My first Thanksgiving away from family. Wearing summery clothing, the tropical air surrounded me as I sat on the floor with a plate full of traditional food in front of me–turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes,– the whole works. The table was not big enough for all of us so I made my chair my table as did some of the others. I was surrounded by new friends and living in a new world totally different from what I had ever experienced. It was the first of countless holidays that would be different from what I grew up with. I had signed up to teach in a small Christian school on the island of Puerto Rico after graduating from college in 1980. One of the teacher’s family lived in the capital and had us over for Thanksgiving. Sitting in front of my feast and tasting many familiar foods I felt content. I missed being with my family but I realized my colleagues also missed their families and somehow that soothed our hearts and bonded us together. We decided to accept each others’ friendships (and food) that day as beautiful substitutes which would create new holiday memories. We ate, laughed and talked. No, we could not tell stories from past celebrations which we never shared, but we could talk of the present and… enjoy and be content with that.
Never again did I share a Thanksgiving with those same people but that day began a list of many unique and special holidays which followed…
–My last Thanksgiving as a family, before I headed to Asia in 1983. It was an early Christmas for me too at my brother and his wife’s first home. But also it turned out to be the last time our whole family was all together before our parents divorced and began separate lives.
–Thanksgiving celebrations in Hong Kong with teammates making delicious dinners in tiny kitchens with even tinier toaster size ovens and large Chinese woks. Also the fun of sharing American traditional Thanksgiving foods with local Chinese friends who would bravely taste the new foods. Mashed potatoes were always a great hit.
Then as I headed to Mainland China the celebrations continued. Finding the right foods we cherished for our American Thanksgiving meals even in the capital during the early ’90s was one of many challenges. When they were found and not too costly, transporting the goods without a car became quite an adventure. Bikes were the most common transportation mode those days since buses were often too crowded and taxis were hard to find. Small kitchens provided both amusement and frustration as we would juggle a limited assortment of pots and pans on one or two burner stoves and in toaster ovens, all the time fearing the fuse would blow or the electric wires and sockets would melt.
But oh the fun! The meals those days were more international and creative. We Americans got to introduce one of our favorite holidays with other expatriates. An early one I remember while living in a filthy dorm for foreign students was spearheaded by an Aussie couple who wanted to make a traditional American Thanksgiving. (The husband enjoyed cooking!). Others joined in and we had a wonderful meal but I’m thinking we must have had chicken instead of turkey. The next year or so as a teacher I joined other foreign friends for a huge potluck meal in a small apartment. That one included chicken from a western restaurant that had recently opened as well as all kinds of hot dishes and desserts — some locally bought, others shared from care packages sent from the States. (I remember sharing about Thanksgiving with my Chinese students then but I don’t remember sharing food with them at that time; Christmas cookie making was an easier tradition to do with them.)
There was also another well-remembered Thanksgiving celebration shared with a Finnish-Dutch couple and an Chinese-Australian lady. Another American gal and I figured out how to make two stuffed chickens with our little ovens. I can still remember vividly the two of us standing in front of a table with a cookbook opened for directions (years before Google), two small raw chickens in front of us and then realizing we didn’t have a string or thick thread to sew up the chickens after stuffing them. We refused to waste our precious dental floss (probably impossible to buy there at that time), so instead my friend went to the front desk of the building (housing for foreigners on campus) and got some string from the gal in charge. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before and were delighted that some time later the chickens turned out cooked and delicious from our little ovens. Also for that meal we could not decide what pies to make. Her husband loved all kinds of pies. So we ended up with: pecan, pseudo-pumpkin, coconut cream, chocolate cream, banana cream, and apple. I made the apple and pumpkin pie (out of sweet potatoes) and she did the rest with ingredients she had gathered or had been given. I think we all felt a bit guilty with all the desserts (basically a pie a person), but it was a memory we will always have… and never repeat.
Not all Thanksgivings overseas were great. I remember living in one city when Thanksgiving was approaching and having no invitation for dinner that evening. And I was not new and also there were a lot of Americans around. Perhaps an oversight of others but still it was really hard. I’d rather not think about it but it has made me more aware of those who may not have a place to go on Thanksgiving.
So now I’m back in the USA and I have had a place to go these last three years. My sister-in-law’s family has invited me over and I have enjoyed a truly delicious traditional meal– American all the way. There’s even the Macy’s Parade on TV and American football. So even though I miss the international atmosphere, the mixture of various backgrounds and unshared histories and even the adventure of finding foods and making them (although for me personally to make a turkey would be quite challenging), I am learning that even here and now God wants me to be thankful and content. And I am. But I can’t help but think about what future Thanksgivings may be like.