Thanksgiving At My Home Away From Home

To an expat, the idea of “home” is very confusing.  It could be where you live currently, where you’re from, or even the last place you lived before moving to where you are now.  It just depends on the connections you’ve made or the roots you’ve set down. However, on a day like Thanksgiving, home is tied up in the memories of complex feelings and ideas as well as place.

For Americans, Thanksgiving is the truest of cultural holidays and memories are tied up in all sorts of ways.  For some people it’s their grandmother’s kitchen or the groaning table laden with food.  For others its the insistence about watching a football game that a favorite Uncle had after dinner.  Most people have some sort of memories about food, though – it’s a really common thread.  Whether it’s Mom’s turkey or the pecan vs. pumpkin pie debate, food plays a huge role in the event.

Yesterday I was over at White Smoke, which is a Texas barbeque place right in my Tokyo neighborhood. (As an aside, the food there is unbelievable – they smoke all of their meats with a Texas dry rub and the flavors are unreal.  My son, who is off from school, and I went for lunch.)  I got to chatting with the owner and he was telling me that they will have two seatings for Thanksgiving people with upwards of eighty people expected in the restaurant.  In a place where restaurants come and go with nerve-wracking frequency, I was glad to hear they were doing so well!  But I had to laugh when he told me proudly that he was making the “corn bread dressing” he had grown up with.  First off all, I’m from New England.  We call it stuffing, not dressing.  And corn-bread? Ew!  I like plain bread stuffing swimming in onions.  In fact, my sister-in-law taught me to make it with sauteed sausage in it.  Corn bread is fine to eat as its own side dish, but as  a base for stuffing?  Not for me, thanks.  But that’s his memory – his childhood Thanksgiving food memory is tied up in cornbread dressing, so of course that’s he is going to make it as an adult.

My childhood memories involve the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  My mom had it on ALL day in the kitchen as we ate breakfast and as she cooked the meal.  My aunt and uncle and cousins would arrive before noon because they would get a jump on traffic from New York to Connecticut by leaving at the crack of dawn and having breakfast on the road. Every now and then we’d pause in our bustling around to say, “Look! There’s Underdog” (always my favorite balloon) or “Wow, listen to that awesome marching band.”

Having made a number of meals this autumn for the Jewish holidays and having thrown two bar mitzvahs in the past three months, I have abdicated my hosting responsibilities.  We are going over to the Tokyo American Club with our friends.  These are not just any friends, I must note, though.  These are the friends with whom we have a standing Sunday night dinner date. These are the friends who I would call in any emergency.  These are the friends where the parents are close and the kids are all equally as close.  And most importantly, these are the friends for whom I am grateful daily for their place in our lives.  They are as close as we’re going to get to having family in a foreign country.

So while I am missing the Macy’s parade this morning, and I sent flowers to my dearest Auntie, who has my grandmother at her house, and I have already spoken with my mother and father, I am having my own Thanksgiving in Japan, halfway around the world from where I grew up.  I am thankful for the ability to create Thanksgiving memories for my children, and I am doubly thankful for the memories of my own holidays of my childhood.  I’m going to make it a great day.

Thanksgiving in Tokyo, Take 2

I say “take 2” but that is just because it’s my second blog posting on the topic.  In reality, this is our seventh (!) turkey day in Tokyo.  Each year has been a little different and this year is no exception.

Our lives are different this year, having been through a number of new beginnings in September.  One of the biggest was my return to work.  It has been an interesting experience from start to finish, but one of the biggest things I’ve found is that teachers at a secondary school are different than those at a university, most notably regarding the formation of a collegial atmosphere.  I love the camaraderie and sharing.  I love the community.  I love being able to run next door to ask another teacher a question if I have one.

Since much of the faculty and staff is American, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day together.  To be sure, we will all work a full day and then have an early dinner so we can get up Friday morning to head back to work.  The Japanese have not embraced the Thanksgiving spirit like they have for Halloween and Christmas, which is really fine with me.  It’s not the same having a truly American holiday while NOT in America and I don’t want to pretend that it is even close.

We are going to a restaurant called Addis.  Here’s the menu:

  • Brown Lentil Fresh Thyme Soup
  • Cranberry mustard and cream cheese canape
  • Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese and Fennel salad
  • Roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce
  • Pumpkin Cheese cake
  • and of course a vegetarian option that’s very Japanese: Grilled tofu wrapped with eggplant in a port wine cardamon reduction

We will have bottle after bottle of wine, I am certain.  We’ll be about 12 for dinner. The cafe is close to school, and pretty casual.  It should be a wonderful time.

