Editor’s note: Did you celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States or abroad this year as a Fulbrighter? We’d love to hear your story! Send us a note or share it on social media with #Fulbright.
A Bangladeshi, an Italian, a Thai, an Indian, an elderly Filipino couple, and three Vietnamese people sat down for dinner at a Vietnamese-American house. This may sound like the start of a clichéd joke, but this was exactly what my first-ever Thanksgiving feast looked like.
This year, thanks to the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (FLTA), I had the opportunity to be in the United States for this one-of-a-kind celebration. I had heard and learned about Thanksgiving through the Internet over the years, and I grew up looking at sumptuous Thanksgiving meal illustrations in Archie comics; where the biggest, juiciest turkey and other mouthwatering foods were served.
Since we live in a digital world in which everything is shared, I knew the names of all the traditional dishes before eating my first Thanksgiving meal: mashed potatoes, cornbread, green bean casserole, roasted veggies, pies, gravy, and cranberry sauce… The list can really be long. I had tasted versions of these foods before, but none of them were part of a Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, I actually experienced three Thanksgiving-themed meals, the last one being held at dinner time. The first one was at a local organization in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called the Ecumenical Center and International Residence, or “ECIR” for short. It was a community meal prepared by elderly volunteers. This Thanksgiving was packed with people, including all of the international students studying at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was open to all, and for most who joined, it was their first-ever Thanksgiving experience! I joined the dinner with my fellow Fulbright FLTAs, and we had quite a night! We ended up staying late, offering to help clean up. In fact, we were the last people to leave. But there was another reason behind this delay. We had made friends with one of the sweet ladies who cooked the meals. Her name was Joanna, and she made sure that we knew the recipe for the butteriest mashed potatoes by the end of the night. We promised to help her with volunteering and also catch a movie with her soon.
The second Thanksgiving experience was a smaller yet heartier one. It was an Indonesian potluck with a turkey. This was a home-cooked meal as well, with some Indonesian twists, of course. We enjoyed this Thanksgiving while it silently snowed outside, making it feel truly festive.
My final Thanksgiving was held at the lovely house of the Vietnamese instructor from our language department, Lecturer Thuy-Anh T. Nguyen. She had invited us weeks ago for this special dinner, where the menu consisted of traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, as well as exquisite Vietnamese delicacies. There we were at the dinner, people from all different parts of the world, sitting around a table together to enjoy a meal prepared with love and gratitude. We arrived early to help our hostess by chopping vegetables, preparing salads, and setting up tables. Up until a few months ago, none of us knew each other. But there we were, in that house, in that moment, working, laughing, cooking, and gossiping over food as if we have been friends for decades; as if such a gathering was our annual tradition, and we had been having Thanksgiving together for as long as we could remember. We shared the meal as one big family – a family of strangers, a family of friends.
That night, I called my mother back home and told her how it all went. She laughed and said, “So you had your own cultural contribution to an American tradition! Now that’s American!” I laughed and realized how true that is for everything we do here. The beauty of being on a Fulbright award in the United States is right there. Everybody who is on a Fulbright, at any point, embraces what their host country offers while offering a part of their own culture. This exchange is what makes it all so special, all so unique. This exchange of gratitude and coexistence makes it all worth it and gave me much to be thankful for. It gave me the warmth of home and the comfort of food while I am thousands of miles away from my own family. It gave me a little family of my own in an unknown city; a family I never knew I needed so much!