Rethinking Thanksgiving

We were supposed to have a turkey. By we, I mean everyone congregating in Biratnagar for Thanksgiving. The celebrations had been planned ahead of time and your invitation merely required bringing something Thanksgiving related, where it was food or an accordion-style turkey for décor.

I hadn’t thought of what I was going to bring for Thanksgiving until Vijay, operator of Himanchal Cabin (the Birganj Cheers of sorts), said something to me about Thanksgiving.

He told me about how back when he was a kid and his father was running Himanchal Cabin, Peace Corps was having trainings in Birganj and for Thanksgiving a Peace Corps would put together a huge feast of Nepali food for the trainees. Well, it was Nepali except for the turkey.

Turkey? I thought he was using the wrong word, though his English is the flawless variety that originates from Darjeeling, You mean a turkey–turkey?

Yeah, sure, Vijay told me, quite matter-of-fact.

There here. I’ll show you, and that’s all that was said on the subject for the day.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

After giving thanks, we got busy: Thanksgiving at Shana's place in Narayanghat.

Then suddenly my Thanksgiving plans changed. My friend Lindsay who had been living in small, migrant worker community outside of Biratnagar until Peace Corps changed her post, asked me if we could have Thanksgiving in Birganj, since her new post was on the other side of Narayanghat, about half way to Nepalgunj, and too far from Biratnagar to make the trip in a weekend.

With so few people out west I really couldn’t say no since the other option was for her to stay home that weekend and celebrate it with herself.

But even before I could really make any plans in Birganj, I got a phone call from Shana in Narayanghat.

You want to have Thanksgiving with us in Narayanghat? asked Shanda.

This would be a lot easier. The only thing I’d done was arranged for my host family to get some Newari raksi for the auspicious occasion.

I quickly realized how much work it would be to plan and prepare for Thanksgiving and it made deciding on uniting forces with my friends in Narayanghat quite easy.

Then I remembered about the turkey. When I had called Andrew in Birtamod he told me that his quest for a turkey had proven fruitless. In fact, everyone had referred him to a government farm north of Birganj. He gave me a number for the place and suggested I check it out for the sanctity of the occasion.

At first the farm told me they didn’t have any turkeys, which I didn’t believe. I thought that what I really needed was the leverage of a Nepali bigwig to get some straight answers and perhaps a big turkey.

I found just the guy. He was exactly the sort of fellow I shouldn’t be socializing with and normally I wouldn’t strike up conversations with majors in the Nepali armed police, but the occasion brought us together and so I decided that I would see if I could get him to help me get a turkey. I had thought briefly about the ‘what if’ if I were to actually get a hold of a turkey.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Naomi prepares garlic for something that we ate that day. What, I cannot remember.

Basically, I would have to keep the turkey at my place in Birganj until I left for Narayanghat. And I would go by bus. Finally, I could truly assimilate if I were to bring livestock onto public transportation. I would stand with my leashed turkey talking to the guy with the four goats with their heads hanging out of the windows.

Later I thought of him and his armed police goons torturing the farm workers, demanding to knows, “Where’s the turkey?” Whatever his methods were, he didn’t procure a turkey for me. Sadly, I would have to find some other excuse to drag some livestock onto a bus. I’ve carried a chicken up a mountain, which is worth something.

I killed a chicken and I’d kill a turkey—but another day, I suppose. I think turkeys have bigger necks, too, so it’d be easier. Plus I think I figured out how to handle the Nepali khukuri.

Anyhow, I later found out that it was best that I hadn’t brought the turkey since I was attending a vegetarian Thanksgiving. I had been so consumed with the idea of getting a turkey for Thanksgiving that I had befriended one of the more evil factions in Nepal’s current war to try and get me a turkey, as well as had daydreams about killing this very elusive turkey.

Thanksgiving equaled turkey. I didn’t really ask many questions when I found out, since I’m in Nepal and I have to be flexible.

On Saturday we went as a group to bazaar in Narayanghat to get veggies, flour, spices, etc. The main bazaar is located across the street from the Balkumari Kanya School, where I did my practice teaching during training. I talked with a few kids that had been in my class and I felt really good about what I had done to change my work situation at post.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Lindsay demonstrates the traditional post-Thanksgiving feast stretch.

Let me also say that I just really love going to the bazaar. It’s a totally social affair and can’t be done by foreigners without attracting the attention of everyone in the bazaar.

I let everyone else do the real shopping while I spoke with the locals and explained why pumpkins are so important to Americans. In the middle of my blather one of the shop owners, just a ways off, says, to me, Are you married?

No, I am a volunteer, which was sort of confusing answer, but it’s what I said. I wasn”t really paying any attention to this man, but keeping one eye on my friends and another on the small mob that had formed.

Do you want to marry my daughter? the man asked, earnestly.

Well, I said, not thinking, I do live alone.

Luckily Matt came and grabbed me, hurrying me out of the crowd before I wound up with tikka on my forehead and on an elephant in a wedding procession. These are the dangers of living in a place like Nepal. I really didn’t even realize what I was saying until I started laughing along with my rescuer.

Thanks to my brazen behavior in the bazaar I hadn’t a clue what we had bought or what was going to be prepared. A few other PCVs from the area were coming later with a few prepared dishes.

I was delegated chopping duty and spent the better part of an hour skinning garlic. I kept myself busy in the kitchen with Matt, Shana, and others while people slowly arrived. A VSO volunteer came to celebrate her first Thanksgiving. Another American showed up who works with women’s rights organizations.

When we finally sat down to eat there were ten of us together. We had mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie to validate the occasion as being a legitimate incarnation of the holiday in Nepal. Ironic, I thought, that here we were, just like our forefathers, with so many Indians around.

Yet none came to eat with us, probably because, I thought, we wanted our festival to be as American as possible; yet, we had misunderstood the whole point of Thanksgiving.

The day has less to do with just being thankful for food than for being thankful to sit and eat with those you live around, but separate from.

I’m sure the Native Americans thought the English and Dutch food was as disgusting and repulsive as the Nepalis I know in Birganj find American food; nonetheless, I feel like there was a more significant absence than just the bird.

Maybe next Thanksgiving we’ll get everyone together, including the natives.