always celebrated two Thanksgivings while growing up in Ohio, a tradition she and her siblings continue every year. First, they have a traditional “American Thanksgiving” on Thanksgiving Day with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Then, on Friday, they have “Lebanese Thanksgiving” with hummus, kibbe, fattoush, grape leaves, hashwe rice pilaf, and meat and spinach pies. That makes for a lot of cooking and a lot of food, but with five six siblings and a ton of cousins, nobody misses a beat.

At Thanksgiving time, many families are caught wondering how to celebrate this quintessential American holiday — a holiday that is as much about the food as it is about family and giving thanks. Family is easy, everyone has family, as is the idea of giving thanks — especially for families that may have come to America because of war, oppression, poverty or lack of opportunity. However, celebrating a tradition that is not your own is more complicated than it looks.

When I was growing up, my mother always felt she ought to cook American food on Thanksgiving in order to celebrate it properly. She did not know how to roast a big turkey, so she would buy a little frozen turkey meatloaf instead, and make mashed potatoes and gravy from a box (we did not know there was any other way), and salad (which we never ate otherwise). It was terrible. We were miserable. We went to bed cold and hungry and confused about this Thanksgiving holiday with the terrible food until we finally figured out (thanks to our Japanese American neighbors) that we did not have to eat “traditional Thanksgiving food” if we did not want to, that we could create our own family traditions. Once we started celebrating Thanksgiving with Mongolian hot pot or dumplings, we relaxed and could make Thanksgiving our own.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, my classmates and I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together at my Thayer Street house, but I did not understand why they insisted on eating Thanksgiving dinner at 3 p.m. “Who eats dinner at 3?” I also never knew that watching or playing football was a big part of Thanksgiving. Those details were not in the Thanksgiving children’s books I read at school to learn about this holiday.

Another thing they never tell you while rehearsing the ominously prescient Pilgrims-Friend-Native-Americans-at-the-First-Thanksgiving-(before-stealing-all-their-land-and-wiping-them-out-with-disease-and-warfare) school pageant is how Thanksgiving changes after you marry, and you then have to adapt to the traditions and expectations of your spouse’s family. When my girlfriend, Raquel, was anxious about celebrating her first Thanksgiving post-divorce without her children and in-laws, I had to remind her, “You never liked his family anyway.”

Taking our cue from my neighbor Lisa’s Lebanese American Thanksgiving, my family balances the very formal and traditional Thanksgiving at grandmother’s house (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, the “good” silver and china); with our own subversively raucous “Thanksgiving Eve” on Wednesday night with all our friends and an international potluck of Thai butternut squash curry, Chinese roast duck with sticky rice stuffing, sweet potato sushi, teriyaki chicken, hummus, moussaka, pulao, mangoes with black sticky rice, Thai pumpkin custard, and more.

Without the pressure of doing it “right,” we are able to have fun and really create a holiday tradition for ourselves — one that honors and celebrates our family’s many cultures and that makes a statement about our place here in America.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Thu, Dec 17, 2009 : 2:33 p.m.

The conversation continues two weeks later at


Sun, Dec 6, 2009 : 9:44 a.m.

margie - Beautifully written, thank you.


Wed, Nov 25, 2009 : 1:34 p.m.

For hundreds of years my relatives kept track of their genealogy- enough to designate me an official Child of the Mayflower. This genetic link is a trait I share with an estimated 13 million other Americans. As a Child of the Mayflower, I thought it would be fun to infuse a degree of authenticity into my familys Thanksgiving tradition. I researched the subject only to find out that our current traditional Thanksgiving menu is largely mythological! I must say I was a little disappointed I felt deceived!! That year, I did serve a mussel/clam chowder in honor of the original menu which no doubt contained seafood! BUT, what I found even more interesting than the food was this 52 surviving Pilgrims and more than 90 Wampanoags shared a meal and celebrated for 3 days. THREE DAYS!! Of course you say! Learned that in kindergarten!! But contemplate this kindergarten fact as an adult: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU HAD A THREE DAY PARTY WITH PEOPLE WHO DIDN'T SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE AND HAD LITTLE IN COMMON WITH YOUR CULTURE? Each bringing food, playing games, eating together!! So though the history that ensued was brutal, we celebrate this beginning Thanksgiving has little to do with turkey and a lot more to do with faith in the goodness of others, hope, the spirit of cooperation, and unity. If only we could step out of our comfort zone and into our true humanity everyday, as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags did for those three auspicious days. Bring what you havesticky rice, wild rice, cornmeal, potatoes, or bread. The uniqueness and success of our society depends on what we all bring to the table.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Wed, Nov 25, 2009 : 12:32 a.m.

