Thursday marks the seventh Thanksgiving I've spent in Asia, my fourth in China and one for which I’ve never felt more like a thankful 21st century Pilgrim.
Observing this oldest of American holidays overseas has ranged from barebones to bizarre. Barebones was South Korea, 1974 while semi-horrified I watched a wet market poultry butcher dispassionately take a live chicken (turkeys being as scarce as their teeth), behead it with a cleaver, briefly boil it, then pluck it and singe the pin feathers off with a blow torch seemingly before its scrawny legs had stopped flopping.
Until then it had scarcely occurred to me that all chickens didn't originate frozen and wrapped in plastic labeled “Tyson” with a blue United States Department of Agriculture stamp.
Bizarre was Hong Kong Thanksgiving 2005 in a restaurant called California where celebrants were served by Chinese waiters and waitresses dressed as Pilgrims and Indians like large children in a school pageant.
But between the extremes it's been the Chinese people and friends who've guided, taught, scolded, loved, comforted and aided me through the more routine days for whom I am truly grateful.
This generous cornucopia of souls includes an elderly Shenzhen beggar with mangled paralyzed legs and his tale of woe neatly chalked in Chinese characters on the sidewalk outside my apartment for several months. I could not read his story, but his stoicism and situation moved me enough to make small daily donations as my two healthy legs took me to work every morning.
He never said a word until one morning I saw something new on his sidewalk testimony. In simple flawless English were two sentences thanking and wishing – presumably me, as there were virtually no other foreigners living in the area – a long life and happiness.
There was also the neighborhood shop keeper who took time on American Independence Day to scrounge almost 25 minutes though his insanely packed storage place to give me clandestine fireworks left over from Chinese New Year to help me properly celebrate July 4 the USA way.
Unsung Lei Fengs also include a busload of Shenzhen passengers who stopped a thief from slitting my pack back, and in a united civil show of force evicted him sans the pocketknife he’d tried to use. When one of my rescuers offered it to me, it looked surprisingly familiar, perhaps because the thief had slickly picked it from my pocket before trying to use it on my bag.
I owe a debt of thanks also to an 81-year-old Canadian missionary educated Chinese obstetrician and gynecologist who humbled and amazed me during a random encounter on a hot Shenzhen summer night when he spontaneously and flawlessly recited Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s masterpiece was, he told me, one of the memories that had sustained and inspired him while he’d been confined to a corpse cluttered morgue for five years during the Cultural Revolution.
A dignified aging hooker fallen from privilege who shared her glory days one lonely night telling me of the pride she still felt at being 17 and “the second best girl Chinese chess player in Beijing” also taught me more about life, survival, changes and circumstances.
Close at heart are my Chinese “sisters,” coworkers and “foreign babysitters” in Hong Kong and Beijing who helped a hapless American get back into the several apartments from which he’d carelessly locked himself, loaned him the laptop on which this was written and brought him tea, sympathy and soup when he was ill while asking, "do all foreigners live like pigs?” before cleaning the place up.
Others have eased the way in other ways, such as wild Rose, a Hong Kong reporter with a penchant for sipping codeine-laced Madame Pearl’s cough syrup while regaling me with tales of her Beijing childhood as her father smiled to himself while preparing and serving us The Best Duck Soup on the Planet.
Gratitude goes also of course to C, the Dandong girl who, until the distance and time drove us apart (