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A Thanksgiving feast at the School House

  • Thanksgiving with a few friends. FRONT: Mike Peters, China Daily; Brian Peach, Global Times; and Brandon Taylor, Beijing Review. BACK: Ken McManus, South China Morning Post); Jim Spear, School House owners; and his wife, Liang Tang.
    Thanksgiving with a few friends. FRONT: Mike Peters, China Daily; Brian Peach, Global Times; and Brandon Taylor, Beijing Review. BACK: Ken McManus, South China Morning Post); Jim Spear, School House owners; and his wife, Liang Tang.
Published December 12. 2009 09:00AM

While my parents and other relatives enjoyed a cozy, wholesome Thanksgiving dinner back in the States, I was stuck in the office, working late (it was my turn for production night), eating a small, semi-warm bowl of rice, beef and what I think was pork from the fast food chain Yoshinoya. Dessert consisted of a few Hershey kisses I had hidden away in my desk drawer.

But on Nov. 28, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I enjoyed a pleasant evening with a few of my expat pals from various English publications in Beijing at a small compound at the base of the Great Wall called the School House.

The School House is owned and operated by American Jim Spear and his wife Liang Tang. The couple began work on the property, a former school house in the Mutianyu rural community, in the 1990s and opened the venue in 2006.

Located at the base of the Great Wall at Mutianyu (about an hour's drive from Beijing), the out-of-the-way mini-resort is a great escape from busy Beijing, not to mention a nice break from the city air. But more importantly, at certain times throughout the year, they host special dinners. And that weekend they served a family-style Thanksgiving feast.

One of my friends rented a car for the journey. Despite the trip being his maiden voyage on the ever-insane Chinese road networks, we made it to our destination in one piece.

The venue was much smaller than I'd imagined, but what it lacked in scale it made up for in food, festive spirit and friendly people. My friend, Ken McManus, who had been coming to the School House for some time, noted that numbers were down this year - there were only about 20-some present; previous years had seen a much higher number of people. But it was welcoming, a real family-like gathering, with small kids running around nagging their parents.

Live music played while everyone sipped on their choice of hot chocolate or a variety of wines. I tried a bit of everything.

Then it was time to eat. Soups came first - two large bowls of cream of mushroom and pumpkin - along with bread and salad. I limited my intake, wanting to save room for turkey, mashed potatoes and the possibility of a broccoli-casserole-type dish, which my parents make on the holidays and other special occasions.

The main courses followed soon thereafter. Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, cranberries, stuffing and more bake rolls and bread. The last dish placed on the far side of the table looked like it could be broccoli. Served on those spinning table centerpieces common in China, each entrée made its way to each person at our table. "Turkey, check. Mashed potatoes, check. Gravy, got it," I said to myself with each passing bowl and platter.

My targeted dish finally made its way around the table. It was broccoli, although not the same recipe my parents use. Still, it was good and made the cornucopia of foods on my plate complete.

As everyone sat back in their chairs, lightly rubbing their stomachs and making the usual "I'm full" remarks, the wait staff came and took away our plates, only to present smaller ones. It was time for dessert.

Dessert this time was real dessert, not a Hershey kiss: mousse, apple pie, chocolate pies, lemon crème cake and homemade ice cream. It was a nice alternative to my faux-Thanksgiving feast the previous Thursday evening.

Soon enough, it was time to leave, but before leaving, we were given Tupperware containers for leftovers, because, as Jim Spear said, "No Thanksgiving is complete without leftovers." How right he was. I took enough turkey, mashed potatoes and whatever else was left to hold me over for my next few meals.

Although a bit expensive compared to standard Chinese meals, the experience was worth the price. Aside from the food, being among good people and an excellent host for the fall holiday made me realize all the things I was thankful for. Not every 23-year-old has a fresh-out-of-college job in China, and even fewer probably have the number of expat friends that encompassed our group. But most importantly, I was thankful that my official Thanksgiving dinner did not consist of rice or noodles. I love Chinese food, but on the holidays, it's nice to take a break.

(Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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