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Why my immigrant family celebrated Thanksgiving — and why we stopped

We called it "white people Thanksgiving."

It started in 1967. My great-uncle Chun immigrated to Oklahoma for school. He met a white woman, convinced her to marry him, and moved to Kansas. Shortly thereafter, his brother came to the US, met that white woman’s sister, and married her. In the next two decades, other Korean relatives joined them in Kansas. And there they fell in love, too — all with other Koreans. They got married and stayed in Kansas.

Everyone had kids, and their kids had kids. Half a century after Chun first set foot in his new country, his now-enormous family – a smorgasbord of Koreans, white folks, and everyone in between – still gathered for Thanksgiving each year in his musty living room in Olathe, Kansas. There were 50 of us in total. We ate turkey. There was cranberry sauce.

It wasn't a melting pot by any means. The family was firmly divided into the Korean side and the white side. The white side came from the families of my great-uncles, whose kids followed their lead and married into white families, while the Koreans married other Koreans. The consequence was an unspoken seating arrangement: Koreans sat on the ground. Old folks got couches on the perimeter. The dining room was for the white people. They were the ones who prepared the home-cooked American Thanksgiving dinner, after all. The rest of us just brought prebaked cookies or dinner rolls.

My family was on the Korean side. It was weird, but it was comfortable.

The celebration wasn't segregated, exactly. We had friendly interactions with our mixed-race cousins. We complimented them on the turkey. We watched football together. When someone announced a new love interest, the room corralled itself into a kind of ad hoc family press conference. But there was a distance. We knew very little about each other. We didn't even know everyone's names.

I always thought I'd learn them all, eventually, but the family continued to grow: children, spouses, and dogs. It evolved, too: divorces, fights, deaths. By the time I was in high school, there were Korean grandmothers sitting next to white teenagers, and all they could do was smile and nod at each other. At these later Thanksgivings, there were a lot of forced smiles, a lot of awkward nodding.

People started to leave. Cousins moved to Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle. I moved to New York. For a few years, I went back for Thanksgiving. But then my grandparents died. My parents moved abroad. My cousins got married. Fewer and fewer people came back.

About five years ago, I stopped going. Initially, my parents came to see my brother and me in New York, and we'd eat out. But the past three years they've traveled for work and stayed abroad.

The first year my parents were gone I got a text from my brother, a few days before Thanksgiving. He lives in Harlem. We don't talk much.

"So, um, should I just come over on Thursday?"

We had sushi that year. He chilled out in his boxers for a few hours. We watched football. He fell asleep. Then he went home.

I haven't had turkey in years. I dated a vegetarian for eight Thanksgivings, and my brother has been pescetarian for the past few. Our sushi tradition is a bit more complex now. My brother and I spent the day trying to "win" at all-you-can-eat sushi — and by winning, I mean trying to beat the house. But no one wins at all-you-can-eat sushi. The best-case scenario is walking out with your dignity.

Almost every time we do this, I think about how we got here — how Thanksgivings turned into this. I think about how it started.

My mother moved to the US in the late '70s, right after high school. She came with her sister, brother, and parents, and they lived with Chun's brother, Tai, and his white family.

They were a long way from Seoul, where my mother grew up, and an even longer way from Pyongyang, where my grandparents grew up. When the Korean War started, my grandparents escaped to the South on freezing cold nights, when they had to huddle together with random strangers for warmth. On their journey, they lost one of my great-uncles, and they were so terrified they would never see him again that they posted signs everywhere telling him where he should meet them once he got to Seoul. Somehow it worked. But they also left behind extended family in North Korea — people who are now faint memories of past. My grandfather changed his name shortly after leaving Pyongyang because he was scared the North Koreans would punish the relatives who stayed behind if they found out he had escaped.

After that threading of the needle, my relatives were left with a new life, a stable life, together in the Midwest.

So spending Thanksgiving with each other was a given. When everyone had children, it made perfect sense to continue the traditions.

And that was the Thanksgiving into which I was born.

In that way, I thought we were no different from the white family down the street who had been celebrating together for the past 100 years, whose father would shoot a turkey and deep-fry it. I thought our celebration was permanent, too. I thought we'd come home to Kansas for Thanksgiving every year, no matter where we ended up.

Maybe Kansas was never really home in the way it was home for that white family.

I was born there, raised there. But the older folks moved there, survived there; they worked in factories, struggled through English 101, and woke up at 1 am yearning for dukboki in a state where you couldn't even get a hot dog after 10. They weren't invited to the block party. They had to thumb through Korean-English dictionaries to figure out how to get a driver's license. But they made it. Their kids spoke English without an accent. They could navigate a parent-teacher conference, but being in Kansas was utilitarian. They came for the family, stayed for their kids, and left when it was time. My parents moved on, as did many others.

Perhaps Thanksgiving was just part of our way of assimilating. We slipped into a loophole where we experienced the intensity of "white people Thanksgiving" without actually making the effort.

It's not a Korean holiday, after all. The traditions are foreign. The meat is too salty, and pie is too sweet. Some immigrant families co-opt Thanksgiving for themselves: I was recently at an Indian Thanksgiving dinner where we soaked everything in tamarind soup. But for my family, there was already a script for this holiday. We just had to show up and follow everyone else's lead. We never had to invent our own quasi-Thanksgiving dishes or struggle through making smooth mashed potatoes, because it was already there for us, and it was easy to pretend it was ours. But without the struggle of making it our own — adding soy sauce, ginger, and sugar, and cooking it on the stovetop to eat with rice and kimchi — we just never became attached to it, which, in turn, made it easy to let the tradition slip away.

At least that's the story I've wanted to believe, that I lost Thanksgiving in a way unique to immigrants or families of mixed race. It's a good excuse. But I'm scared it might be something simpler, something that can't be covered by academic justifications.

I'm scared that maybe my family was never that close.

Maybe all families grow apart. We seemed closer, once. But I keep thinking of that white family down the street and their fried turkey: They never stopped coming home.

I should've seen the signs.

In later Thanksgivings, the white family members ate in an entirely different room. Often we'd look over at the door and ask, "Who's that?" My married cousins stopped coming. The Thanksgivings got smaller and smaller, leaving behind the elderly Koreans and the young white kids. Eventually, the older folks died. Now we only see each other at the funerals.

I feel shameful spending intellectual capital on something as silly as an American holiday. It's the kind of thing my parents and my grandparents would never talk about, never analyze. It doesn't rise to that level of significance. There's a Korean proverb that says, "A fish wouldn't get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut."

This Thanksgiving, I have no plans. I don't mind. I don't miss it.

But there is one ritual I think about. At the end of our Thanksgivings, my great-uncle would pat me on the back and give me a bag full of bones and gizzards. I'd go home, put them in a pot, and boil them with rice and water. The marrow would seep out and create this murky, sticky broth. By morning, it'd be slightly congealed into the perfect texture. We'd each grab a bowl, sit around the TV, feet on the coffee table, and eat piping hot spoonfuls of congee with kimchi. I miss that.

Alvin Chang is a graphics reporter at Vox.

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