My Thanksgiving at a KFC in China

Alone, in a strange country, the fast food franchise saved the day.
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Not your typical Thanksgiving destination. (Sheng Li/Reuters)

In the late summer of 2004, days before I was to move to Lianyungang, China, to teach English for a year, I spoke to an acquaintance who had spent a few years in the country.

"Holidays are hard," he said. "But oddly, not so much Christmas. Christmas isn't that bad. It's Thanksgiving that's hard."

At the time, surviving the holidays was the least of my worries. I was moving to a country where I didn't speak the language, understand the culture, or know the history, in order to do a job that I had never done and didn't know how to do. And not only that, I was going to a city—Lianyungang—that I hadn't even heard of, and could find no information about online.

Other than that, I was completely prepared. 

***

Lianyungang, 300 miles or so north of Shanghai, is a port city of around 750,000 people and is famous in China for being the birthplace of the Monkey King, a literary hero from the 16th century novel Journey to the West. But in 2004, it looked like any other city in the country: full of tall, gray skyscrapers, neon signs, and belching taxis.

Foreign residents in Lianyungang were few and far between. I was told that the first English teacher arrived in 2000 and when she—a middle-aged New Zealander with white hair—walked around, bicyclists sometimes slammed into parked cars. By the time I arrived four years later, there were about ten Western teachers in the city, but we still caused a minor frenzy when we ventured into a crowd of people.  

Usually, there were the "hellos": Young Chinese people would shout the word, accompanied by peals of laughter, as I walked in the city. Other people would tail me and ask for my phone number or address. Once, when walking through a university campus, I attracted a small mob of people who, wishing to practice their English, bombarded me with questions. 

"Do you like Chinese food?" "Can you use chopsticks?"

Yes, and yes—we have them at home.

"What is your favorite Chinese city?"

"Uh, Lianyungang." Except for a few hours in Beijing on the day I arrived, I hadn't been anywhere else.

"Really?"

***

Within a couple of months, the euphoria of being in China had worn off, and I found myself settling into a routine. During the day, there was work: I taught two hour-long classes of 15 and 16-year-olds, and, because I assigned no homework and rarely gave out tests, spent the afternoons either reading or making a halfhearted attempt to learn Chinese.

At night, after dinner at my school's canteen, I'd walk to a store down the street and buy a pirated DVD, which usually cost about 50 cents. The quality of the copies were variable—sometimes, they were filmed with a camcorder inside a cinema, which worked okay until someone stood up in front—but watching them kept me from having to deal with my Chinese reality. I was desperately homesick. "Just get through this year," I told myself. "Then you can leave."

When Thanksgiving came around, I decided it'd be easiest if I just ignored it. In China, this isn't difficult; unlike Christmas, which many Chinese people commemorate with decorations, music, and festivities, Thanksgiving slips past unnoticed—it's just another Thursday.

And so it was. I walked to school, taught my classes, did some lesson planning, and came home. But as I sat on my sofa, watching the next film from the James Bond box set I bought for $12 at a local shop, I felt a sense of shame. What was I doing? It was Thanksgiving, damn it. I needed to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner.

There was only one problem. In Lianyungang, as in most small Chinese cities, there's no turkey. Or cranberry sauce. Or stuffing, yams, pumpkin pie, or anything else. In fact, in the entire city of 700,000 people, there was exactly one restaurant whose food even resembled, at a distance, Thanksgiving fare.

Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And so that's where I headed.

Lianyungang's one KFC was located near my school, but until then I had refused, in an effort to preserve a degree of cultural authenticity, to go in. But on Thanksgiving, after I waved hello to Colonel Sanders and walked through the front door, what I found was a revelation. Unlike any of the other restaurants I had been to in town, KFC had clean floors, a functional public bathroom, and central heat. Its patrons were smartly dressed young professionals. Several people, I noticed, were even there on dates. The line behind the cash register was orderly, and within minutes of my arrival I found myself in possession of a bucket of crispy fried chicken, a tub of mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and a dubious-looking "dinner wrap" I selected from the menu. 

I pinched myself. Was this China?

I sat down and tore into my food. Every last bite was delicious. About halfway through the meal, I felt the familiar wave of nausea—tinged with self-loathing— I recognized from a lifetime of eating fast food. But I didn't care. It was Thanksgiving, and I wanted my food coma.

As I left, walking to a busy street to look for a cab, I heard footsteps and turned around: A young man wearing a suit had followed me from the restaurant and wanted to tell me something. Oh God. What did he want?

"Happy Thanksgiving!" he said. "I hope you have a good day." 

With that, he turned around and ran off. And my first Thanksgiving in China—there would be five more—was complete. More complete than I would have imagined it being in Lianyungang, anyway.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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