This is a guest post by Jennifer Malia from Munchkin Treks
The History of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving should be a time for Americans abroad to give thanks and celebrate cultural diversity. After all, the holiday has multicultural roots. The origin of Thanksgiving is often traced to a three-day autumn harvest feast in 1621 when English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe celebrated for three days, blending European and Native American traditions. During the American Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national “day of thanksgiving and praise” that would be held the fourth Thursday of November, making it a permanent holiday.
Here are the stories of some Americans who have embraced multiculturalism when celebrating Thanksgiving abroad:
Nepal – Allan Ament allanament.com
“The candle-lit Thanksgiving table was set for twenty-some-odd people, laden with salads, turkey and dressing, potatoes, vegetables, rolls, bottles of wine and glasses of water. Yet, there was nothing typical about the setting or the people gathered around the table. In the hills overlooking Kathmandu, Nepal, my wife and I were Americans having a feast at the home of an American expat who was teaching in the international school there. The guests included other Americans, a number of Nepalese, and other travelers far from home. The unpaved dirt road leading to the house was dusty, filled with potholes, an occasional water buffalo, a few villagers, and the omnipresent cows sacred to the local Hindu populous. When we arrived at our hostess’s large house, its breathtaking view across the valley to the city below made us forget the discomfort we experienced getting there. As dinner progressed, domestic workers brought in additional dishes of curries, dhal, rice, and other local delicacies that served as a culinary compliment to the out-of-place traditional American foods. Wine flowed, laughter reigned, and expressions of gratitude and appreciation were plentiful. Our celebration’s multicultural nature echoed that of the Plymouth Colony’s original Thanksgiving. We felt thankful to be welcomed and fed by strangers when we were so far from our home.”
Sweden – Amy Johansson, The Escape Archivist
“I don’t know how it is in Stockholm, but down here in Skåne, the deep south of Sweden, the climate and landscape is probably quite similar to that of New England. Usually, a bunch of Americans, some open-minded Brits, and curious Swedes get together for a giant potluck dinner. Some Americans vie for alpha host/ess duties, but I just go for the food, namely the variations of stuffing, otherwise known as dressing depending on where in America you hail from. There’s inevitably some Swede who will throw shade at the sweet potatoes trussed with marshmallows and innocently ask if those were actually meant to be eaten with dessert. We Americans gamely gulp, remembering the spirit of the original Thanksgiving in colonial Massachusetts, internally roll our eyes, suffocate our groans, and politely correct them. Yes, we eat sweet potatoes with dinner, and sweet potato pie is on the menu for dessert. In Skåne, we also celebrate Mårtensafton (Mårtin’s Eve), with a gåsemiddag (goose dinner). This local celebration, not shared by the rest of Sweden, supposedly originated in Byzantine Times to honor Saint Martin’s name day. Some dishes are similar to those eaten at Thanksgiving, such as apple pie, but goose is the main dish instead of Turkey.”
Taiwan – Andrea Whitaker, Andi on Adventure
“I’m an American expat living in Taiwan. A few years ago, I got together with other expats to rent a small restaurant for a multicultural Thanksgiving celebration that included about thirty people – half Westerners and half Taiwanese. We bought a turkey from the Costco in Hsinchu and had a potluck spread including typical Thanksgiving foods as well as Taiwanese favorites, such as beef noodle soup and lurou fan (braised pork with rice). After finishing our second course, my Canadian friend and I noticed the Taiwanese table was still engrossed in their turkey. We poured another glass of wine and lingered outside the restaurant for a while. An hour later they were still eating. Finally, when the feast began to wind down, the Taiwanese took out plastic bags and started filling them up with turkey scraps and whatever was left on the table. The real culture shock for me was not eating turkey leftovers for days or spending late nights grazing on pumpkin pie with whipped cream.”
