Friends become family: how US expats abroad celebrate Thanksgiving

  • They may be thousands of miles away from home but US expats still know how to have a good Thanksgiving
  • Mixed cultures can lead to some interesting menu items
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 6:15pm

Unlike Christmas and Halloween, Thanksgiving is one holiday that hasn’t quite caught on outside the United States.

For one thing, turkeys are native to the Americas, and it isn’t quite Thanksgiving without a big dry bird swimming in gravy. Also, the rather bloody history of colonialism and war surrounding the event isn’t particularly appealing outside the United States.

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But even when far from home, US expats still manage to celebrate. We caught up with a few of them to find out how.

Potluck style

“I celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends,” says Jen Kentrup, a yoga teacher at Pure Yoga. “This year they are coming over to my house and we have roughly 14 adults and eight kids.”

She says this year she asked her friends to bring dishes so that everyone gets a chance to contribute. “It’s a potluck style,” she says. “We are sticking to [a traditional] Thanksgiving menu.”

Though she celebrates Thanksgiving with friends in Hong Kong, Kentrup still misses her family back in the US. She sees the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate good memories, as well as to reflect back on everything that has happened over the year.

“I am thankful for the good health in my family, and for the love and friendship we all share. But I’ve been here in Hong Kong for 18 years, so our friends have become our family. I like to think that spending time with friends is more like being with our chosen family rather than the one we were born with.”

Marathon celebration

Robin Ewing, associate director of the international journalism master’s programme at Hong Kong Baptist University, says that she is celebrating Thanksgiving three times this year. First, she will go to two annual parties at her friends’ homes the weekend before the event. Then she will have a small meal at her home on the actual day. This year she has opted to order a turkey since she is too busy at work to cook one.

Ewing says that she loves Thanksgiving because it’s not a commercial or religious holiday. “It’s about sharing a meal with people in your life and being thankful for all the good things. In Hong Kong, where so many people are from somewhere else, your friends become your family. And I think that is special.”

Ewing adds that a wonderful thing about Thanksgiving in Hong Kong is that she usually celebrates it with people from all over the world. “Over the years I’ve sat at Thanksgiving dinner tables with Chinese, Australians, French, Israelis, Canadians, Germans, Japanese and many more. Where else do you get to do that except Hong Kong?”

Saturday’s the day

“We are doing a ‘friends’ giving,’” says Jennifer Pollard, a leadership sustainability coach at Q Challenge Journey who has lived in Hong Kong for 19 years. “We always celebrate on a Saturday because nobody has a Thursday or Friday off.”

Pollard says this year she has 14 friends coming to her home for the event, mostly the same group of people that have been coming for the last five or six years.

“The attitude is we come together to share a meal, share each other’s time and bring food we all like to eat and cook,” she says. “I prepare the big stuff and everybody brings a dish to share, so there is always a lot of food. We prepare traditional food like turkey, there is always gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and there are always pies too.”

She says the food people bring changes a little bit every year. “But for most of the traditional food, we are fortunate to be able to get in Hong Kong at this time of year. It’s not difficult to get – you just have to be willing to pay for it.”

One of the challenges she used to face was not having an oven. “We always had to order in the turkey. But since we’ve got an oven now, I can do the whole thing.”

Pollard says that she still misses her family back in the US. “As far as replicating the meal and all of that, we are pretty easy-going [in Hong Kong] and doing what we like, but I miss doing it with my large extended family,” she says. At the same time, she feels thankful for her life in Hong Kong and she thinks she lives in a fantastic community.

Fusion menu

Pamela Tobey, visuals director for the Beijing Review, arrived in China in 2015. She says that when she and her husband first celebrated Thanksgivings in Beijing, they would buy a roast duck and have traditional American side dishes.

“I would make apple pie because I couldn’t find canned pumpkin. Now I can find cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin,” she says.

Before, she would buy ingredients when visiting home during summer or Golden Week, like Stove Top stuffing mix, canned cranberries, gravy mix and apple pie spices. Now she says she only brings stuffing mix and spices from the US because she can get the other items at import stores in Beijing, whose stocks of niche American foodstuffs have grown in recent years.

Tobey frequently invites Chinese friends to her house who are interested in the American tradition and willing to try the different foods.

“Our first [Thanksgivings] also had a bit more Chinese. [We had] the duck, and we did Sichuan green beans. And now it is more American … I have no problem getting wine for the dinner.”

She says the thing she misses most about Thanksgiving in America is getting together with family. “We all call our parents and siblings [from China], but it’s not the same as being there.”

Staying in touch

“My family doesn’t usually celebrate Thanksgiving here, mainly because we tend to forget it’s coming up and are caught unprepared,” says Jeffrey Timmermans, director of the bachelor of journalism programme at the University of Hong Kong. “Unlike Christmas, which is a such a global phenomenon now, there aren’t many warning signs in Hong Kong of the approach of Thanksgiving – which I guess makes sense because it’s such a North American-focused holiday.”

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Timmermans, who came to Hong Kong in 1997 but split his time between here and Singapore for six years, says that Thanksgiving is “an occasion to remember all our family members who are back in the States – it’s a good excuse for a long phone call.”