When I was growing up in northern Minnesota, our family's Thanksgivings were straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Every Thanksgiving morning, my mother would rise at 6 and open the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook to check the roasting directions for the Butterball turkey. A neighbour had shown her how stuffing required an entire stick of Land O'Lakes butter, which both repulsed and thrilled us. My older brothers opened cans - jimmying out the cranberry sauce, using a church key to pierce the condensed milk for the pie. My sister and I made autumn leaves out of construction paper to decorate the table. My father's role was to set up the camera on a tripod, rush to join us for the family picture, and to carve.
I found it all a bit predictable, even banal. But for my parents, Korean immigrants, Thanksgiving was anything but.
As children, my parents lived under the brutal Japanese occupation, through the end of World War II. Then came the partition of Korea. As the realities of what was fomenting in the new North Korea became apparent, people began to flee. My father had already moved to Seoul to attend college. My mother, only 14, fled south a day ahead of the rest of her family - but also the day the 38th Parallel was sealed, forever separating her from them.
In 1953, my father came to the United States, and my mother followed him soon after. My father was a highly trained doctor who had worked as a translator for American generals during the war. Those connections got my parents a visa, even though at the time America had instituted laws that effectively barred most immigrants from East Asia.
After a few years, my father was unable to get the visa renewed, but he was sure his immigration problems would soon work themselves out; a German doctor he knew had become a citizen with a minimum of fuss. My father got a job in a small mining town in Minnesota called Hibbing. The hospital needed him: Northern Minnesota was a difficult sell for prospective doctors, with its arctic winters and lower salaries. And as the lone anesthesiologist, he was basically on call all the time.
However, the racial difference between my father and his German friend became apparent when deportation notices for my parents arrived (on the day that I was born, according to family lore). My two older brothers and I were American citizens, but the Immigration and Naturalisation Service didn't care. My parents were approached by immigration "lawyers" who promised to help, and promptly disappeared with their money.
Just when my parents thought all was lost, the townspeople of Hibbing turned out to sign a petition requesting that the government allow us to stay because my father was essential to the safety and well-being of the town. Our congressman took this scroll of names to Washington, where it was rejected out of hand on the assumption that if my father was given what was then the equivalent of a green card, he would pack up for more lucrative opportunities and Hibbing would lose a doctor anyway.
That's when another congressman, who knew my father personally, privately appealed to aver that no, William Chae-sik Lee, M.D., would stay put.
This Jimmy Stewart-esque moment remained a high point for my parents, one that helped them get through the times when people drove by our house yelling "chink!" or when we kids were bullied at school. My parents were determined to return the favour America had done for them. They insisted that we were not Koreans or even Korean-Americans, but Americans.
What it all comes down to is that the family is the unit of cultural preservation. This is true for all families, but, for immigrants, it is particularly bittersweet; to do one thing means something else is excluded. There is an autumn holiday in Korea - Chuseok - that is referred to as Korean Thanksgiving. It, too, involves special food - crescent-shaped dumplings called songpyeon - and family. But this is something I learnt in my 30s, as a Fulbright scholar in Korea. I took an almost anthropological interest, watching as bustling Seoul shut down for three days and my colleagues left for their distant hometowns.
A few years after American immigration laws were loosened in 1965, my parents became citizens (and even then, my father remained in Hibbing, eventually finishing out a 40-year career at Hibbing General Hospital). More Korean immigrants arrived, and a Korean grocery eventually opened, albeit a four-hour drive away in Minneapolis.
At home, however, our Midwestern diets remained inviolate, on Thanksgiving in particular. Its rituals gave our family's embryonic American life structure. It became my parents' yearly recommitment ceremony to America.
As kids, dressed up and trying not to squirm at the table, it didn't occur to us that we had the entire weight of Korean history behind us.
Because our parents never spoke about Korea, we felt as if we'd landed in the middle of the Iron Range of Minnesota via spaceship. How were we to know that my father, who bought the 12-pound turkey, had almost starved to death during the early part of the war? That while we voiced our complaints that we were bored, my parents, under the Japanese occupation, had not been allowed to speak their own language or even use their own names?
It is only in hindsight that I realise that this succession of Thanksgivings, never missed, never altered, was a gift. It was the ultimate gift my parents could have given their children, of optimism and safety, the feeling that the next Thanksgiving would be a lot like this one, a predictable celebration of abundance and family.
NEW YORK TIMES