Of all of the American holidays we adopted as we became a hyphenated family (Korean-American), Thanksgiving is the one that has evolved into a part of our family tradition. We have gathered for the occasional 4th of July, Memorial Day or Labor Day barbecue, days off of work making it possible but not locked into a tradition requiring scheduling around extended family and in-laws.
There is the story about Mom roasting a duck because all birds wrapped in plastic look the same or memories of opening a can of cranberries but not having the foggiest idea of what to do with that ruby-colored gelatinous cylinder on a plate. We tried to set an American Thanksgiving table as best we could and then added the real fixings – white rice, kimchee, mandoo, jjapchae, bulgogi and smaller plates of more banchan. Sometimes there was water or sparkling apple cider or barley tea. We learned about pumpkin pie but didn’t complain if there was an unexpected plate of dduk.
Learning about “Pilgrims and Indians” was a part of my childhood experience though I don’t remember much except visiting my second grade classroom. We were moving to the suburbs and Miss Thompson was my teacher. Her classroom was decorated with turkeys made with pantyhose wrapped around wire hangers decorated with construction paper feathers. Moving from Chicago’s Northside to the western burbs was culture shock enough. Walking into a room full of stocking turkeys…well, I think I was just surprised to see pantyhose used as decoration. (Was I the only kid who grew up seeing her mother darn holes in pantyhose with some thread and seal the repair with nail polish?) What I would only later take in was that the feathers included written descriptions of the things my future classmates were thankful for. Turkeys=thankfulness. I get it!
Since then I’ve also learned turkeys=trots, bowls, platters, carving and a whole heckuvalotta work. Our family has never trotted or played football on Thanksgiving, but we know about embracing tryptophans. I have become the Thanksgiving host, and while I haven’t yet mastered the perfect gravy or dressing recipe I’ve tried brining and glazing my turkey (brining, definitely brining). The number of people at our table or tables changes from year to year, the amount of Korean food fluctuates (this year my kids are asking for mandoo, odaeng and curry to accompany the turkey) but there is a comforting and familiar rhythm to the afternoon and evening, starting with a crescendo of voices as family arrive and ending with a turkey-induced quiet and dessert over Black Friday strategies and lists.
We’ve never talked about the pilgrims or the Wampanoag Indians at our Thanksgiving table, but as I have spent quite a bit of time this year sharing bits and pieces of my family’s story – our journey from Korea to America and my journey from Korean infant to Korean American adult – I am reminded that there is a part of our family’s story and that of my Christian faith that resonates with being both the “other” and becoming and being the “hosts”, reluctant or not.
I suppose the way our dinner table looks, expressed on the faces, in the names and in the food, is a reflection of that American history – “others” alongside the “hosts” trying to to understand one another and find a place at the table or a way to reconfigure the table to include both the turkey and the kimchee and the older American history alongside a more recent history.
It’s not a perfect history, nor is it a perfect turkey, but I am incredibly thankful.