Tonight I found myself at an international Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by a local family, packed with folks from a variety of countries and cultures. The eclectic feast included spring rolls, noodles and sticky rice, along with turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Two women from
Sri Lanka had journeyed to Hong Kong only the day before, and they were seated quietly alone in a corner, studying the food on their plates. I sat down next to them, and began to chat with the one who spoke English.
“What is a Thanksgiving?” she asked me. “It’s an American festival, yes?”
“Yes, it’s an American holiday. We always eat turkey—well, some people bake ham—and usually some potatoes and green beans. Maybe some rolls and cranberry sauce. Pie for dessert…”
“No,” she interrupted me. “What is the history of this holiday? Why do you celebrate?”
Visions of second grade school plays in which we wore headbands with protruding construction-paper feathers filled my mind. A black cardboard hat with a yellow buckle painted on the front, and a white and black pilgrim frock. My mind crawled along. What is a pilgrim? Something about Niña, Pinta and
. Learning how to plant corn. Are we allowed to call them Indians anymore? In 1492 Santa Maria sailed the ocean blue. Why am I so terrible at recalling basic history? Columbus
“Well, um, a long time ago, some people immigrated to
.” For reasons unknown, I slipped into my Special English Voice, though this woman spoke impeccable British English. “They were very hungry and were dying.” America
“They came from
, yes?” she remarked politely. England
“Oh, um, yeah, they were from
. Then they came to England . But they didn’t know how to grow food or survive. Then the… uh… Native … Indians came along and taught them how to plant food. And they lived. And they were happy. So they had a big meal to give thanks.” America
My Chinese friend sitting nearby eloquently stepped in to my rescue. “The feast was held at the conclusion of harvest season, so there was plenty to eat and be thankful for. Americans recall this story and celebrate each year in November.”
“Yeah, harvest,” I nodded. “We celebrate harvest.”
The Sri Lankan woman asked about the date. “Is it always the 25th?”
I know this one. “No, it’s always on a Thursday in late November. It’s always the third Thursday—no, the fourth Thursday—wait, is this the fourth week of the month already? Anyway, it’s always on a Thursday in November.” I trailed off. “Mostly we just eat. And eat, and eat.” I patted my stomach.
“Here, let me clear your plate for you,” I offered. She smiled sweetly, as my Chinese friend continued to chat intelligently on another topic.
It’s the little things. The details of history and culture that are so important, yet so rarely referenced in my own culture that I often forget. Lessons learned in elementary school that sadly fade from my adult mind.
I can recount in glorious detail every dish my mother cooks for Thanksgiving. But what is the origin of the holiday? Why do we celebrate? These are the stories that stitch our culture together and make us who we are. And the stories behind the special days and celebrations are the elements I most love to learn about other cultures.
But clearly I need to brush up on my own culture, so I can explain it like a true American.
At least I know the reason behind Christmas.