By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Yeah, a Thanksgiving article about etiquette is pretty exciting and cutting-edge stuff. But before you run away, ask yourself, “What would I do if my Chinese mother-in-law is planning a hostile takeover of my Thanksgiving dinner?” or, “What would I do if my 13-year-old cousin ignores grandma’s pleas for green beans and starts Facebooking at the table?” or, “What would I do if my religious Korean aunt wants me to say grace, but I haven’t come out of the atheist closet to her yet?”
Do you know what to do?
For the answers to these questions (and more!), read on.
“I hate turkey! How can I host a turkey-free Thanksgiving without ruffling feathers?”
About four years ago, the Nguyens (my family) actually banned turkey from the table because we hate the Butterball so much and weren’t ready to invest money in a heritage bird. We had known we hated Butterball turkeys for a while, but we carried on the tradition because it seemed odd not to do so.
But one brave soul spoke up four years ago. And so we instigated a ban. It was unexpectedly tough. So here are some hard-earned tips/words of advice:
1. You can ban the turkey only if you are hosting Thanksgiving. It’s totally rude to demand that your host not serve turkey. In that case, you might just have to suck it up and eat some turkey.
2. If you’re hosting, make sure each one of your guests knows about the ban. You can easily do this via massive group text or over e-mail. Be sure to convey your passion in the message. Perhaps send out the same message multiple times. Otherwise, someone might think you’re joking and will show up with a raw 20-pound turkey at 10 a.m. for you to cook.
3. Offer an alternative that evokes turkey but isn’t actually turkey. We like to cook duck. Vietnamese people also have a dish called chim cut quay/ro ti, which is a roasted pigeon-like bird. It’s fun because everyone gets a ‘mini-turkey’ on their plate.
“What do I do if a guest brings an organic quinoa and fava bean salad to my Thanksgiving dinner and none of my Asian relatives are eating it?”
A variation of this situation actually happened to Angie*. Some years ago, Angie nervously hosted Thanksgiving at her new house. Her husband’s mother (not Asian) was one of those people who ate to live more than she ate for pleasure. So she brought a dish that was chock full of vitamins, nutrients … but it didn’t taste or look great.
Some of Angie’s relatives politely inquired about the dish, but they didn’t make a move to take any. Others simply ignored its existence at the table.
What did Angie do?
“Later, we were sitting around a big table, with side dishes almost spilling [over] the edges. I told everyone to grab a side dish and serve the person to their right. On the other end of the table, I saw my brother give a big scoopful of the quinoa to my dad! Then I had everyone pass the dish to their right. And on and on it went. It was a big production to spare some feelings. But it was actually really fun, too.”
“What do I do if my 13-year-old cousin ignores grandma’s pleas for green beans and starts Facebooking at the table?”
For a guy in his 20s, Chinese American Jim* is somewhat technologically behind the times, so he doesn’t really get why his cousin needs to constantly update Facebook.
How can Jim get his cousin to log off of Facebook? Or should she log off?
Helena Echlin, a blogger for Chow.com’s “Table Manners” column, thinks having a phone at the table can be acceptable in this tech-friendly climate, but she advises staying on topic with it.
“I also think it’s more OK to use your phone at the table these days if it’s directly related to the conversation. It’s fine to pull up a picture or video of something you’re talking about, whether it’s your dog in his Halloween costume or your yard’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots.”
In contrast, Han Bui, a Vietnamese American mom with two pre-teen kids and Northwest Asian Weekly’s layout editor, doesn’t allow phones at the table at all. “I simply tell them that they can’t have phones there. It’s disrespectful.”
However, when it comes to someone else’s kids, Bui admits that she has to keep mum. “I can’t discipline someone else’s kid, so I just have to leave it at that,” she said, frowning.
Bui says it’s probably not a good idea to bring it up with the child’s parents, not on Thanksgiving at least. It’s better to save awkward conversations and/or arguments for a non-holiday.
“What do I do if my religious Korean aunt wants me to say grace, but I haven’t come out of the atheist closet to her yet?”
David* is in college and doesn’t see his extended family too often. Usually, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only times he sees his aunt and uncle. Before dinner, his family always says grace — usually his aunt or uncle lead — but David says he lives in perpetual fear that one day, they might ask him to say grace, or that his faith, or lack of it, would just randomly be brought up in conversation over a kimchi-and-green-bean casserole.
What should David do?
Of course, he can explain his objections to his aunt, but if he prefers to take the non-confrontational route, popular blogger Godless Girl (godlessgirl.com) suggests expressing thanks in a completely secular manner.
“Statements can be phrased like, ‘I’m thankful that we all arrived safely today and that I have always had a warm, loving home to return to,’ or, ‘I hope that this food and our conversation will be uplifting to all of us, and I am so thankful to be here after such a busy week.’ No deities, just your feelings!”
“What do I do if my Chinese mother-in-law is planning a hostile takeover of my Thanksgiving dinner?”
It’s a tough, lose-lose situation when your mother-in-law comes into the kitchen and starts criticizing everything you are doing. But here’s how you lose less:
1. Taiwanese American Amanda*, a frequent dinner party host, suggests giving the mother-in-law something to do. She cautions that the task should be substantial. “Don’t just have her, like, put forks on the table. Instead, maybe try asking her to create one of her famous dishes or something.”
2. Filipino American Sarah*, a 20-year veteran, says that when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving, banishment is the only way. “Be kind, though,” she advised.
3. Vietnamese American Don*, who says his own mom has control issues, has given up. “My advice? Just succumb to it. You will never win. It’s just one day a year.” (end)
* Not his/her real name. The individuals who helped in the making of this article were nervous about appearing to criticize their relatives publicly.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.