Who ever said I didnt like Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving means a lot to me and has a special meaning to families with immigration in their recent history. I just dont like stuffing made with dry bread. I prefer stuffing made with sticky rice. And I hear that people from the South make stuffing with cornbread and people from the northeast make it with oysters and people from Minnesota make it with wild rice. However, if you were to invite me to your house, I would eat whatever you served politely. Also, I was simply surprised to discover that some families eat dinner at 3pm; and other families eat dinner at 4pm. I thought dinner meant the evening meal. How was I supposed to know? There was no manual (before Martha Stewart and the internet), nobody ever told me. Is there a correct time to eat Thanksgiving dinner? The point of the article is simply that it is not easy for those who did not grow up with the tradition to know the right way to do it. Of course, there is no one right way to do it. This is not just about immigrant families, I have talked with lots of married couples who come from families who celebrate holidays differently and have to compromise. Do they stop celebrating Thanksgiving because one spouse likes marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes and the other prefers them glazed in maple syrup? Do they give up on Christmas because one spouse likes to open presents Christmas Eve and the other opens presents Christmas morning? The important thing is to make the holiday our own, for our own families. It is not really about whether you baste the turkey in butter or in teriyaki sauce, or whether you eat at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4. It is about family and giving thanks. There is room for all of us at this table. --Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 9:20 p.m.

Stop messing with my American holiday traditions. Don't like my holiday, don't celebrate it.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 7:23 p.m.

Correction in the first paragraph--My neighbor Lisa's family has six siblings, not five--which I have indicated with strikethrough. Did not mean to disown anybody or leave anyone out! Thanks for pointing this out!

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 7:20 p.m.

I agree that it can be difficult to celebrate this holiday once you know the very sad history behind it. After being saved from starvation by the generosity of the Wampanoag people, the Puritans repaid the kindness by killing them, infecting them with diseases, taking their lands, destroying their language and culture, trying to convert them to Christianity, and more. In 1970, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Wamsutta (Frank B.) James to deliver a speech during Thanksgiving festivities at Plymouth Rockuntil they found out what he planned to sayafter which they uninvited him. However, instead of being silenced, he gave the speech instead at the top of Coles Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, and The National Day of Mourning for Native Americans was born. Here is the text of that suppressed speech by Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, to have been delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1970: Here also is a contrasting view by Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux about why she, as a Native American, does celebrate Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving has taken on broader and more secular meaning in the hundred years since magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (after which she began publishing numerous turkey and stuffing recipes), and it has become an important part of our narrative of America as the audacious invention of immigrants. It has special significance for the families of new immigrants trying to find their way and their place in this country. Except for Native Americans, we are all the descendants of immigrants. How do we balance our celebration of this great country we have created, challenge it to live up to all the ideals upon which it was founded, and take on the responsibility for righting the wrongs done to Native Americans by our Pilgrim forebears? Also check out 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine ONeill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Plimouth Plantation. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 3:49 p.m.

Thank You for the multicultural Thanksgiving ideas. I'm not sure I understand why someone who shows such disdain for the people who created this holiday would even choose to celebrate it. If I or my family was poor or devastated in some way, I would not go to someones home for refuge and then proceed to put them down for cheating on their spouse or fighting with the neighbors. I would be thankful for all that they had done for me and overlook the all too human flaws and mistakes that they might have made in the past. Maybe, your holiday should be "biting the hand that feeds you day."


Mon, Nov 23, 2009 : 2:28 p.m.

I read enviously of your Thanksgiving Eve. Sounds like real community dinner. My mom was just telling me yesterday that none of the kids in her Chinese school class had ever had turkey!! Not in the actual bird sense anyway... just in deli meat probably. Our family has often done T-day with turkey stuffed with Chinese "you fan" (oil rice). I always thought it was a great fusion of cultures.


Mon, Nov 23, 2009 : 9:58 a.m.

Frances, your article is right on. We have always been spending the Thanksgiving dinner with Chinese friends in Ohio for the past 15 years. My teenage daughter finally asked, how come we never eat the typical Thanksgiving dinner like turkey, mashed potato, cranberry siding, etc.? So this year I ordered the traditional Thanksgiving meal from Webers Inn and along with our typical Chinese pot luck, we will have the two Thanksgiving dinner together.

Joe Grimm

Sun, Nov 22, 2009 : 9:17 p.m.

What a nice tale! All the more reason to give thanks for being a multicultural place!


Sun, Nov 22, 2009 : 9:32 a.m.

I will be cooking a couple of Indian dishes to go with the traditional turkey and fixings dinner. This arrangement seems to work real well.