We are now all familiar with the historical horror that is Thanksgiving. I’ve tried to counter that by telling the real story of Thanksgiving which has nothing to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans, but it seems there is another “real story” involving George Washington’s proclamation establishing November 26 as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I found the information about the proclamation on the Mt. Vernon homepage. The irony (to me) is that Sarah Josepha Hale is not mentioned on the website. She, through the magazine of which she was the editor (Godey’s Lady’s Book) was involved in founding the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, which still cares for Mt. Vernon. Sarah Hale happens to be the same person who worked for years to persuade SOME president — any president! — to formally establish a day for national Thanksgiving. She finally persuaded Lincoln and in 1863, Thanksgiving was officially established.
When it comes to history, humanity forgets more than it remembers, and when it comes to politics, people like to be angry. As for me, I like Indians more than I like those people who landed on Plymouth Rock, but I guess we can’t really choose sides. The color of our skin has done that for us.
I think there is something to Thanksgiving besides history and outrage, and that is the myth. Myths have a kind of magic and meaning beyond themselves. The myth of the happy Pilgrims and the happy Native Americans sitting down together is an expression of an ideal, a lesson I learned during the year I lived in the People’s Republic of China, 1982-83. That year, for the first time, I saw “my” country through the eyes of people from a very different world. For a Chinese man I came to know, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, the myth of America’s first Thanksgiving was a story of hope and the overcoming of privation and suffering — even more than that.
Here’s how that transpired (from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder)…
The Chinese government flew me from San Francisco to Guangzhou, including a flight from Hong Kong, which was only a few hours away by train. I expected a long Hollywood-style interrogation when I landed behind the Iron Curtain, but the only question the People’s Liberation Army customs officer asked when I got off the plane (an Aeroflot) was, “Do you have any religious material?” By then it was an open question for me what constituted religious material. I said no. I didn’t know that there was a large and well-funded mission in Hong Kong that relied on American tourists to smuggle Bibles into China. Anyway, I don’t believe in converting anyone. I’d brought my Bible to help my students understand the Western literature I would be teaching.
I soon met a Chinese woman, a young teacher my own age, with whom I became close friends. She came from Hainan, an island in the South China Sea straight across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. Looking at its location on the map mesmerized me.
During WWII the Japanese occupied Hainan and established air bases to supply their invasions of French Indochina and the Philippines as well as to coordinate their attack on Pearl Harbor. After years of fighting, Hainanese guerilla fighters from the various mountain tribes succeeded, with the help of the American Army, in pushing out the Japanese.
Then, during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s, those so unfortunate as to have learned English during the anti-Japanese War were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Survivors talked of suicide as if it were a disease. One of these was my friend’s elementary school teacher, Mr. Hu. His first wife, Mr. Hu explained, had “…got the suicide” while he had spent most of five years in a tiger pit.
With the fall of the Gang of Four, Mr. Hu married again and was transferred from Hainan to teach English in a high school in a village near my university outside Guangzhou. English was in; Russian was out. Any Chinese who could speak English was an important government property. He had been my friend’s teacher, and she took me to his house for lunch one day. We talked away the afternoon in American English. To avoid looking as if it might have changed its mind about the United States, China usually hired British teachers as Foreign Experts in English, and I was among the first “wave” of American teachers. I seldom heard a nuance of American speech or an idiom. But Mr. Hu said things like, “Oh boy,” “You bet,” and “Not worth a plug nickel.” Linguistic relics, but American relics.
Finally I asked, “Mr. Hu, where did you learn American English?”
“In the anti-Japanese war. American army. I was a clerk.” Most Chinese would have said, “clark” in the British way. Mr. Hu said “clerk,” just the way I would.
At the end of a wonderful afternoon, I invited him and his wife to the Thanksgiving dinner that I had just at that moment decided to prepare. I thought I could get a chicken.
I invited a few of my own students as well. Mr. Hu arrived with my friend and her husband. From the kitchen, I heard Mr. Hu telling everyone the story of the “Pigrims randing on Prymoth Lock on the Mayfrower.” In his voice I heard exactly what he had done in that tiger pit to keep himself sane and not “get the suicide.” He had told himself the stories he’d learned from the American GIs. It was his way of staying true, of holding onto himself and to a better world. There was more to it, something I didn’t suspect.
Some days later my friend came to my apartment and asked me to take a walk with her. I hadn’t yet realized that many of the walks I took with friends in China were taken so it would be difficult for anyone to listen to our conversation. The irony of Chinese life then was that the more public we were, the more privacy we had. We left the campus, walked across some rice fields, and up a small mountain.
“Do you have a Bible?” she asked.
“Yes. Why?” I knew she and her husband regarded religion as superstition.
“Mr. Hu,” she answered.
I was to take a bus halfway to Mr. Hu’s village to a very busy stop that connected to many other buses. He would meet me at the stop, and after giving him the Bible, I would return home.
The afternoon was cold with pouring rain. I wrapped my Bible in newspapers and tied it with pink string exactly like those Chinese were always carrying. To keep it dry, I slipped it into the plastic envelope that usually held the poncho I was wearing. If anyone noticed — which was doubtful — it would look as if I had given Mr. Hu a poncho. I was conspicuous, but well-known. My package wasn’t.
Twilight turned to night. I waited beside dripping palm trees, holding my umbrella and my bundle. Finally, a bus stopped, and the crowd rushed up the street. Someone pushed me. I looked up. Mr. Hu. I opened my mouth to speak; he shook his head very slightly. I passed him the bundle as if it were a football hand-off.
I never saw him again, but on Christmas morning I awoke to find four Mao buttons had been slid under my apartment door along with two small publications from the Cultural Revolution and a hand-painted Christmas card, unsigned.