Just before my senior year of college, thanks to a generous scholarship from the Georgia Rotary Student Program, I had the opportunity to attend the International Summer School at the University of Oslo in Norway. (By the way, the application process for this scholarship is currently open!) The students hailed from more than 80 countries around the world. The experience was equal parts magic (there’s nothing quite like the views en route between Oslo and Bergen) and practical learning (people from almost anywhere will eat rice with a bean sauce, but music is harder to agree upon). Regularly scheduled “Cultural Nights” were intended to help students get to know each others’ cultures, from local crafts to music, dance, style of dress, food, and more.
Fortunately, making a presentation during Cultural Night was optional. Why fortunately? Because neither I nor the other U.S. students could think of anything to present that would represent U.S. culture (excluding the political culture) as a whole. This is not to say that the U.S. does not have its own particular cultural traditions – jazz and bluegrass music, Native American arts, and quilting in the Deep South come to mind as examples – but the fact is that few are common to the vast majority of Americans. Most are regionally based or associated with a particular population. If you are not a jazz musician or quilter or a subject matter expert on the same, to present those as “your” cultural heritage can come across as cultural posing at best or robbery at worst. The few U.S. cultural traditions that are embraced throughout the country — e.g., Hollywood movies — are at least to some extent also embraced worldwide, and therefore need no introduction. As one of my fellow U.S. students said, “What are we supposed to do? Show off a Big Mac?” Gasp. But I understood his point.
Looking back on those days, I realize that there’s one thing I could have “shown off” as a beautiful cultural tradition that is shared by most people in the U.S.: Thanksgiving. I know Thanksgiving is not perfect. We have a knack for overlooking the more troublesome part of the post-Thanksgiving history – the part where countless Native Americans died. And then there’s the problem with Americans giving thanks for what they have, only to turn around hours later to literally run each other over in the quest for more. (Despite this, the majority of Americans are against stores opening on Thanksgiving, even if there is demand.) And as far as I’m concerned, I could really do without American football. (Head injuries, people! Too many head injuries!) Then there’s the fact that not everyone has family or loved ones to turn to, which can make the holiday’s big-extended-family stereotype more than a bit depressing.
But all this aside, the core of Thanksgiving – the communal expressing of gratitude with intention and ritual – is absolutely beautiful. In its modern form, it’s a cultural tradition we can be proud to share.
One of my most memorable Thanksgivings took place not in the U.S. at all. I was residing in Mexico City at the time (a short-lived venture) and decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner on a whim. The family with whom I was living – ever ready for a celebration – embraced my efforts wholeheartedly. Somebody even managed to find a fresh turkey. (I will admit to begging for help when the bird showed up in all its birdness, with its neck and some of the feathers still on.) The rest I improvised, but in the end, there it was – a table full of turkey and sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. The (thankfully large) table was also surrounded by some 20 odd people who – in an action that still touches me more than a decade later – enthusiastically and without hesitation took turns saying what they were thankful for. (It was like that scene in Italy from Eat, Pray, Love, except this scene came before the book and movie.) We may not have been in the U.S., and I may have been the only American at the table, but the spirit of Thanksgiving was there, as strong and bright as anyone could hope.
Over the years, I’ve spent many Thanksgivings away from my family – some of them when I lived in Seattle and couldn’t afford to fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, some in Miami/Fort Lauderdale because I was too exhausted to fly for both holidays, and others abroad. Some were with close friends, while others included people I barely knew. Each had its own special food features – Puerto Rican pastelón, Cuban lechón asado (ohhhhh), Polish peas and carrots, or deep friend turkey. But each held that golden aura of what Thanksgiving is – sharing, and sharing the love.
I miss my family at these times – my Dad hosts a joyful Thanksgiving reunion with his brothers at his home in the North Carolina mountains – and I look forward to attending more of those in the future. But looking back on Thanksgivings (and Christmas Eves, too) with my Mom and Dad, I realize that it was common for a few non-family individuals to join us at the table. That is one of the things I am most grateful for – that my family taught me that the Thanksgiving spirit is like a parent’s love. There’s always enough to go around.
Tomorrow marks my immediate family’s second Thanksgiving in Colombia. Last year, we hosted a small dinner at our house. This year, we’re taking advantage of our days off (we still adhere to a U.S. work schedule) to fly to Medellín, a city we’ve not yet visited. There’s supposedly a Thanksgiving dinner happening there, and we’ll be joining in the festivities.
Wherever you are, may the spirit of Thanksgiving surround you and those around you. Blessings.