This was my third Thanksgiving in China. A week ago, I started to write about the three years worth of Thanksgivings here, but it was too long. And, it came across as too sad, because honestly our first Thanksgiving here was pretty rough. Suffice it to say, Thanksgiving is an American holiday and we are in China. But after three years of coming to grips with this basic idea, we have changed our expectations and traditions of Thanksgiving so that it is more adaptable to the situation we find ourselves in now. While Thanksgiving this year was vastly different from perhaps a "typical" American one, I’m tempted to classify it as my best Thanksgiving ever. But of course it would have to compete with many other Thanksgiving Days in my memory, if there were to be a competition for which was truly "the best," because Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite days every year.
My first Thanksgiving act of this year was to go on Tuesday and speak to the YWCA housekeeper training program about American Thanksgiving traditions. The YWCA of Guangzhou trains women who have no other particular skills how to work as housekeepers for "Foreign" families. These women find it very helpful to have knowledge of wesern customs and traditions. To give an example how far a local woman must stretch herself to meet the expectations of an American family, I’ll just throw in one fact. While I was cooking a broccoli casserole to take to the YWCA to give the housekeepers a sampling of a typical American Thanksgiving food, I opened a can of Cream of Mushroom soup. My housekeeper, Song Ying, had never used a can opener before. The last time we shared a meal, I also showed her how to cut her meat with a knife and fork. Anyway, to prepare for my talk about the history and traditions of Thanksgiving, I did a pretty good bit of research on the internet about Thanksgiving.
Although recent historical revisionists have argued that the Pilgrims were not religious after all, I learned they were so religious that they had already destituted themselves by attempting to resettle first in Holland, where there was theoretically greater religious freedom. They left England and went to Holland in 1608. After roughly ten hard years in Holland, where they lived on the fringe of society and then fearing that their children were becoming more secularized as a result of living there, the Pilgrims returned to England and then indentured themselves for seven years in order to pay for passage to the New World. Because of problems with seaworthiness of one of their two original vessels, they got a late start and got caught in the North Atlantic autumn currents which drove them further north than intended. On top of that, they were poorly provisioned, plus they were vulnerable to disease because of their poor nutrition and living conditions. This resulted in the real loss of about 50% of their population in the winter of 1620. Think: if you had survived under these conditions — poverty, leaving your home twice in ten years, selling yourself as an indentured servant, the death of perhaps your spouse and child, would you still be THANKFUL?!! This, in itself, is a spiritual attitude worthy of emulation, methinks.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s true that the official Thanksgiving date wasn’t solidified for many years, and it’s true that there was some political posturing involved in creation of the national holiday, and it’s true that they really had intended to invite only three native American chiefs and their families, were overwhelmed when 90 guests showed up, and that the Native Americans then contributed hugely to the meal with the addition of deer and turkeys etc. And now, having lived in a very different culture, I can just imagine the cultural and language barriers at that gathering as the Indian women joined their men at the table while the pilgrim women hovered behind and served the men according to their very different cultural tradition. In a sense, I wish I, too, could give into the revisionist inclination to try and make history fit the image of what I would rather picture.
But it is as intellectually dishonest to judge historical people by modern standards as it is to try and revise history to fit what we would like. And, in particular, I am offended that the modern revisionist impulse trivializes the deeply religious and THANKFULNESS aspect of Thanksgiving. For in spite of EVERYTHING these people were still able to be thankful and to think in terms of sharing a feast with their "savage" neighbors. And I think it speaks loudly of the peculiar, historical American mindset that, of all holidays to choose to create, the original creators of the Thanksgiving National Holiday chose to honor a day of Thankfulness to God as the day upon which to center a distinct and unique national holiday. In a blending of myth and reality, the themes of religious freedom, self governance (the Mayflower compact), overcoming hardship to build a new life, and thankfulness to God were specifically chosen by as the tie that could bind the colonies together into one nation.
( Here are three of the internet sites I found useful for study:
So, here we are in China. How do we manage to celebrate Thanksgiving? For the first two years we were here, I purchased a turkey and then ended up not able to cook it for one reason or another. So, I decided not to purchase a turkey this year. (A medium sized bird would have cost at least $35 U.S.). So, at lunchtime on Thanksgiving day, my kids are in school, where it’s just another day and we can expect a typical, heavy load of homework, and my spouse is in the USA on business. I find myself at the monthly GWIC (Guangzhou Women’s International Club) luncheon, held at a local Vietnamese restaurant. There are only a scattering of European looking people in the sea of Asian faces, perhaps two Americans in the whole group: me and one other woman I’ve never seen before. I only am guessing she was American by the two or three words I heard of her accent as she stood behind me in the check-in line. One of my other friends who first reserved a spot and then declined to attend the lunch, also American, told me she just couldn’t quite stomach eating Vietnamese food on Thanksgiving Day. I had some of the same misgivings, I confess, but after I suspended my expectations about what a proper Thanksgiving Day ought to be like, I found the food delicious and the companionship of my non-American friends delightful!
One life lesson we have learned as a result of living outside our home culture is that things go easier if you suspend expectations. By this, I mean forget trying to expect something to be a certain way, because if you expect things to be like "home," you will surely be disappointed. For example, when you order fajitas in a restaurant, don’t expect anything like the Tex-Mex fajitas from home. If you are imagining some sizzling hot plate loaded with chicken, peppers, and onions, spiced with cumin and cilantro and lime, and served with flour tortillas, cheese, sour cream, lettuce and guacamole, well . . . disappointment is guaranteed. If you mentally prepare yourself for the more likely product which is some chicken and perhaps some pepper and onion stir fried with ketchup as a sauce, made ridiculously spicy by addition of some canned "Mexican picante," and served on a flour tortilla with a speck of cheese on the side and nothing else, then you will avoid some disappointment and may even be pleasantly surprised if the product more closely approximates that which you would normally dream of.
It’s a good thing that, finally after three years, we have learned to suspend expecations for Thanksgiving Day. Spouse is away, it’s just another day at school, and CJ had such a bad sore throat she couldn’t eat normal food. A good, homemade American meal (with a special blessing of course) was immensely satisfying: asparagus casserole, a thick cream of carrot soup, and a slice of sandwich meat ham. And then a most pleasant surprise. D and J invited us for a shared Thanksgiving Dinner on Saturday night. Wow! They have thought of everything! Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, casseroles, home made bread, even pecan pie! (Did you know you can’t buy cranberries or pecans here?) And wonderful companionship as well. A perfect Thanksgiving feast, and a time of sincere gratitude for a multitude of blessings, including food, friends, and family.
I have decided that my favorite thing about Thanksgiving is . . . GIVING THANKS. I really enjoy having the annual prod to ponder what I am thankful for, and then to take time to be grateful! (If you are reading this, please leave a comment listing one or more things you are thankful for!) And, I close with the following:
PRESIDENTIAL PROCLOMATION BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN, November 1863:
[The many blessings enjoyed by Americans] are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.