I picked her up in Baltimore and we drove for more than an hour through the Maryland countryside to my parents’ house. This would be the very first Thanksgiving dinner for Xuan Shi, one of the bubbliest, friendliest, good-natured young ladies I have ever met. She was randomly assigned to me in the Carey Business School’s Cultural Connection program, though it hardly seems random considering how much we have in common.
Country music played in the background as we chatted excitedly about anything and everything, but mostly about my family and our Thanksgiving traditions, so that she would know what to expect. Often we had to stop our conversation on a dime to turn up the volume and sing along to a favorite from Keith Urban or Tim McGraw. You see, I had introduced my love for country music to Xuan when we first met, and she fell in love with it too…especially Keith Urban. The drive seemed faster than usual due to the fun conversation and singing, so before I knew it, we were driving through Taneytown, MD and turning onto the long driveway to my parents’ house.
When we walked in, we could smell the dressing, my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal and my mom’s specialty. Xuan had never heard of it but was excited to try. Introductions were made (including hugs because my family is Italian) and it was clear that with her lovely disposition, Xuan fit right in with my family.
One of the most memorable occasions for Xuan that day, as she told me later on the drive home, took place after the introductions when my dad picked up his guitar and played a popular song by Elvis Presley: “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”. I knew she would be happy to hear my dad sing and play due to her love for music, and the fact that she also plays guitar, but in order to understand further why this moment was so memorable and special, I will need to go back just a bit.
On our drive, as I was describing my parents’ home, I mentioned that they had designed and built a 50’s diner in their basement. I talked about what it meant to them having grown up during that era, and of course in the description mentioned the great King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, as she would see many pictures of him not only in the diner, but throughout their home. When I asked if she had heard of Elvis, she said she had not. However, when she Googled him on her phone and saw his picture, she realized that she absolutely did know him, only not as Elvis but as “King Cat,” or as she taught me in Chinese, “mao wang”(猫王). In fact, she went on to tell me that she, and maybe most Chinese, learn “Love me Tender” in elementary school music class. How exciting! Xuan would repeat this story and lesson to my family around table during our Thanksgiving dinner, and judging by the smiles and looks of interest on their faces, everyone was most thankful to have this special guest at our table.
It’s a tradition that I make the mashed potatoes every year with the assistance of my sweet nephew, Justin. However, as Xuan was very excited to participate in Thanksgiving dinner preparations, she became my assistant and we had a lot of fun mixing the ingredients, adding butter and milk, and licking the beaters!
Our Thanksgiving meal was delicious with all of the traditional items on the menu: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato casserole, sauerkraut, cranberry sauce and sparkling cider. Xuan tried and loved everything, but her favorites were the dressing and sweet potatoes.
After dinner everyone was sleepy and there was lots of resting (mostly by my nephews), and Snapchatting fun by all! Since it was my nephew Sean’s birthday, we all retreated to the 50’s diner to celebrate with apple and pumpkin pie. Xuan was amazed when she saw the 50’s diner, with its checkered floor, booths, tables, and soda fountain. A picture at the soda fountain with life-size Elvis made it complete. And, when I asked what were some favorite moments in the diner, she replied, when describing the antique telephone booth: “The time machine booth is exciting, too! And I remembered that your father used the old telephone and pretended to contact the past.”
Sean was blessed to be treated not only to the usual “Happy Birthday” song by his family, but also a very special Happy Birthday song sung in Chinese by Xuan. How sweet!
Throughout the day, everyone in my family, Dad, mom, my sister, two nephews, brother, and sister-in-law, had an opportunity to speak with Xuan and ask her questions about her country, her school, her classes, and all truly enjoyed this interaction. It was evident that she, too, very much enjoyed just being there as part of our family participating in our typical Thanksgiving family tradition of spending time together, sharing fun stories of when we were kids, laughing at jokes, preparing and eating dinner, and just relaxing after dinner, taking time to enjoy not being busy and being a family.
The drive back to Baltimore was quieter than the drive to Taneytown since our bellies were full. We mostly just listened to country music and sang along. However, as we got closer to the city I asked what she enjoyed most and what her favorite memories might be. There were many, and most I have already described, but I wasn’t surprised that she included music. “I felt that music can build a bridge between different cultures and different ages.” I agreed wholeheartedly.
I can’t honestly remember if I asked her or if she asked me about sharing Thanksgiving, but there’s no doubt that it was a really good idea, for all of us, because honestly, she fit right in, and felt more like family than a guest in the Perticone home. As my parents shared, “We love how you brought to Thanksgiving Day here, a beautiful soul, alone in our country who had no one to share with on that day. Your love made her day and ours.”