A half-Chinese Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner was a bit unusual this year. As always, we went to my sister’s house in Somerville — nothing unusual about that. But why was so much of the conversation in Chinese? Let’s see…

You first need to know the cast of characters. The permanent contingent consists of my sister Ellen, her daughters Hannah and Aviva, and of course Barbara and me. For years it has also included Ellen’s housemate Sam, who is ethnically Chinese and comes from Singapore. She speaks English and Mandarin. Hannah, a senior at Brookline High School, and Aviva, a freshman there, have been studying Mandarin for some years now; Hannah also spent the entire second semester of her sophomore year in Xian, China, and is now studying the language privately, having completed Chinese 5 Honors last year and exhausting what BHS has to offer.

Just to add to the mix, they also have a Japanese exchange student staying with them. Yuriko, who is definitely not fluent in English, wanted to experience a traditional American Thanksgiving.

This wasn’t it.

Ellen’s friends Katie and Nicole were also there as usual.

And now we’re up to nine, right? Three more to go: Ellen’s next-door neighbor, Ming, is from Macau by way of Hong Kong — a permanent U.S. resident, but a Portuguese citizen, ethnically Chinese, and a native speaker of Cantonese. He also speaks English and Mandarin. He recently married a woman from Beijing, Lin, who came over here in August along with her seven-year-old daughter, Xiao. They speak Mandarin, as you would expect, and arrived speaking no English. In four months Xiao has of course learned a lot more English than her mother, including important words like “ice-cream”. Yuriko says that Xiao is “rebellious”: she definitely does not behave like a proper Asian child, being loud, strong-willed, and not inclined to obedience. Sounds like a perfect fit for becoming an American child, right?

Oh, did I mention that Ellen and her daughters are vegetarians? So Barbara and I cook the turkey and take it to Somerville every year, to supplement the large number of veggie items prepared by Ellen, Hannah, Aviva, and Sam. One of these items every year is a spicy Chinese green-bean dish. The neighbors next door also contributed to the meal, cooking and bringing excellent potstickers, some wonderful stuffed pancakes, Chinese broccoli, and spicy Cantonese turkey. So the menu included as many Chinese items as American ones. It’s not clear why we even bothered with the turkey (and the associated stuffing and gravy). Maybe we’ll skip it next year.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation was in Mandarin. I understood about seven words.

But that’s not all that was untraditional here. Ellen’s Thanksgiving dinner is patterned in part after a Seder, so she has a “Harvest Haggadah,” which she and her ex-husband wrote years ago. One of the songs in it is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which turned out to be unexpectedly relevant to Ming, who told us that it had been sung by the students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.

To cap off the evening, Aviva had to consult me about some challenging factoring problems that were assigned in her math class. (It’s really a combination of what Weston would call Algebra II Honors and Geometry Honors. The official title of the course is Math 1 Advanced Placement, even though the College Board offers no AP exam in geometry and Algebra II. The justification for labeling it as AP is that it’s part of a sequence that eventually leads to an AP exam in Calculus. Seems like a misnomer to me.) Anyway, try to factor this polynomial:

25x4 – 9 – 4y2 + 12y

You’re tempted to group the first two and factor them as the difference of squares, aren’t you?

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