An Asian American LEAD Thanksgiving

By Neel Saxena, Development & Communications Director
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff

Growing up, every Thanksgiving I would sit at my parent’s dining room table surrounded by freshly fried samosas, simmering matter paneer, spicy chicken biryani, and canned cranberry sauce – all the while wondering why I couldn’t have a “normal” thanksgiving meal like they did on The Wonder Years. The holidays highlighted the duality of my identity and the conflict between my Asian side and American side, with the Asian side winning at the dinner table because my parents emphasized maintaining my Indian cultural identity, no matter how hard I tried to be Zach Morris.

Like myself, many of AALEAD’s youth and families have to manage two cultural identities and face a number of stressful processes as new immigrants, from adapting to a new culture and language, to building a new social support system, all of which can lead to added stress and mental health issues [1]. AALEAD youth are fortunate to have staff who give youth the space to feel comfortable and confident in their cultural backgrounds and experiences, and learn to find their place as community members.  One of the ways staff and youth do this cultural exploration is through cooking, like this activity from earlier this year: Food and Fun: Learning through Eating.

My own cultural exploration of the Asian American Thanksgiving came when I celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, which would consist of an assortment of diverse culinary offerings. These assortments were usually missing my dad’s favorite – the canned cranberry sauce that reminded him of chutney from back home.  I now treasure my Asian American Thanksgiving full of flavor and spice and wonder why I ever longed for the flavor-challenged bean casseroles and turkey that Kevin Arnold seemed to enjoy every November.

In the office, we celebrated Thanksgiving with a menagerie of dishes and shared our own Thanksgiving memFullSizeRenderories growing up:


 My family and I traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving with a variety of Asian and American dishes (the ultimate Asian American meal!). We typically have a Vietnamese noodle dish such as bun rieu (crab noodle soup) or bun mang (bamboo, chicken, mushroom vermicelli) and order other dishes: Chinese roasted duck, dim sum, etc. with mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, etc.

– Tina Ngo, Mentoring & Volunteer Programs Manager

I remember sitting in the car with my dad, younger brother, and two crates of tangerines on our way to Jersey, where my uncle lived; our contribution to the Thanksgiving table was vitamin C, apparently. We’d spend the afternoon there eating an array of ready-made Thanksgiving dishes my aunt had picked up earlier that morning (which included a turkey, of course), Chinese takeout, and pumpkin pie.

– Stephanie Lim, Mentoring & Volunteer Programs Coordinator

I really love Thanksgiving because I get to have two of them. One on my mom’s side and one on my dad’s. After asking my dad, I realize that besides a small plate of kimchi, there is no Asian American influence on the food. The reason is that we are “so Korean” during the rest of the year, we want to be “authentic (Euro) American” for at least one day! Seeing my cousins is the best part.

– Yoonsoo Kang, VA Middle School Program Coordinator

The staff brought in dishes that reflected their cultures, including dishes with an Asian American twist.  As I was thinking about what I would bring in, I started to look online for recipes and noticed that the ever-growing food industry has finally caught on to adding Asian flavors to traditional American dishes, something many of us Asian Americans have enjoyed for years.  Some of my favorites include:

 Gurinder Chadha’s Tandoori Turkey With Spicy Gravy

Joanne Chang’s Red-Miso-Glazed Carrots

Kathy Fang’s Coconut-Scented Sweet Potato Jasmine Rice Stuffed in Butternut Squash Bowls

This year a new tradition has been added to my Thanksgiving – the AALEAD Staffgiving.  We were able to appreciate and enjoy each other’s culture through the food we brought, creating a space where staff were able to share and feel comfortable.  This is the kind of space we look to create in programs, having youth feel comfortable and confident in their own cultural identities and experiences so that they may share and appreciate others. Now every Thanksgiving I will look forward to the AALEAD Staffgiving, enjoying time with friends, and appreciating their cultures through great food.  Most of all, I still enjoy going back home for the best Thanksgiving food I have ever had, minus that cranberry sauce – only my dad eats that!

AALEAD Staffgiving

[1] Gupta, Taveeshi., Cultural Identity and Mental Health: Differing Trajectories Among Asian and Latino Youth., Journal of Counseling Psychology (Impact Factor: 3.23). 07/2012; 59(4):555-66.

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