Thanksgiving in a Foreign Country: What I Learned From Celebrating Abroad

My classmates and I were homesick. We were spending our fall semester in London, and for most of us, it was our first Thanksgiving away from home. I’d asked my British internship supervisor for the day off, and he recognized how important the holiday was to me, even if it was just another Thursday for the rest of the office. My fellow Americans and I tried to make the day feel as much like a real Thanksgiving as we could.

A few of us started the day by attending the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The service was packed with Americans who were all in London for different reasons: students like us, tourists, employees from the embassy, expats. An ambassador reminded us to show gratitude, serve others, and share our blessings. That evening, my classmates and I met at the Texas Embassy restaurant for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t the same as being in my parents’ dining room, eating the dishes my mom only prepared once a year, rolling my eyes when my brothers purposely called sparkling cider “sparkling spider,” but it was still special.

A couple years later, I was serving in the Peace Corps in Cambodia. My volunteer cohort and I had arrived in July, and by November, we’d left for our assignments, all separated in different provinces and villages across the country. Staff had arranged our schedule so that we’d have in-service training over Thanksgiving. After months of living with a Khmer family, speaking in Khmer, and eating Khmer food, I wanted a dose of familiar American culture.

Thanksgiving in Cambodia was very different than Thanksgiving in Britain. When I’d explained to my host family about the holiday, I did so in Khmer, not English, and they didn’t already have a preconceived idea of it like my British supervisor. There was no American Thanksgiving service to attend. There was no turkey or stuffing. There wasn’t even a fall chill in the air.

How will you be spending Thanksgiving this year?

But some of the things I felt like I had to have in London to celebrate Thanksgiving didn’t feel so important in Cambodia. The reason for the holiday became more important than the specific traditions. My Peace Corps cohort gathered together in the provincial capital of Kampong Cham to reconnect with each other and talk in our native language, sharing funny stories and asking for help with challenges. The blessings we counted were simple, like good health and basic necessities, although we also gave thanks for a rare glass of wine and pizza, something we couldn’t get in our villages.

That Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Pchum Ben, one of the most important religious holidays in Cambodia, which falls in October. Pchum Ben focuses on honoring the dead, but there are many similarities to Thanksgiving: preparing special food, gathering extended family together, and sharing what we have with others. Cambodians bring food offerings to the Buddhist pagoda for their deceased relatives as well as for the monks who live there.

What also made Pchum Ben meaningful for me was how my Cambodian host family welcomed me into every aspect of the holiday. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t blood family or that I wasn’t even Cambodian. Holidays give us the opportunity to transcend some of the things that divide us and focus on what’s truly important.

Coming together in fellowship with loved ones. Sharing what we have. Counting our blessings. Taking the time to rest from our daily lives. No matter where you are or who you’re with, this is what Thanksgiving is about.

Originally published on November 14, 2018.

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