Notes on Cool Whip

November 22, 2012

Photo courtesy of Flickr

During the holidays, immigrants and their
children struggle to learn American rituals, but what they do learn lasts long
past the meal.

When I married my husband, I felt like I’d hit
the jackpot -- a break-through in my anthropological studies of white,
middle-class America.

Take Thanksgiving: growing up, I knew my
family’s celebrations were not typical. Once, my immigrant parents
substituted the bird with a Jennie-O turkey loaf from the frozen foods section. How convenient! How metallic tasting! Another year, we had a
seafood banquet with my cousins at a Chinese restaurant because my uncles and
aunts weren’t fans of turkey, either. Too dry and too big. And what
were we supposed to do with the leftovers of something the immigrant-generation
didn’t like in the first place? Eating a turkey at Thanksgiving, like
putting up a Christmas tree, was a duty performed by my parents for their American-born

That first Thanksgiving at my in-laws, I
discovered a cherry Jell-O salad molded into a ring, which I’d heard about in
legend, but had never tasted. Glistening, suspended fruit -- how retro, and yet how futuristic! And beside each
dessert, a tub of Cool Whip, which I’d never seen in such abundance; it
seemed this clan’s totem of celebration. Throughout the meal, more and more blue-and-white tubs were brought by neighbors.

Later in the holidays, I came across a
basket of Christmas letters at their house. Maybe there are Chinese families who write
annual newsletters, but I don’t know any. Such letters aren’t the proper
medium for the roundabout way in which the Chinese take pride in their children -- praise in the form of a complaint. A humble brag. A father gripes
that his daughter needs to do better in math, after she earned a 98 on the last
exam. A mother grumbles that her grown son has dinner at home only once a
week, because he’s too busy getting promoted at the law firm.

In the letters, I expected to find a list of
triumphs about children and grandchildren and vacations.  People bragged,
but to my surprise, they also disclosed breast cancer, a baseball-sized tumor,
the death of parents, back surgery, installation of pacemakers, macular
degeneration, and removal of a gall bladder.

I didn’t know why my in-law’s friends chose such
an impersonal venue to break the bad news. All form letters have the look
and feel of something from Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, or
Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, even if printed on stationary with
pictures of snowmen, flowers, birds.

-- “He can no longer drive, fish, paint or do
most anything he enjoyed in the past.”

--“So now [he] is ready to have dinner
conversations with anyone about health issues...  This is what we do when
we get older, isn’t it???”

--“We figured out the reason people retire is so
they have time for all the doctor appointments that come as we age.”

Or even, “If you need surgery, do it now
and not when you are 75!”

The exclamation point haunts me still -- that
cheeriness in the face of major life change.

My father, before he passed away, was
tight-lipped about his health.  My mother remains circumspect, too. She does not want to burden her children with her problems, and for my
parents, a failure of the body is a matter of shame and secrecy, as if talking
about such matters dishonors ancestors and curses descendents. My mother
will never write Christmas letters. To do so would strain against who she
is, against the culture that shaped her half a world away and half a century
ago. Her children try to help her understand that she’s not alone in her
ailments. We tell her that Asians are at risk for Type 2 diabetes and
discuss her diet, which includes all manner of cruciferous vegetables and
beets. Sometimes she listens. Sometimes she doesn’t. All we
can do is try, try as my parents did for so many years, unveiling the turkey at
Thanksgiving their children wanted so much.

This year, my mother is hosting, but my sister
and I are in charge, assigning dishes for the potluck and drawing up a shopping
list for the rest. We’ll have a turkey, just not in loaf form and without the Cool Whip. All traditions have a time and place. Next year, when we celebrate Thanksgiving at my in-laws, my toddler twins will taste the recipes passed down on that side of the family. With plenty of Cool Whip.