By Suhani Dalal
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A medley of fold-up tables line the living room, whose original furniture was shoved up against the side walls. From the entrance of the kitchen to the far side of the room, the tables—including one previously used for ping pong—meander through and occupy all available space. Amidst the wide assortment of chairs placed with no particular order in mind, a piano bench is tucked underneath one of the white mesas and awaits a hungry pair.
Soon, generations will span across the tables and, seated in roughly chronological order from youngest to oldest, elders will see their lineage unfold—their entire family relishing the feast.
“We’re seeing each other grow one year at a time and it feels like we’re completely remaking ourselves as young people every single year,” said University of Washington student Diane Wang. “And going down to see my family is not only so exciting and wholesome because it’s my loud and radiant family, but also because the sun still shines in Los Angeles.”
Wang is accustomed to flying out to the Los Angeles suburb, West Covina, for Thanksgiving, celebrating the holiday with both her immediate and extended family. She described her family’s traditional Chinese cuisine, replete with over 15 permutations of hanbao, spread on the variegated surfaces. Characterizing the room as a true “cacophony” filled with laughter and joy, Wang reminisced about her living room scene and being able to watch her cousins’ yearly transformations.
“It feels like I’m missing a timestamp this year to see where everyone is at,” said Wang. “Thanksgiving was how we kept track of each other, using these holidays as moments and time to figure out where we were going and what kinds of people we were going to become.”
But this year, Wang will have Thanksgiving dinner in Seattle, with her mom and her partner as company, at her mother’s house. She will quarantine and get tested before the visit.
With the U.S. experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, reaching a record of 1 million new infections in one week, states are responding with new regulations in an effort to curb the anticipated holiday spikes. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the shut down of a number of businesses, including gyms and movie theaters, and enacted capacity regulations for grocery stores and outdoor dining.
As Thanksgiving is a relatively short holiday, most of the CDC’s Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings guidelines are not feasible, so many families are opting to cancel their typical Thanksgiving plans.
“I am going to be working [this Thanksgiving] and later the roommates and I are going to have dinner together, since we’re living in the same space,” said University of Washington student Katie Novenario.
Novenario, anxious about the rapid spread of COVID-19, is not planning to be with her Filipino relatives this year—who are primarily in their 50s and 60s. In the past, the holiday has meant a great deal to her, as it was a guaranteed time for her whole family to devote their attention to one another and revel in each other’s successes.
“All of us are from a country where colonizers have been present and it feels ironic to celebrate other colonizers coming to a different country, so [my family’s] celebration turned into an excuse to eat good food and be together,” said Novenario.
Novenario explained the significance of Thanksgiving and the general holiday season for her immigrant parents.
“A big part of [why I am] sad about the holidays is [because I’m thinking] about how much older my parents are and how COVID-19 limits their ability to interact with parts of the family that they look forward to gathering with,” said Novenario.
“For them, being immigrants who moved here, [they] relied on the family that they had here as their social network and they were who [my parents] felt safe with, so that’s a big thing for them. I’m sad that they have to lose some of that.”
Sharing the Thanksgiving holiday together is particularly crucial for Novenario, as she does not frequently see her immediate family, with one of her sisters based in the Netherlands.
“It is a good time for me to be my parents’ daughter in the same space as them and have my mom say, ‘Go eat that food—I made that dessert specifically for you because I know you like it.’”
Maintaining strong familial relationships is integral for many Asian American families, as coming to the United States is an isolating and daunting experience made a bit easier with the support of family. But, as families naturally grow adding more generations to the lineage, the closeness established at the origin of arrival can weaken due to greater distance and the passage of time. In this way,
Thanksgiving can restore the cultural values and integrity of families and can be especially healing for the parents.
“It doesn’t really matter who you are [or] how close you are in proximity,” said Wang. “When you’re family, we’re going to take care of each other and act as if we’ve known each other our whole lives.”
Some Asian American families also congregate for Thanksgiving outside the home, participating in their local church’s festivities.
Arthur Liu, a student at the University of Washington, described his Thanksgiving as a potluck event hosted by his church. With every family bringing some dish, he laughed and stated that when “you leave empty,” you exhibit the most pride, as you know your dish was successful.
Having lived in cities up and down the West Coast, church has been grounding for Liu. Each year, he would attend the West Coast Christian Conference where he could link up with his friends from his previous homes and enjoy their company.
Liu will have Thanksgiving with just his immediate family this year, which he said he is looking forward to as they rarely ever spend the holiday alone together outside church.
With Thanksgiving looking different for various families this holiday season, Wang reflected on what impact the day has had on her in the past and what she looks forward to next year.
“Every time I leave [after Thanksgiving], I realize that I’m not as lonely as I think I am,” Wang said. “I know that sometimes I can really get in my head and feel isolated and alone … but then when I see them all, and I barely know half of them … seeing them and knowing that we’re all related somehow as a family—it just makes me feel like I’m not that alone.”
Suhani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.