How I’m Rediscovering The Meaning Of Thanksgiving Living In Vietnam | Vietcetera
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How I’m Rediscovering The Meaning Of Thanksgiving Living In Vietnam

A Mississippian living in Ho Chi Minh City shares his reflections about his ever-changing relationship with holidays.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Thanksgiving Abroad

Source: Shutterstock

Around the holidays, I start to hear the same comparisons. “Christmas is like your Tết.” Or, “Thanksgiving is like your Mid-Autumn Festival.” There’s definitely a comparison to be made here. Christmas carries a seasonal weight similar to Tết. And Thanksgiving is, in large part, about getting together with family. But I also feel these comparisons barely scratch the surface of these holidays and their respective histories.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about my ever-changing relationship with holidays. The more I learn about America’s history, the more complicated my feelings about Thanksgiving become. My own personal journey as an American abroad has been figuring out how to simultaneously talk honestly about my country’s history while also honoring my family’s holiday traditions.

When I talk about holidays with friends here, I love to share stories about the joys of elementary school holidays crafts. One of my favorites was making hand turkeys—placing my hand flat on the paper, tracing it, then coloring in the outline with Crayola crayons; the thumb becoming a head, the rest of the fingers multicolored plumage. I remember making construction paper headdresses too and learning about Squanto and the Wampanoag people helping the Pilgrims, a whitewashed story that blatantly ignores the genocide of Indigenous people that followed. It is also a story that disregards that the Wampanoag Tribe still exists today with a population less than 5000.

When I talk to friends in Vietnam about Thanksgiving, I am conscious of not making the same mistakes the American education system made with me. A few months ago, I was reminded of this dynamic when I read a CNN article about a teacher in California who mocked Native American culture by dressing up and doing a stereotypical dance. Though she was suspended, it spoke to the persistent reality of how Native Americans are depicted in American education.

Thanksgiving is basically a feasting ritual. | Source: Brendan Ryan

Despite its problematic origins, for most people, Thanksgiving is synonymous with food. It's basically a feasting ritual. And in my family, we definitely honor that tradition. My mother is an excellent cook, and on Thanksgiving, she is at peak form. She cooks the same meal her mother made for her as a kid. She starts preparing days in advance by taking out a turkey to defrost in our fridge. The night before, my mom brines it while mumbling about how she’s anxious this year’s turkey will turn out too dry. But it never does.

Early on Thanksgiving day, while my father, brother, sister and I watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, my mom works on boiling potatoes that my sister will later transform into buttery-garlicky mashed potatoes. I check that my bread dough rose overnight. The house fills with the smell of baking turkey and garlic and everything that is good and delicious in the world. My brother and dad sit with hunger growing on their faces.

We eat our meal early, around 2:00pm. If the weather is nice, we eat outside on the patio and if not, we fold out the extra leaf of the dining room table. Regardless, we use the china we reserve for holidays. The plates are whites with bundles of roses in the center. They belonged to my grandmother, and one day, they will belong to me or one of my siblings.

I was talking to a Vietnamese friend about this recently, and after explaining how we have all these plates we use once, maybe twice a year, he exclaimed, “Oh my family does that too!” I love finding these commonalities, especially over the simple things.

My first Thanksgiving abroad, I was nineteen and living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I had the privilege of going to the luxurious apartment of the head of Kaohsiung’s American Institute of Taiwan (AIT). He had obviously bought out Kaohsiung’s Costco selection of turkey and stuffing. All I remember from that night is trying to make conversation with Mormon missionaries, chatting with Fulbright English teachers, and being told one too many times “you don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi.” I was hoping to find holiday comfort in the presence of other Americans but instead I felt othered. The food was great, but the people weren’t right. I missed home.

Thanksgiving in Nanjing, China. They threw together a picnic pot-luck. | Source: Brendan Ryan

My next Thanksgiving abroad, I was in Nanjing, China, studying again. Every Thursday, two of my American friends and one of our dearest Chinese friends would meet for lunch. Most of the time, we tried one of Nanjing University’s seemingly infinite cafeterias. For Thanksgiving that year, we decided to do something different. We threw together a picnic pot-luck. It ended up being all desserts and convenience store food with a side of bubble tea. After eating, we gathered pieces of Nanjing’s fall foliage and crafted leaf crowns. An impromptu photoshoot ensued. The food wasn’t traditional by any means, but that year taught me people matter so much more than the authenticity of the food. That Thanksgiving was nearly perfect.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to celebrate holidays while here in Vietnam. The thought of ignoring them completely feels profoundly sad to me. I’ll call my family, of course, but I want to do more than that. This year for Thanksgiving, I’m going for the combination of good people and delicious food. I’m going to host a few close friends over at my apartment for a Thanksgiving feast.

Instead of turkey, I’m going to be serving vịt quay (roast duck) from District 5. It’s my go-to celebratory food here, the kind I get for birthdays or any day I need a pick-me-up. My absolute favorite place is Vĩnh Phong in Chợ Lớn, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. It comes with the most amazing sauces. The stall is always bustling. My Cantonese teacher here, who is particular about her food in all the right ways, tells me it’s her favorite place too.

I will still get Thanksgiving staples. I’m going to order Popeye’s mashed potatoes, and I’m planning on getting corn from my local grilled corn place. Since corn is called bắp Mỹ here, I especially like the idea of there being an Americanness, at least in name, to my meal. For dessert, I haven’t decided yet. Maybe I’ll get Dairy Queen. Or I’ll order some Baskin Robbins. Or I’ll serve heaps of fresh fruit bought at the local market.

Thanksgiving is about eating good food, whatever that means to you, and spending time with people you enjoy. | Source: Brendan Ryan

When friends here ask me about Thanksgiving, I share happy memories of food and family. I’ll talk about how I want nothing more to nibble on a juicy turkey leg and eat my mom’s sweet potato casserole. I will also tell them about how it’s also the National Day of Mourning. I will try my best to paint a fuller picture of Thanksgiving and America than I ever learned as a kid.

I’m thankful this Thanksgiving to be living in Vietnam, to have friends to celebrate with, and to have plenty of good food to enjoy. While I would love to eat my mom’s Thanksgiving meal this year, I’m glad I can still celebrate in my own way. I’ve learned about the essence of the holiday—that it doesn’t have to be about eating the same foods every year or being with the same people. It’s about eating good food, whatever that means to you, and spending time with people you enjoy.