These Three Things: A Chinese Immigrant’s Reflection on American Holidays
I came to the United States with my parents at the age of twelve. Though we had some vague idea what Christmas was, we had very little knowledge of how it should make any difference in our lives. We were new to a foreign land whose people looked different from us and whose language we did not speak. It was the end of March when the leaves had just started budding and the days began to grow longer. The holiday season seemed a long time away. But one thing piqued my curiosity. Upon arriving in the United States, my uncle gave me a brief Chinese version of American history. Eager to learn more about this foreign land, I devoured the book in two weeks. It was through that book that I first learned about Thanksgiving. It seemed strange to me that Americans would devote a holiday just to give thanks to a Being that I did not believe existed. But I had never eaten turkey before and the prospect of tasting a whole roasted turkey made me excited for my first ever Thanksgiving.
Let me make a few observations about the Chinese culture. Coming from a civilization that boasts a five thousand year-old history, we love traditions. Throughout a Chinese calendar year, there are no less than six major Chinese holidays, each with its own historical or religious legends. Therefore, we love celebrating traditions and retelling the stories behind these traditions. We also love 热闹 (rènao), that is, the liveliness of a joyous gathering. Since members of a Chinese extended family usually live in the same city or town, it is not uncommon for the whole extended family to gather together once a week to visit grandparents and share a meal. These gatherings are made even more lively when there is something special to celebrate. Therefore, we cherish any occasions that could create more 热闹 in our gatherings, such as birthdays and holidays. And lastly, like most other people, we love to eat. It is no coincidence that there are so many types of tasty Chinese food, because we love to cook and to try out new delicious things.
Putting these three things together - traditions, liveliness, and food - you have the perfect combination to make a Chinese man very happy. It is therefore no surprise that our first Thanksgiving was a joyous one. Our whole extended family gathered together around a large turkey and ate and laughed the afternoon away. We did not believe in God, but we still had much to be grateful for in our family. We were grateful for the opportunity to come to America. In that year, my parents had new jobs, I had a new school, and we had a new home. We were gathering with relatives whom we had not seen in years. While we were still adjusting to these new things, we were thankful for each other and for our new circumstances.
Our first Christmas a month later was no less joyous. We did not go to church, but we exchanged presents and celebrated like most Americans did. We were feeling more comfortable in our new home. And as if even the weather gods were smiling on us, a snowstorm swept through our town the night before Christmas Eve. Overnight, the world outside our windows was covered with a blanket of soft snow. It was my first time seeing snow.
We were extremely fortunate to celebrate our first holiday season in the United States with our family, but we also recognized that not everyone was able to do so. Some immigrant families did not have extended family around them to share the holiday cheer; many had to work on both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. For the Chinese international students who cannot go home for Christmas break, the holiday season can be especially lonely and sad. As many gather around families during Thanksgiving and Christmas, many international students and immigrant families are reminded how far they are from home.
Fun as it was for my family, a little sadness nevertheless lingered in our minds knowing that these holidays were still not our own holidays. We were not religious at the time and after the initial excitement had worn off, we still missed our family and friends in China. Furthermore, we were convinced that these American holidays were no match for the festivities during Chinese New Year. But then we were reminded that in two months time, while our families and friends were celebrating the New Year in China, we would be far away from them in this foreign land.
I was reminded of this sense of isolation again when I was in college and spent Thanksgiving away from my family for the first time in eight years. Fortunately, my college pastor invited me to his home for Thanksgiving. For many years after that, I spent Thanksgiving away from my family, but I could always find some warmth and holiday cheer in the homes of church friends.
Holidays can be a great time to catch up with extended family, but they are also perfect seasons to practice hospitality to sojourners and immigrants in our land. It is a great time to share the love of Christ by making an extra seat at your dinner table, and sharing some of the 热闹 in your family with a Chinese friend. Chinese people also love to give thanks and exchange presents, and Americans also love traditions, liveliness, and food. By opening your home to a Chinese friend this holiday season, you may find that these two cultures actually have a lot in common.
As we share the holidays with friends who are far away from home, it is a great time to share with them – as well as to remind ourselves again – that we worship a God who was also far away from home. After all, the holiday season is a time when we remember that God the Son left his heavenly throne to dwell in the midst of a foreign land. Although he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. He left his glory in heaven and became one of us, shared in our sorrow and our pain, and eventually took the punishment that we deserved by dying on the cross. Jesus was the ultimate immigrant and the ultimate sojourner. He came to us so that one day we can join him at his heavenly table and partake in a feast that will be far greater than our Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. This is a blessing that flows to all people, to both you and me, Chinese and Americans, far as the curse is found.
Ryan Zhang currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.