Yesterday's Magazette

3 – A Green Thanksgiving

A Green Thanksgiving

By Dorothy Conlon

Green! That’s what I felt like–a real country cousin at the head of the Thanksgiving table.

I had arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, barely a week before, on my very first Foreign Service assignment. In fact, I had graduated only a few months before from a small New England college. The American Embassy here was not large and I was welcomed warmly, maybe because there were no other American females on the official staff at that time.

The Thanksgiving Dinner was being hosted by Joe, a young man only one grade level above me, probably because his Japanese style house up in the hills above Taipei had such a lovely view. Or maybe because he had the best cook in the foreign community. You wouldn’t have guessed that this all-American feast was created in a tiny kitchen by an expert Chinese staff.  And a feast it was, a traditional Thanksgiving menu, right down to the pumpkin pie.

I was flattered to be invited to be Joe’s “hostess,” but also more than a little intimidated to be sitting at the head of the table, flanked by our ambassador at my left and a VIP on my right—a high-ranking U.S. senator. This lowly stenographer only a week out of the States in such prestigious company. Pinch me!

Of course my only responsibilities were to be charming and gracious, not to help with the food prep, as I would have done at home. Servants did all the serving. There I was, dressed in my Sunday best and smiling a lot, also listening a lot as my boss, the ambassador, discussed foreign policy with the visiting senator, who just happened to be the head of the Foreign Relations Committee. It was an important conversation.

This was 1950, and although we were assigned to the Republic of China, most of the world thought of the “real” China as being on the mainland where Communist Mao Tse-tung ruled with a heavy hand. Only a few doors from where we were sitting was the compound of President Chiang Kai-shek, who had escaped the mainland with his defeated Kuomintang government during the past year. The United States was in full support of Chiang Kai-shek and continued that support until 1972, when Henry Kissinger made the overtures to the People’s Republic of China which helped lead to full diplomatic recognition.

Needless to say, I didn’t feel it necessary to contribute my comments to the gentlemen’s political discussion that day. There were only about ten of us at the table, and I listened raptly to the ebb and flow of conversation going on. At the opposite end of the table were the only other women, seated one on each side of our host. The senator’s wife, although no fool, seemed to have a blind spot when she raved about the high standard of living she had observed in this island state. Mrs. Ambassador tried to convince her that she had seen only a few atypical households, and that “servants were people too and lived quite differently.”

This was long before the economic growth that our country helped Taiwan achieve, that in turn became the model for other struggling Pacific countries. But our VIP lady couldn’t seem to grasp the real facts. Fortunately, at this point Joe jumped in to steer the conversation elsewhere, perhaps to the view out over the mountains or to shopping possibilities.

Observing this social dance was a valuable lesson for me, one I had occasion to practice and perfect many times in the course of my thirty years of Foreign Service life. One might call that initial Thanksgiving experience the start of my training in dinner table diplomacy. By Christmas time I was feeling a little less green. Subsequently I’ve managed to steer many a ticklish discussion among high ranking guests away from open confrontation. Ambassadors and senators don’t impress me so much any more. But smiling is always useful.

(An octogenarian globe-trotter, I love to explore destinations that are well off the beaten track. I have an insatiable curiosity and enjoy volunteering in wild and wonderful places. I am the author of “At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman.” Learn more at http://www.dorothyconlon.com.)

Vol. 37 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2010

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