Lifestyle & Belief

Expat Thanksgiving can be rough




Justin Sullivan

A Thanksgiving meal that begins with a mayonnaise-based shrimp dish is not bound to end well.

It should have been a self-evident truth — nothing on such a turkey-centric holiday menu should involve shrimp, let alone shrimp AND mayonnaise.

Yet, it was a lesson I learned the hard way while celebrating the all-American holiday, Cambodia-style.

Indeed, as I pondered the strange orange hue of the gelatinous blob before me, it was hard to remember just what I was thankful for.

As GlobalPost correspondents know all too well, the holidays can be a tender time when far from home. In 2009, we started the tradition of sharing stories from Thanksgivings spent abroad.

Here are a few more helpings:

Jean MacKenzie, former Afghanistan correspondent, writes from Cape Cod, Mass.

I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. For one thing, I am not in Afghanistan.

Over the past two decades, I have celebrated Turkey Day in many unusual ways in many even more unusual countries. I have smuggled a gigantic frozen bird from Vilnius to Minsk, combed Moscow markets (unsuccessfully) looking for cranberries, battled French resistance to anything American by preparing my very own dinde farci in Paris, and fought the national salmon fetish in Norway by inviting assorted Scandinavian and Slavic friends for a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

I will pass over Thanksgiving in Kazakhstan, with gruesome descriptions of the national dish, beshbarmak, accompanied by fermented camel’s milk. Some things are better forgotten.

But one of my most memorable of Thanksgivings was just a few years ago, in Kabul.

I was hosting half the press corps and quite a few Afghan friends, and was in a panic. This was before the larger supermarkets began to stock imported turkeys at exorbitant prices. I would have been happy to lay out $125 for a small Butterball, but there were none to be had. Then a friend called to say that an Afghan admirer had given her a turkey. Since she was coming to my house for dinner, she was willing to contribute the bird.

I was thrilled. But, as with most things in Afghanistan, there was a catch: the turkey was alive. Not only alive, it had a name — Wasifi — and was remarkably photogenic. For days it roamed and clucked around my yard, gobbling up enormous quantities of grain, while some of Kabul’s best photojournalists took a break from war to snap his every move.

More from GlobalPost: Photos of the Thanksgiving guest of honor

The inevitable happened, of course. Come Thanksgiving, no one wanted to kill poor Wasifi. It is never a good idea to get up close and personal with a prospective meal.

Luckily my guard, Nasir, had no such scruples. On Thanksgiving morning he went out to the yard, chased down Wasifi, stroked him tenderly under the chin, then chopped off his head. He also plucked and eviscerated him, so I had a more or less normal-looking bird to stuff.

I am happy to report that Wasifi was delicious, if a bit on the stringy side. We supplemented him with traditional Afghan delicacies, like ashak (dumplings stuffed with vegetables) and a huge mound of pilau (rice and lamb). There was even a pumpkin pie for desert — from a pumpkin out of my very own garden.

A good time was had by all, and we regaled our Afghan friends with rather jumbled tales of the Mayflower, Plymouth rock, helpful Indians and grateful Pilgrims.

I must confess, though, as I ushered the last guests out of the gate, that I was listening a bit sadly for Wasifi’s exuberant clucking in the background.

HDS Greenway, columnist, reflects on Thanksgiving 1967

Forty-four Thanksgivings ago, in the mist-ridden highlands of Vietnam, American soldiers sat on a shattered hilltop, surrounded by the hurt, the dead and the dying.

The battle had begun a few days before. North Vietnamese troops had dug themselves into a hill with no name, only a number signifying its height in meters on the old French maps that we had. It was less than 3,000 feet high, not a mountain, but it could have been Mt. Everest for the toll it took in tears and blood to climb.

The North Vietnamese Army had fortified their positions well with deep bunkers with logs on top, and interlocking fields of fire. It was something they were good at. They had learned that their only hope to counter the superiority of American fire power was to “grab them by the belt,” as the Vietnamese put it. It meant that if you engaged the Americans at close quarters they couldn’t simply bomb you out without risking killing their own men.

So up the hill the Americans went, taking casualties all the way. The Americans would pause, call in air strikes and artillery bombardments, and then proceed up the hill again. But enough Vietnamese had survived in their bunkers to lay down a withering field of fire, and so it went, on and on.

By Thanksgiving morning the Americans found that the Vietnamese had withdrawn in the night. And there, on that desolate hilltop, with the smell of cordite, and shell holes among broken trees, the Americans rested, waiting for the helicopters to come for casualties.

And come they did, whirring rotors causing the usual hurricane. But they did not arrive empty. For as they loaded up their bleeding cargo for the trip back to field hospitals, they left behind something that was truly astonishing to us as we sat around, tired and thirsty.

They had brought hot turkey meals with stuffing and gravy. I couldn’t believe it, but there it was: a Thanksgiving feast, albeit not with all the trimmings, but splendid still to exhausted survivors, sitting on broken logs on the top of a nameless hill in a war we could never win.

Taylor Barnes, Brazil correspondent, on the holiday in Rio

“Let’s keep updated on the situation to figure out whether to meet up for Thanksgiving tomorrow.”

That was the quick message I got from an American friend after I showed her a round of news pieces from Rio: dozens of car burnings and bus holdups across the city, more than two dozen killed in a week of police and gang conflicts.

