Oanh Ngo Usadi is the author of the memoir “Of Monkey Bridges and Banh Mi Sandwiches: From Sai Gon to Texas.”
Though native to North America, the turkey is perhaps the ultimate immigrant around the world. Its name in many languages usually means some form of outsider from far away. In Vietnamese, it is called the “Western chicken.” In French and Hebrew, its origin is assigned to India. In Arabic, it’s the “Roman bird.” The list goes on. Even in America, the native fowl was assumed to have come from an exotic land.
In the small Texas town where my family, Vietnamese immigrants, settled in 1984, when I was a child, we learned about our new homeland’s traditions as each season unfolded. A few months into sixth grade, I found out about Thanksgiving and the holiday’s featured star. Though historians report that turkey was probably not on the menu at that first celebration in 1621 between the English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, the bird has become synonymous with the holiday that is, in part, a celebration of America’s immigrant roots.
In 1978, when I was 7, my family was exiled from Saigon to the countryside by the Communist government that had been victorious three years earlier in the Vietnam War. Everything about us — our clothes, our fairer skin, the fact that we wore shoes — signaled to the villagers that we didn’t belong. It was true that we didn’t know much about country life.
One day, my father came home with what looked like an oversize chicken, red wattles hanging down its neck. Even though none of our neighbors raised turkeys, my father wanted to experiment. If we were going to raise chickens, he said, why not raise a bigger chicken? A turkey, he thought, would lay bigger eggs and might even sit on a clutch of chicken eggs, freeing the hens to lay more. But the turkey never developed the desire to brood, the urge to settle atop a pile of eggs day and night with little thought for eating or drinking. Quite the opposite — eating seemed to be the only thing on its mind.
But in our village there was little to eat, for livestock or humans. Under the government’s collectivized farming policy, farmers had to give up their land and work together on communal fields. At harvest, the rice crop was distributed equally. With few rewards given for hard work, most farmers exerted less effort. Vietnam’s rice production plummeted. Within a short time after my family’s arrival in the Mekong Delta, the region known as the rice bowl of Vietnam was running out of food.
People cleared the sky of birds and bats, and the land of rats and snakes, catching anything edible. Livestock fought for meager scraps. The turkey, towering over the ducks and chickens, pecked at anyone or anything that dared to come near any food it found and stripped trees of the leaves it could reach. The wanton destruction, voracious appetite, low egg production and less-than-friendly nature all contributed to the turkey’s early end. Its meat, though tough and chewy, provided our family with a rare experience of abundance.
As hunger tightened its grip, villagers found a scapegoat in my parents, the outsiders. Our neighbors’ anger turned increasingly violent. In 1983, my family escaped Vietnam on a small fishing boat packed with 155 people. After a year in various refugee camps, we arrived in America.
In our new home, the Thanksgiving celebration would take on many aspects of the Vietnamese New Year, revolving around a family gathering and food. The secular day of thanks appealed to all of us, especially to my parents and older relatives, grateful to have found safe harbor in America. It was the one holiday when my family would attempt to make American dishes.
In the beginning, when we didn’t know much about American cuisine, everything would come from a can or a box. Over time, we learned to mash potatoes, slow-cook stuffing and make corn bread. But it was the turkey that was the best marker of our assimilation.
The dry, tasteless turkey of our first Thanksgiving gave way, after subsequent holiday attempts, to golden, juicy ones, and along the way, we came to feel more American. Countless immigrants to the United States have no doubt had a similar experience. But ours was distinctly personal: The bird that had signaled our outsider status in Vietnam had helped us become insiders in our new home.