How Expat Life Changed My Ideas of Thanksgiving and the Meaning of ‘Home’

One of the sometimes more difficult aspects of living in another country is that you want to recreate holidays the surrounding culture doesn’t celebrate. Somehow, the ideas of your childhood holidays become more important when you live abroad many years. My idea today of Thanksgiving is simple: gather friends or family, eat turkey, drink good wine, and spend time together. Here's how the meaning of Thanksgiving changed for me as an expat.

Expat Thanksgiving

For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been one of the holidays that has always given me a sense of home, no matter how that meaning changed for me over the years as I moved from country to country. In every place, I made the country and culture and people there part of my sense of home and I am grateful to have had that chance and feel fortunate to have been an expat in so many places.

One of the sometimes more difficult aspects of living in another country is that you want to recreate holidays the surrounding culture doesn’t celebrate. Sometimes, they are holidays I honestly didn’t care about much. Somehow, the ideas of your childhood holidays become more important when you live abroad many years. For me, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays (Side note: I don’t espouse to the idea of the great gathering of pilgrims and Indians because we all know how that turned out).

My idea today of Thanksgiving is simple: gather friends or family, eat turkey, drink good wine, and spend time together.

Oddly enough, I probably had some of my biggest Thanksgivings of the last decade in China (seriously- in China they teach about it a lot in school and online!). Now, I am trying to finally create that same feeling in my current ‘home’: Munich, Germany.

Over the years as an expat, it is one holiday that I haven’t tried to adapt to another culture or country, but instead, to recreate to fit my own sense of tradition, friendship, and happiness. And of course, a sense of home.

Thanksgiving as a kid

As a child, some of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving constitute some of the best moments in my childhood. Every year, my family piled into the car with my mom, dad, younger sister, and sometimes our Springer Spaniel, Frisky, to embark on the 10-hour journey from Rochester, Minnesota, to Bluffton, Indiana, where my grandpa lived.

For me, this was the one chance to see my dad’s side of the family during the year. My dad’s family seemed incredible large and mysterious to me, as if every single year, we simply increased in both people and in food quantity, exponentially. As a kid, I remember wandering through the 1970s thick, fluffy blue carpet, with streaks of what I remember as a neon green sprouting out of the enormous tufts of yarny threads, observing all the commotion that went on in preparation for the afternoon Thanksgiving feast.

Kids on Thanksgiving

This is a nice example of what our kid’s table looked like even though it’s not my photo 🙂

In the morning, I awoke to my aunts quibbling over how long to cook the turkey, while my dad prepared the apple, pumpkin, and rhubarb pies and even let me whip the cream. I remember how wonderful all the spices and smells wafted throughout my grandpa’s farmhouse. When the family arrived in clumps, kids, teens, and my dad’s first, second, third cousins and aunts and uncles all arrived. It seemed like everyone had a story, ‘this is your great-uncle Kenny, your grandma’s brother, who that one time …. ‘ or ‘this is your dad’s cousin so-in-so, he’s a bit weird, just so you know. No one ever figured out why.’

Once the food was served, it was the biggest, never-ending, delectable feast any kid could ever dream of; it had to be, as we were almost 75 people. The table in the basement spread over 20 feet long, and was filled with two, enormous 25 pound turkeys, enormous bowls of stuffing, overflowing colorful bowls of beets, green beans, green onions carefully wrapped in cream cheese and corned beef, and pies of every fruit and assorted crust. My dad’s family was very loud, and all over the enormous basement, one could hear loud voices billowing over one another, howls of laughter erupting from different corners of the room, and children’s giggles. The older guys sat at the table playing hands poker before the football game started, while the kids went to play in the barn outside.

Once my grandpa passed away when I was 17, everything changed. We never had Thanksgiving with my dad’s family again. Over the years, Thanksgiving lost importance to me; my parents got divorced and lived different places, and I had to choose where to spend Thanksgiving. I started to hate it. I stopped caring.

Moving Abroad

When I first moved out of the country, it was to Mexico, followed by England, Italy, and Argentina. When I was in university, Thanksgiving kind of stopped being important. It reminded me of a time together with family that I would never have again. But a funny thing happened the first year when I moved to China.

The China Thanksgiving

I was living in a small city in China where I was only 1 of 4 foreigners in the entire city of a million people. Everything was different. The language, the food, the culture, my job, the environment. We didn’t fit there and we knew it. Despite the kindness of the Chinese people, China is a very alienating place to be during the holidays. It’s generally impossible to be with your family for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I knew when I moved to China in 2006, that I would not see my family for at least a year.

Thanksgiving in China 2006

That year, I felt the need to find Thanksgiving dinner anyway. But not only that, I wanted to be with people who I cared about. I wanted to eat, drink, laugh, and feel part of something again, something that I lost a very long time ago, in a country I once considered home. That year in China, a few friends of mine had Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house with some Chinese friends and colleagues who cooked some amazing Chinese dishes for us.

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The camaraderie, food and wine and feeling of happiness were wonderful, even though I didn’t get turkey and gravy, which I would have loved. But my new ‘family’ and ‘home’ was finally falling into place; I appreciated it more than any Thanksgiving since my grandpa died.

A Very Merry, Colombian Thanksgiving?

When I moved to Beijing, I didn’t have many American friends, but I didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving, or a chance to recreate a holiday that made me feel I was home, even if home was China. Indeed, China was my home, and I called it home until I moved last year to Munich, Germany. In Beijing, it so happened that my Colombian friends were missing turkey in China, as they pointed out how special it was because they usually enjoyed it on Christmas.

pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving

We ended up ordering a Thanksgiving turkey for 10 of us, and everyone brought a bottle of red wine. It was the happiest holiday celebration I can remember. In fact, I was the only American there, and my friends from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and Malaysia, all asked questions about the stuffing, gravy and the ‘red stuff’ (cranberry sauce). Pumpkin Pie was a bit too American, however, and absolutely nobody liked it!

Every year, across the world, in Beijing, China, we made a tradition of gathering close friends and eating turkey and mashed potatoes, drinking wine and laughing. My last Beijing Thanksgiving; we had 20 kilos of turkey and friends from absolutely every corner of the globe.

Thank-you-in-many-languages

Grateful for Germany

Since I've been in Germany I have recreated this holiday with my friends fro all over the world and it has become more important than ever to have this special occasion. During lockdown, not being able to have this gathering was pretty tough I admit as it's something we all look forward to every year. Now, I have friends who are German, Syrian, Indian, Mexican, and French who take part in this activity and I'm grateful to be able to do it again this year since we're all vaccinated. It's always a lot of work and a lot of fun and I am happy to keep this tradition going even though I'm not in the US.

Thanksgiving Turkey in Germany

Here is the 6.5 kilo turkey I made one year!

IMG_6595

I have a much greater appreciation for traditional holidays now (won’t go into the wrong-doings that created Thanksgiving). Today, the holiday is about turkey, friends, and wine.

For me, having been an expat for 17 years now, Thanksgiving means a sense of belonging and the warmth of home, wherever that home may be.

What about you-what does Thanksgiving mean to you as an expat?

Do you celebrate it abroad as an expat or even if you aren’t American?

What are your favorite Thanksgiving memories?

header image photo credit: Pro Church Media

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