“But isn’t this normal for Rio?” another foreigner, who had recently arrived in the city, asked me.

We had expected a cheery expat gathering of experimenting with tropical substitutes for cranberry sauce. Instead, I spent Thanksgiving evening 2010 listening to the state security secretary try to convince reporters that Rio’s policing strategy was indeed lowering the homicide rate, despite the week of violence that left schools shut down for fear of violence on public transport.

Soon afterward I’d be putting on a bullet-proof vest with the Brazilian army after they invaded a large favela they would claim was the headquarters of trafficking in Rio. The week’s events became known locally as Rio’s “war.”

A year later, the army is still in the favela. Armored tanks and police sharpshooters invaded another one of the city’s largest slums over a week ago. Hundreds of TV and internet vendors immediately followed, since they’ve learned that police operations lead to illegal favela utility hookups being cut off, which opens a new market for them.

I expect to celebrate a more traditional fourth Thursday of November this year. But that’s hardly because I feel sure that all of this is “normal.”

David Case, Europe editor, remembers Turkey Day in Bangkok

In Southeast Asia, where I lived in the mid-1990s, you can eat pretty much anything.

Pig intestines in Bangkok (yummy).

Beating cobra heart on Java (reputed to impart six months of virility — a "charmer" snips off the snake's head with a scissor, drains the blood into a glass and adds the still-throbbing heart; over in a matter of seconds, it's more of an all-body encounter than a culinary experience).

Oh, and don't miss the barbecued duck heads from the cafes near the Mekong in Laos (best when well-done; a crunchy accoutrement to beer — and after downing a few glasses, you'll even be able to eat the eye).

There's one bizarre animal you'll never find on a local menu, however, and that's the bird of choice for an American thanksgiving.

No, it ain't easy to find a turkey in tropical Asia. Most years we just went without, opting instead to chat about what the family must be doing back home, as we slurped noodle soup with clotted chicken blood or one of the other local delicacies.

After a few years of this, we'd had enough. The idea of a plate piled high with succulent white meat, stuffing and cranberry sauce, swimming under thick gravy — it became a quest, the American Dream incarnate.

We finally found a respectable Thanksgiving meal at a Cajun restaurant on a narrow alley off Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok's main drags. The restaurant is rumored to be owned by a long-time American expat — a fugitive, some say, taking advantage of Thailand's lax extradition laws.

The meal was amazing. The place was packed with Yankees droning on in that familiar, dry American accent. I'd like to say there was even football on the TV, but that can't be, because Americans are only waking up when it's supper time in Bangkok, half a world away. Afterwards, stepping back out into the sweltering tropical air, it was almost like traveling 12 time zones in a single stride.

Erin Conway-Smith, South Africa correspondent, on Canadian Thanksgiving

I spent this Thanksgiving at a friend's braai — a "barbecue" in South African speak — eating grilled boerewors, drinking wine and nerdily informing friends that this was, in fact, a defacto Thanksgiving braai.

And not just any Thanksgiving braai: Canadian Thanksgiving, thank you much.

Yes, Canada's Thanksgiving is not the same as yours. But please don't feel bad if you didn't know. No one does outside the land of the true north strong and free, where harvest comes early and Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October (otherwise it is completely the same as yours).

I lived in Beijing before moving to Johannesburg, and there I would get plenty of Wish You Happy Thanksgiving! text messages from well-meaning Chinese friends on the American holiday, along with questions about why we like turkey so much, and isn't the meat awfully dry? I think they must learn about your Thanksgiving in school. Not the Canadian one — too freaky.

In South Africa, there is a basic awareness of Thanksgiving (American edition), from TV shows and Hollywood movies. But the North American autumn is South Africa's early summer, and so while your leaves are falling and days are getting crisper, the South Africans are distracted by endless backyard braais and drinking gallons of wine in the garden.

Some American expat friends here in Johannesburg hold annual Thanksgiving parties to mark the occasion. But seriously, when it is 90 degrees and sunny, do you really want to eat a massive roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings? Just let it go, people.

Tom Fenton, media columnist, enjoys Thanksgiving abroad

Over the years, I have celebrated Thanksgiving in Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Moscow and London, and it always seems a little odd, since most of the locals do not know it is a special day and go about their normal business. It is difficult to find the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Cranberry sauce is not found in your local grocery in Moscow, and although some sophisticated French may have heard of patates douces — sweet potatoes — they have probably never seen one. A turkey is easier to find, even the jumbo frozen variety favored back in the US, but that is largely because in countries such as Britain, it is served at Christmas.

In short, preparing the big meal is a hassle abroad. Before our children left home, we used to take the easy option. My French wife and I would celebrate "le jour de merci donnant" by taking the family to the Hilton in Paris or some other hotel that caters to Americans. Now that we are empty-nesters and our children and grandchildren live in California and the Persian Gulf, we share the holiday with other expats.

This year we are going all out and having two Thanksgiving dinners. The first was hosted two weeks ago by the American Society in London at a private club in Mayfair. The New England clam chowder was not quite authentic, but the turkey was better than my mother used to make. Scrumptious. On the actual day we will be tucking into another British version of the traditional meal at yet another private club on Pall Mall, as guests of an Anglo-American society appropriately called The Pilgrims. I can't wait. The only thing better than a posh Thanksgiving dinner is two posh Thanksgiving dinners.