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Celebrating Thanksgiving abroad

Today is Thanksgiving, and let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to find turkey and cranberry sauce in the far corners of the Earth than it once was.

I first moved abroad as an adult in 1984, when I took a fellowship in Santiago, Chile. We lived modestly then, and obtaining a frozen turkey was nearly impossible. So I remember how luxurious it felt to go to the local Sheraton Hotel for a multicourse Thanksgiving meal. Whatever it cost, and it was a lot for my small pockets, it was worth it.

TurkeyDinner Then came a few years in Peru, where my recollection is we had to make do with a few Thanksgivings with a roast chicken sitting in for a turkey. At least, there were plenty of sweet potatoes (for you non-American readers, they are a staple of the Thanksgiving meal). Peru is the original home of the potato.

Things got interesting in Nicaragua, where I moved in late 1991, just as the country moved out of the socialist Sandinista era.

On arrival, I heard woeful tales from compatriots of the scrawny local breed of turkey, or chompipe. You had to buy them alive. I’d never killed and plucked a turkey before. And the local practice called for forcing alcohol down the fowl’s gullet to make it woozy, then ringing its neck. This held little appeal.

Luckily, by my first Thanksgiving, the local supermarket had a batch of frozen turkeys. I snatched one up and began ringing friends to come over.

To my horror, I later walked in the kitchen and saw the housekeeper preparing the turkey in a very unique Nicaraguan way. She was pressing mashed garlic into the skin and slathering it with ketchup, ready to throw in the oven. Luckily, I was able to clean it up before baking.

That year began an annual tradition around our house of inviting as many Americans as convenient over for Thanksgiving. In the early years, it involved carting cranberry sauce and bags of walnuts home with us every time we visited Stateside, even half a year before Thanksgiving.

In China, where we arrived in 2003, making a big Thanksgiving dinner has gotten super easy. Today, we’ll have turkey and an onion-cranberry dressing. There are plenty of sweet potatoes about. And the local supermarkets that cater to foreigners, Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet, carry all manner of Thanksgiving goodies, including cans of pumpkin for pies. Local restaurants do a big business catering to the Thanksgiving trade.

And unlike in Nicaragua, you don’t need to take your turkey with local condiments, like ketchup. It doesn’t come with oyster sauce on it. Nor do you get Moo Goo Gai Turkey. It’s just plain old turkey with stuffing. The way I like it.

The only thing missing is the traditional  Detroit Lions-Dallas Cowboys football game on TV. But then, I can probably find a way to catch it on the internet these days.


betsy Levinson

We spent Thanksgiving in Hong Kong for the first time this year, and had a traditional turkey dinner. Your comments were right on and delightful.

Arthur Borges

Thanksgiving in "China Rises"? How about doing "Ghost Festival" in the Easter Forum?

I won't even go into details of how Thanksgiving commemorates the massacre of 800 Pequot women, children and seniors... you folks can google it for yourselves.

But hey, among these 1,300 million there are, tops, 40 million Christians, and this country does have 56 official languages, so there's room for a turkey or two, even if he's a journalist.

b. cheng

Hope you had a great Thanksgiivng. The only problem is actually finding a place where you can cook the turkey in China, as ovens in apartments are so rare.

I do miss watching football, though I actually felt blessed this Thanksgiving not to have to watch the horror that is the Detroit Lions.

Tim J

oToh, yes I spent 14 years living in different parts of Latin America, and my wife is originally from Nicaragua. My Mandarin is conversational.


Happy Thanksgiving Tim to you and your family.Thanks too for your columns and blog.


Happy Thanksgiving. Do you speak Spanish (I guess so) and Mandarin?


Happy Thanksgiving, Tim!

I enjoy your column on the internet and have been reading it for about six months.

Daniel in Los Angeles.

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"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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