Not long ago, less than ten years in fact, many of the local expats were calling Chongqing the Wild West of China. Development was less than ideal, international residents were scarce and foreign-oriented establishments nearly impossible to find. While not up to the levels of many other Chinese cities, the change Chongqing has gone through in this short time has been drastic.
However, back in the Wild West days of 2005, a few of those pioneering expats began a tradition that has continued on until today: The Chongqing American Thanksgiving Dinner.
I first read about this dinner on the Chongqing Expat Club forum well before arriving in 2014 and was excited for it, as I should’ve been getting to the city just as it was happening. Given the comparably small community of expats in the city (unlike Shanghai or Bangkok), I figured this would give me an opportunity to meet a good amount of people in the new city I would be living in. However, I ended up arriving 3 days too late, as my job training in Shanghai went longer than I expected.
Unlike those in the nostalgic days of Wild West Chongqing, I was now getting a daily feed of American Thanksgiving events sent to my phone via WeChat, China’s mobile Facebook substitute. Maybe out of stubbornness, I still wanted this dinner I had missed the year before. But come on, check out the menu:
Tickets needed to be purchased ahead of time. Penny and Faith, the two women who had been running the event for years made buying tickets immensely convenient by selling them at venues throughout the city. This is a godsend, considering how large Chongqing actually is. However, on 20 November for 230 CNY each, I had two Thanksgiving Dinner tickets in hand.
The Chongqing Thanksgiving Dinner takes place on a Friday night rather than a Thursday each year so that people’s weekly schedules aren’t disrupted. This is the only downside to the event, as a large number of the foreign residents of Chongqing work at language schools whose hours are weeknights and weekends, meaning they, and myself the previous year, could not attend.
The venue is the Intercontinental Hotel in Jiefangbei, the central (of about 5) downtowns of the city. Arriving at 6pm, we began to meet a number of expats whom I had never seen before. In fact, during the entire dinner, I never saw one person I knew after a year in the city other than those I had met when buying the tickets.
The door opened at 7pm and we all found our tables from the list Penny had checked us in with. The number of foreigners with children I saw here for the first time astounded me. This was certainly not the crowd of migratory English teachers I was used to seeing in every country I visited. And those I met at my table proved that. Among the the foreigners sat with us were an IELTS examiner, a representative of the American Consulate in Chengdu, and a designer working with his wife to open a cultural center and community in the city.
Once everybody had settled in their seats, Penny and Faith took the stage to welcome everyone to the dinner and lead a prayer. Before leaving the stage, they were stopped by another woman who rallied a well-deserved applause for the effort they had put into the dinner not only this year, but for many prior.
After that, the dinner was on.
Despite the hotel staff giving an ample amount of turkey to each table, the center table was flooded from all sides with people watching the kitchen staff slicing up the 16 turkeys the hotel had prepared for the evening. But, my first stop was the mashed potatoes and gravy, a difficult indulgence to find living in the urban wilds of central China.
Despite many of us slowly diminishing our plates with each passing serving, the conversations continued. From Tibet travel to new places opening in the city, the perspectives of the locals and foreigners still getting acquainted to the city are an interesting mix to hear. And in the process you find out things you would never expect.
Come 9pm, the dinner was finally starting to wind down. Despite a LOT of food remaining at the buffet, half the people had left. And ironically enough, we ended up on the elevator with no strangers.