How to Pull Off a Perfectly Imperfect Friendsgiving — Shanghai-Style

When my friends and I couldn't travel home for Thanksgiving, we started our own tradition — and learned a lot.

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Photo by: PeopleImages/iStock


In college, most of my friends would go home to their families during Thanksgiving break. I always felt a pang of jealousy — as an international student, it just didn't make sense to fly 16 hours to visit my parents in Hong Kong for such a short amount of time. Luckily, my childhood friends from Shanghai were in the same boat, so we started our own Friendsgiving tradition. But we also quickly found out that making a Thanksgiving meal for 10 to 15 college students was no easy feat. Living in dorms meant that we couldn’t buy ingredients early or practice recipes beforehand. And none of us had ever made a full Thanksgiving meal before.

But after three years, we managed to learn from our mistakes and even incorporate the flavors of Shanghai to create a non-traditional, but nevertheless meaningful Friendsgiving. Hopefully, my experience can give some insight into what to do (and what not to do!) when preparing a feast for friends:

Lesson One: Plan ahead.

Our very first Friendsgiving took place in New York City. We were definitely new to the game, since the thought of making dinner hadn't even crossed our minds until that afternoon. We considered cooking a small meal of traditional Thanksgiving dishes, but we knew there was absolutely no way we could pull it off in time. In the end, our meal consisted of take-out pizza and boxed Mac 'n' Cheese. If it wasn't for the good company, it would have easily been the saddest Thanksgiving meal I ever had! The most important lesson from that year? Make a plan. If your friends think it's possible to create a whole Thanksgiving dinner with no preparation or forethought beforehand, you're in for a wild ride.

Photo by: Courtesy of Xenia Fong

Courtesy of Xenia Fong

Lesson Two: Roll with the punches.

Sophomore year rolled around and we found ourselves celebrating Thanksgiving on the West Coast. Unsurprisingly, we were just as unprepared as we were the year before. It was already late afternoon by the time we realized that most grocery stores closed early that day. But, like a beacon of light shining through the dark, there's always one place that’s open, even during the holidays — Chinatown. We were able to pick up a giant roasted turkey, cooked the same way traditional Chinese roast duck is — full of spices, ginger and garlic, which made it the perfect fusion dish for our Shanghai Friendsgiving. After hours of cooking, we sat down to a feast of turkey, pasta, sautéed veggies, mashed potatoes and, to top it all off, Cantonese egg tarts for dessert. Despite the minor difficulties, we learned to improvise and roll with the punches. Another key takeaway? Start early. Getting a head start with grocery shopping would have saved us a lot of frantic running around. But hey, it still worked out in the end!

Lesson Three: Work together.

I studied abroad junior year, so I missed any Friendsgiving festivites. But for our senior year, we decided to go big — Vegas, baby! This time around, we split into small groups, each in charge of our own dish. We ended up with an eclectic menu that paid homage to our mixed background: roasted sweet potatoes, homemade dumplings, beef and broccoli, mac 'n' cheese and more. Incorporating flavors from home happened naturally since that's what we grew up with and knew how to make. It brought a rush of nostalgia that made me feel even closer to my friends. No matter where in the world we are or what stage of life we're in, we'll always be bonded by our Shanghai memories. Finally, I learned that Thanksgiving isn't about the perfect home-cooked meal — it's about surrounding yourself with friends and family who, no matter how good or bad the food turns out to be, give you something to be thankful for.

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