Giving Thanks Overseas

Seems like it’s that time of year again to show and give thanks.

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I don’t know what it is, but Thanksgiving has always been bittersweet for me. I’d venture to say it’s my favorite holiday of the year and there’s many reasons for that. It feels so American. It makes me feel so American. The day fills me with a pride that’s hard to describe. It reminds me of a time of family and my childhood; It reminds me of gathering around the table to do something sacred –  to share my favorite activity with my favorite people.

There’s an undeniable tie between that special day and wanting to feel home as an expat. Food has this funny power to connect overseas Monica to the Texas (homesick) Monica. Oh, but the food.The cranberry sauce and turkey combination is enough to make my year. Let’s not even start on the mac n’ cheese with mashed potatoes. It’s all too perfect for words. The food and memories are better (in my opinion) than Christmas and that’s what really gives me the feels. I still get as excited for the big feast as when I was a kid.

Now that I no longer live in Texas, I’ve spent five Thanksgivings out of the country. Once in Spain, twice in France, once in Indonesia, and now Malaysia. Each drastically different and each foreign Thanksgiving has been one for the books, retaining a unique story in my mind.

1397580_10203285822776598_6217414291453152244_oThe most important Thanksgiving meal abroad was when I first moved to Paris. I’ll never forget it; Winter was starting to set in, I knew nobody and the homesick feeling started to creep up as the week approached. I searched desperately on online forums for American expats having dinner somewhere in the city and was lucky to find a girl named Whitney from Ohio who was just like me, alone and new in the big city. We met up for the first time outside the cramped, busy restaurant and were instantly at ease and became fast friends. We ate an amazing meal and shared our story of why we ventured off by ourselves to live in France. Just that we were both American and looking to connect on such a heart warming day was enough. It felt good to talk with an American and have them understand my experience perfectly. It was through Whitney that I might my great friends in Paris. It was thanks to that particular Thanksgiving meal that I had a fruitful expat life in France.

Fast forward to the next year….The time that sticks out most in my mind was when I was living and working in Paris. At that point Laurens and I had just started dating and I wanted to give him a glimpse of my favorite holiday with some delicious dinner (I can’t actually cook turkey, so take out of course!). That afternoon, I rushed out of my office during my lunch break halfway across the city with multiple metro changes to pick up from one of the few places in town touting turkey and an (expensive) Thanksgiving prix fixe menu. I was so thrilled! It said they had pumpkin pie, stuffing, veggies – the whole lot. I remember that year that I was particularly homesick and desperately craving the perfect combination of comfort food and big flavor to soothe the workweek stress. I hauled the bags home on the metro as if I was carrying gold. To my dismay, when I got home to our apartment, I unravelled the boxes only to find sad, sad portion sizes of dry meat, goopy sauces and sad sides. It was very underwhelming. I let the disappointment take over me and instantly started to cry. Laurens looked over from the table confused a bit, gently approached and asked me why on earth I was crying after being so excited and why I would cry over food. As I tried to explain, I laughed and sniffled simultaneously as I tried to explain how meaningful this meal was and that I felt it was ruined. I knew I was just being a brat but the homesickness had taken over. We laughed it off and ate those three tiny turkey slices like we meant it. It still makes us laugh till this day.

The next year in Makassar, finding turkey wasn’t an option so I opted for making a pumpkin pie from scratch. It was glorious and I’ve never felt so proud of myself. This coming from the girl who would always buy ready-made pie crust and canned purée. Now here I am, two years later in Malaysia and less desperate for that turkey perfection since I had just gotten back from the states not even a week ago, and had spent Thanksgiving at home last year. In a city with so few Americans, I was surprised to learn there’s two places offering Thanksgiving meals. It felt wrong not to try so we chose the hotel closest to us (Renaissance) in an attempt to have some semblance of the feast back home.

I approached the station with the golden turkey where the Malay chef artfully carved away at it. I felt my heart swell a bit. He delicately placed the pieces on my plate as if to say here’s what you’ve been waiting for and then I topped the big pieces of white meat with gravy and scooped some cranberry sauce to the side. It reminded me of that blubbering night in Paris and I smiled to myself. How much progress I’ve made at not getting too worked up on this day even if it’s not what I imagined.

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I made my from-scratch pumpkin pie the next day and ate it with so much satisfaction.

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Years prior I would search desperately for the perfect Thanksgiving meal. I’ve always loved food and have always been super picky, but I know it’s not about that now. It never was about the perfect feast with mind blowing side dishes (although that certainly doesn’t hurt). My family was never really one to be super traditional anyway. It’s more about slowing down and feeling home if just for one meal. It’s about having some traditions abroad especially with our lives being unpredictable as they are. And of course, it’s about giving thanks. No matter how long I might be away from the US, I’ll always go out of my way to have some kind of turkey day to reflect and share my gratitude.

Food is so linked to emotional memories, and maybe that’s why this day holds such a special place in my heart and stomach. It always will. It was my childhood favorite and deep down will always be. My sense of gratitude this year is really overwhelming. It was one of the best years of my life and I know I have too much to be thankful for. We just got back from our honeymoon and an amazing wedding experience in Texas. It was a great year of challenges, new beginnings, more understanding, growth, work, and love. I feel thankful to be part of such a great new family, to have a great new husband, to have made such great friends in Johor and to have my health since that’s not always a given. American or not, this day is special to me (wherever I am) and always will be.

The world could always use more gratitude couldn’t it?

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