Friday, November 23, 2007

Home for the holidays

To me, there's no time when expats are more likely to miss their homeland than at the holidays. Which holidays those are will vary from person to person, depending on their circumstances, background, and so on. For me, without a doubt that holiday is Thanksgiving.

Maybe that sounds weird. After all, I'm exactly where I want to be. I have a great life filled with love and happiness and I really don't want anything—I am home. And yet this one day, uniquely among American holidays, makes me keenly aware of what I don't have or, more accurately, what I have to recreate in a distant land.

The thing I think is weird about it is that Thanksgiving has really mixed memories for me. I have wonderful, happy and vivid childhood memories, complete with smells, tastes, sights and sounds, but I also have tragedy: My father died on Thanksgiving Day many years ago, shortly after my mother had been diagnosed with cancer.

In the years after my parents' passing, Christmas became a whirlwind of visits to partners' families or my own, when what I really wanted was to celebrate at home. Eventually, I came to care less about that as I cared less about Christmas itself. But Thanksgiving remained because it was more likely to be the holiday we could spend at home.

Then I moved to New Zealand, where Thanksgiving is a curiosity at best, and unknown at worst.

Some years, I would try and approximate a Thanksgiving dinner using local ingredients for the American ones I couldn't get. One year Nigel and I went to Denny's because on their menu, largely the same as in America, they had “Turkey Dinner”, which was an okay American diner-style version. I think a couple years I basically ignored the holiday, since it was just another Kiwi work day.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has mattered more to me than it did in my early years here. Maybe that's me reconnecting with my roots, or maybe it's that I'm so comfortable and secure in my “Kiwi-ness” that I can add back the one American tradition that I now find matters very much to me.

But I also think it doesn't do anyone any harm to spend one day a year reflecting on what one is thankful for, and that's part of what my Thanksgiving is. For me, that also means being thankful for what I no longer have, like my parents. I don't feel sad that they or others are gone, but grateful that I had them at all (and not just because I wouldn't be here if my parents hadn't been). Thanksgiving, then, is a celebration of all that's good about life and being alive.

There's one thing I've never done that I've always wanted to, and that's to host a Thanksgiving dinner for fellow expat Americans. I hope one day that'll happen.

In the meantime, I was actually wrong earlier in this post. I said that I don't want anything, and that's not true: I want everyone to experience love and happiness, and I want them to have one day a year when they can be truly thankful for it. You don't need a holiday for that, but it helps.

Related: Thanksgiving Downunder (my post from 2006)


doyle and mollie said...

happy thanksgiving arthur, nigel & jake!

bella, craig & doyle

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks! It was a good, if unusual day.

Kalv1n said...

I really enjoyed this post. It's strange how days and ceremonies take on individual yet shared qualities. Each person has there own feelings about Birthdays, but we all have them even the Jehova Witnesses. I think they are part of our shared cultural expression, and part of you will always be American. I think your desire to share thanksgiving with fellow expats shows the connection it has with others and where it sits in your feelings. Nigel will never have those feelings, just as you will probably never have the same feelings about kiwi holidays that someone did who experienced them as a child, but you remain unique, and can still share with everyone.

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks Kalvin! Great to see you back in the "blogosphere", by the way. I think you're right about shared cultural expressions. While I hadn't thought about your other points, I think you're right about them, too.