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Thanksgiving at bars: On Thanksgiving night, I tucked into the holiday staples: turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, veggies, and pumpkin pie. Yet instead of eating with extended family on a long wooden table in the warmth of home, I was at On Tap, an expat bar in Taipei, with my husband and a friend, as a rerun of Monday Night Football played on a large TV. The food was mediocre at best, but it’s hard to complain: Turkeys are hard to find in Asia since they need to be imported from America, so getting to eat the foreign bird at all was nostalgic enough.
This is actually my third Thanksgiving spent at an expat bar—one for each year I’ve lived in Taiwan—and the third time that I’ve longed to be home during the “most wonderful time of the year.” Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most difficult times to be living abroad, as you watch social media feeds filled with photos of family gatherings at festive, cozy hearths. All the while, life goes on in Taipei: Commuters head to work on exhaust-spewing scooters, students chatter loudly as they buy boba milk tea after school, and at 7:15 p.m. the trash truck punctually announces its arrival with a tinny rendition of “Für Elise.”
Only at expat watering holes is Thanksgiving acknowledged, with eateries promoting special dinners to offer foreigners a taste of home. Doing Thanksgiving dinner at home is not impossible, but is difficult. Everyone works on Thanksgiving, so there’s no time to spend a day cooking a turkey. And as I mentioned, turkeys are tricky to find: Costco and high-end expat grocery stores have some, but they are pricey due to import costs. Then there’s the issue that most kitchens in Taiwan don’t have ovens. Nearly all food is cooked on a stove-top, so ovens are found only in expat kitchens, restaurants, or luxury homes.
Other traditional Thanksgiving ingredients are expensive and difficult to find: canned goods, cheese, Brussels sprouts, etc. To lighten the load (and cost) of putting together a Thanksgiving meal, my church community here typically hosts a potluck “Friendsgiving” the weekend before the holiday, often using creative substitutions when ingredients are inaccessible. But this year, my husband (Kevin) and I were out of town for Friendsgiving, and so we ended up celebrating the day of gratitude at On Tap.
My first year in Taipei, Kevin and I (then dating) spent Thanksgiving at Beer and Cheese, eating cranberry turkey sandwiches with our friends at the noisy and dimly lit bar. The side of mac ’n’ cheese was especially bland, yet the four of us still went around recalling all we had to be grateful for that year. Last year, Kevin and I (then engaged) had a Thanksgiving lunch at Carnegie’s, a pub known for its wild nightlife. Yet that day families and groups of friends showed up to order the pub’s Thanksgiving set menu: a mound of mushy stuffing on top of slices of turkey with mashed potatoes and vegetable sides.
Then there’s this year, when Kevin and I (now married) ate Thanksgiving dinner with a friend at a British pub filled with other foreigners also craving the familiar tastes and smells of home. The turkey was tough, the steamed vegetables flavorless, and the cornbread dry. Yet I was grateful for the chance to eat these Thanksgiving dishes, to hear English being spoken around us, and to celebrate the holiday with good people—especially Kevin. We can officially say that since we first met, we’ve celebrated every Thanksgiving at a bar, something few couples can claim. When one day we finally can cook our own meal at home with family and friends, it’ll be a first we’ll never forget.
Red mouth menace: If you’re in southern Taiwan, you might find your taxi driver with red-stained teeth and a habit of spitting out his window. That’s because he’s chewing betel nut, a seed harvested from the areca palm that give an energy boost equivalent to six cups of coffee. Like chewing tobacco, betel nut is addictive and can lead to oral cancer. This BBC article explains more.