Until four years ago, when cancer took my grandma, the Chinese side of my family, my dad’s side, spent every Thanksgiving at her house. It was always warm, heated by the oven and stove, which grandma usually had running since morning. Our family is large, but the feast she prepared was always much larger. She cooked pies, meats, vegetables, and stuffing, which however delicious, were not my main course. My sister, my cousins and I, we came for grandma’s rice and gravy.
And that’s what comes to mind when I think about Thanksgiving—not pilgrims or gratitude, or pumpkin pie. My image of Thanksgiving consists of grandma’s eleven grandchildren pouring turkey gravy over mountains of steamed white rice.
I believe in rice and gravy because I am rice and gravy. I’m half Asian, half Anglo and completely American.
My generation learned in school that culture was something to celebrate and something necessarily foreign. Nobody ever explained to me that culture is not a set of exotic garments and foods, but something everyone has.
Back then many government applications and forms had yet to acknowledge the shades of grey in between the major ethnic groups. I usually checked the “Asian” box even though I am equally white. It seemed like everyone expected me to fit inside that box and I sometimes worried that I wasn’t Asian enough, like I was pretending.
So I used to mourn what I saw as the loss of my Chinese heritage. Grandma never taught my dad to speak Cantonese; our holidays were the American ones; and we ate our family dinners with forks.
See, my grandma’s generation wasn’t taught that diversity was valuable. Her parents came to this country at a time when the central focus of American immigration policy was keeping the Chinese out. Discriminatory laws turned them into illegal immigrants. They used fake papers and adopted a fake family name in order to come here.
Until 1943, the United States would not allow Asians to become naturalized citizens. Many parts of Phoenix, where my grandma grew up and where I was raised, were designated off-limits to Chinese people before World War II. And interracial marriage remained illegal in Arizona until my dad was a teenager. Needless to say, my grandma was encouraged to downplay, not preserve her Chinese culture.
Which is why I’ve come to be proud of my mixed identity. My very existence is a mark of progress and a symbol of my country — a collage of people with roots all over the planet, who, though not without strife, form something new and strong together.
The now-common phrase “long time no see” came from the literal translation of a Chinese expression into English. To me, rice and gravy is a similar type of translation. It’s a delightful piece of culture that arises only at that point where immigrants braid their past into the American story. And that’s what my family celebrates with rice and gravy for Thanksgiving.