Our crisp formal dining room table was set like it always has been on previous 3rd Thursdays of November. Four plates accompanied by stainless cutlery and wine glasses had been dusted off and set neatly, the porcelain and glass somehow existing in a precarious way, even though they stood far from the edge. As the table slowly became decorated with foods like corn, mashed potatoes, and of course, a turkey, a picturesque scene seemingly straight from a Holiday Catalog was built.
But this dining room scene didn't reflect the dysfunctional nature of my family—an atmosphere that existed in the kitchen, apart, yet simultaneous in relation to the gleaming table in our formal dining room.
If our table were the cover of this Holiday Catalog, to flip the page would mean to expose the scene behind the steaming potatoes and honey baked ham. To expect a picture of a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl, standing with pots and pans and ladles, grinning as they worked to create a Thanksgiving dinner from scratch, would be to expect incorrectly.
Instead, my mother and I were sullenly taking turns preparing the pre-ordered and prepackaged side dishes. This meant dumping the chunked contents from plastic containers into serving dishes, then sending them to be nuked in the microwave.
My sister, who seemed to be conversing with the ham, occasionally took a break to help my mother and I out. What she didn't realize was that I had seen her ruin the smooth surface of the mashed potatoes with an impatient finger-scoop.
I complained loudly, gaining the attention of my father, who was busy preparing sparkling drinks in the plastic sports cups we often used. Harsh words sent us to opposite ends of the kitchen, where we worked on various unimportant tasks.
We worked in silence, with the hum of the microwave thinly masking the tension my family so often felt when we came together to eat. This was an attitude of ours not unique to the holiday season.
Due to our busy schedules, meals in my family often end with individual members preparing and eating their own food, sometimes in the quiet seclusion of an office or a bedroom.
But every year, we were forced by American tradition to sit together and consume a "lavish" meal at an awkward table. The conversation's foundation was built on our requests to pass dishes, a stream only sprinkled occasionally with shallow smalltalk.
"How is school?"
"Did you take the dog out this morning?"
"How is your father doing?"
To avoid conversation, I raised my wine glass and took a sip of the sparkling that my father mixed in sports cups earlier—swishing the juice in my mouth as I mechanically worked my way through the dishes.
I eyed the turkey, cornbread, and cranberry sauce with disdain. My favorite dish was the Chinese green beans my mother had cooked in the kitchen— the sole dish she made from scratch, and also the only one she seemed to enjoy too. As I tried to soak the dry turkey in the sauces left over by the green beans, I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier with my grandmother.
After complaining over the phone about my hatred for the tasteless tradition of a Thanksgiving turkey, I expected her to agree with me—that the iconic meal was nothing but a ploy to give purpose to an otherwise useless bird. To my shock, she claimed that because I lived in America, I had to follow its traditions. This came from my foreign grandmother, whose only daughter of 7 children was a 1st generation Chinese-American immigrant. I had expected her to defend my heritage, to maintain a stance that revered her home culture's foods over America's.
Whenever I visited Singapore, my grandmother always took pride in how she could cook an array of Chinese dishes that we couldn't find in America. Her favorite activity whenever we're there is buying bottles and bottles of chilis and oils only available in foreign markets, for my mother to bring back and use.
And the green beans sitting on the table were cooked in those exact chilis and oils. I wished silently that we had coated the rest of the dishes in the Singaporean sauces- it would make this ordeal slightly less grey.
As the plates of food shrank in size, the conversation dwindled with it. We ran out of common questions, and ate our pie in silence. At this point, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted this family to be. Did I want that idyllic and warm flow of conversation, with laughter and pleasantries? Or was I content with our dull state, marked by plates of microwaved sides and a lacking turkey?
To my family, the holiday season is an unwelcome invasion to our pattern of cold and static relationships. We're not without affection, but the forceful sit-down to a meal we didn't enjoy created an uncomfortable cloud that hung above us.
Our saving grace was the pile of green beans that lay in the pool of chili, that somehow overshadowed the turkey as it became the centerpiece.