I am thankful for so many things this year, many of which are new and different, so mostly I am thankful for the wonderful things that ARE new and different.  I am delighted to spend the holiday with the people with whom I work, along with my husband and kids.  What a year it has been.

Wherever and however you are celebrating, I wish you a dinner full of love and peace.

This is not a post about Thanksgiving

Though today is technically Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., as I indicated on Tuesday, it is a non-issue in Japan.  Therefore, to keep my brain off of the thoughts of all of my American friends and family members getting together to eat traditional foods, laugh at each others’ jokes, argue about each others’ politics and watch too much football, I am going to write a short list about the things that I love about Japan.

The things I love about Japan:

  1. The impeccable service – white glove service everywhere from a four-star hotel to a taxi cab to a garbage man.
  2. The scrumptious food – everything from noodle bowls to sushi to authentic French cuisine is made to impossibly high standards
  3. The cordial people – any time you ask a clerk in any store where something is located, he or she will not just tell you, but take you there.  Japanese people are unfailingly polite.
  4. The cleanliness – you could eat off the street in most places.  Enough said.
  5. The authentic food – you can get the best French food, the best Italian food, the best Chinese food – all the chefs study in the places whose food they cook.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
  6. The impossible contradictions – a travel writer once called Japan a “2000-year-old woman in a miniskirt.”  That’s the  type of contradiction that allows a centuries-old shrine to remain intact next to a 30-story building.
  7. The crazy system of addresses and streets – okay, I don’t love it, but now that I understand it after 3 years, I can at least appreciate it.  It really is wacky!
  8. The beautiful food – plates are never brought to a table without a stunning presentation.  I constantly have an urge to photograph my food – even just some things in the grocery store are lovely!
  9. Japan post – it’s not expensive and if they say it’s going to get there, then it gets there!
  10. The gasoline filling stations – it’s right out of 1975 Americana, down to the uniformed men hurrying out to help you pull the car to the right spot before they fill your car for you.

So there’s my list of ten things I love about living in Japan.  Writing such a list assuages some of the guilt I feel for not being with my family today and some of the longing I have to be there.  It reminds me that I live in a beautiful country and have wonderful friends and relationships here, personal and professional.  It reminds me that I am happy and thankful to be so.

Ok, so it’s a little bit about Thanksgiving, but only in the sense of giving thanks.  What a country!

Thanksgiving In Japan

This week as Americans across the country are preparing for their regular holiday food-fest of Turkey and all the trimmings, I am not.  Living in Japan has made the completely American holiday a total non-issue for expats.

On Thursday this week, everything will be business-as-usual.  There will be no holiday traffic, no top-of-the-lungs arguments with Aunt Sadie, no debates about canned or whole cranberry sauce, and not even a slap on the wrist as someone picks at the carcass of the bird before it’s served.  Are you seeing a controversial theme in my holiday memories here?

Lest you worry about me, this is not to say that all is lost.

In my little corner of the world, expats do Thanksgiving their own way.  First of all, since Thursday and Friday are both regular work/school days and a big dinner is inconvenient, we do Thanksgiving on Saturday.  One family will play host to five other families.

The food assignments are doled out in a similar fashion to any other family.  I’m bringing appetizers this year, but last year I brought pie.  Whoever is assigned to cranberry sauce gets to decide what type it will be!  The hostess gets the honor of procuring the bird, which is a hefty task.  Luckily there are international supermarkets nearby, because turkey is decidedly not a Japanese item and as such, is not available in Japanese markets.  We’ll have all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie, stuffing, gravy and anything else anyone can think of.  What is great is the mix of traditions.  Everyone tends to request to bring their favorite treasured memory all tied up in the making of the food item.  Most times the hostess acquiesces to the requests.

The family who has the honors this year actually has real, blood-related family visiting from the U.S. so the rest of us will go in and greet this visitor like a long-lost cousin about which we had forgotten.  You see, we have no choice but to be each other’s family.  We are all far from home; we are all far from our comfort zone.  Thanksgiving is not only about the food – but about the combination of food and family.  We are lucky to have each other at this time of year, which I find the hardest of all weeks to be outside of the U.S.

It’s going to be a grand and joyous table for my family this coming Saturday.  And by family, I mean a significant portion of my lovely family of friends, for whom I am grateful.  There is much for which to give thanks.

Happy holiday.