Benin – West Africa – Sarah Scanlon Murdock
“When we were American expats living in Benin, our non-American friends gladly joined us to celebrate Thanksgiving. Surprisingly, in rural West Africa, we could actually find the ingredients for many Thanksgiving dishes. Normally we had to have pork, the most economical meat for a large group of people. Sweet potatoes were in season that time of year, and we could usually find a pumpkin or some kind of squash. Everything was made from scratch: stuffing (starting with baking the bread), rolls, mashed potatoes, and gravy. One year we decided to try raising our own turkeys. The female died while sitting on her eggs, which an obliging hen took over. Once the eggs hatched, the tom killed the chicks one by one. If an unsuspecting chick wandered within range of his cage, it was clobbered. I chased the tom around with a stick hitting him and insisting that he DIE RIGHT NOW. My husband convinced me to wait a month or two, though, to fatten him up before we butchered him for Thanksgiving. I don’t think I ever ate turkey with more satisfaction.”
Thanksgiving in Another Country
South Korea – Michael Still, www.LiveTravelTeach.com
“I have lived as an American expat in Korea the past three years. One Thanksgiving, I shared an epic feast with a tour group of over a hundred people. We all met at a mountain pension, and the military base provided a dozen precooked boxes, each with a turkey, trays of mashed potatoes, veggies and a pumpkin pie. Everyone was invited to stay the night so about twenty of us decided to wear animal onesie pajamas just to be silly. Koreans also celebrate a harvest festival called Chuseok in September that is often referred to as ‘Korean Thanksgiving.’ During Chuseok, most Koreans visit their families and eat traditional foods, such as rice cakes. For my first Chuseok, my Korean friends gave me a giant box of them, but I quickly realized that they didn’t suit my palette, so I gave them to random Koreans on the street who were very happy to take them.”
China – Vanessa Marie Jencks, vanessajencks.com
“We’re an American family living in a small suburb of Beijing, a very international city. Each year, our private school hosts a huge Thanksgiving dinner for more than 120 people, including foreign teachers, their families and friends. We don’t eat Chinese food because this is the only event we have with American food. While it isn’t difficult to find the ingredients for traditional Thanksgiving foods, they are expensive compared to the typical five dollar meal you can eat in Beijing. We encourage Chinese teachers and their friends to bring other supplies or donate financially since the turkeys we fry and the ham are expensive in Beijing. I enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving in China more than in the US because it’s such a widely-attended event. We all play flag football together once our stomachs recover from overindulging in food.”
United Arab Emirates – Jennifer Malia, Munchkin Treks
“I celebrated four Thanksgivings as an American expat in the United Arab Emirates. Living in a multicultural community on campus, I was a professor at the American University of Sharjah teaching students and working with colleagues from around the world. I celebrated my first Thanksgiving there at an American colleague’s apartment where the guests wore anything from linen pants to abayas (robe-like dresses) to silk saris. The potluck spread was a mixture of traditional American foods, such as loafs of homemade white bread and trays of sliced turkey, alongside Arabian cuisine, including fresh hummus, khubz (round flatbread), and lamb kebabs. Though I moved to the UAE as a single woman, the following year I was married; the year after that I was pregnant; and the last year I had a seven-month-old daughter. We hosted Thanksgiving feasts of our own, inviting expats from our diverse community into our apartment. We would find most traditional Thanksgiving foods at Western-style supermarkets in Dubai, where you can buy a Butterball turkey from the US, potatoes from Lebanon, carrots from Australia, and strawberries from Ethiopia. When a grocery store worker told us that insha’allah (God willing) cranberries would be arriving in a few days that was usually a nice way of saying the store doesn’t have any and isn’t expecting any either.”
Hopefully, these stories will inspire you to host a multicultural Thanksgiving. Consider including different cultural foods on your menu this year and maybe even invite a fellow expat to celebrate Thanksgiving in your home.
Some of the expat moms featured in this article are the co-authors of a new anthology called Knocked Up Abroad Again: Baby bumps, twists, and turns around the globe.