Last year, we celebrated a very un-American Thanksgiving holiday in Athens, Greece. It was more like a glorious adventure filled with mystery and intrigue straight from a National Treasure movie franchise. Piano Man knew there was ancient Greek treasure to be found somewhere at the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, or Lykavittos Hill overlooking the entire city of Athens.
While searching for clues at each site, it led us to the most glorious treasure in all of Athens – Dosirak Restaurant, the only Korean restaurant in Athens!
By November, we had been living abroad for about three months, and we were desperately craving Korean food. (Yes, we had a few Korean specialty items like sesame oil and red pepper flakes.) But when you don’t have immediate access to your most beloved cultural foods from home, it can make a girl very homesick.
That’s why we ate our Thanksgiving dinner at Dosirak. We ordered all of our favorite foods, such as Bulgogi, miso soup (with real miso, not the MSG kind), shredded kimchi, and several other banchan (Korean side dishes). With only one other couple at the restaurant, we felt like royalty enjoying our Thanksgiving meal with the restaurant owner.
We had much to be thankful for last year. We survived the hardest part of living abroad, the first ten weeks abroad, and most of all, our family was safe and together.
This year, we decided to host a more traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with Korean friends from South Korea, Canada, New Jersey, and California. We have never officially hosted such a grand American Thanksgiving before, and Prof demonstrated his other passion in life – cooking.
We could have offered a more Korean culinary menu like that of our experiences at Dosirak. That’s how I remember much of my American Thanksgiving dinners as a daughter of a Korean immigrant family. My mom would make all of our favorite Korean meat dishes and side dishes served with a good helping of mixed rice. In fact, that’s probably how many of our friends experienced Thanksgiving in America, Canada, and South Korea.
But we chose to incorporate almost everything a modern American family would consume on Thanksgiving: a beautiful golden brown turkey, homemade green bean casserole, a can of Del Monte’s corn, homemade mashed potatoes with gravy, and a huge helping of Ocean Spray’s chunky cranberry sauce. We splurged this year and picked up a small Honey Baked ham from an actual Honey Baked Ham Store. Some friends brought japchae (Korean noodle stir-fry) and mool kimchi (water kimchee) to add a little bit of our own culture into a traditional American Thanksgiving.
Learning Cultural Aspects from South Koreans, Korean-Canadians, and Korean-American College Students
One by one, friends old and new came to our door. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I learned several new cultural aspects about how other Koreans celebrate Thanksgiving in other parts of the world, especially:
1. What four Korean-American college students know about social media on Thanksgiving.
Okay, this one is not so much about learning about how college students celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s really about how they share their Thanksgiving experience with others on the Internet.
I’ve read countless articles about how younger generations are totally engrossed in social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. As I watched them from afar, they were glued to their iPhones, taking photos of one another in our foyer, and then uploading their photos immediately on Facebook and any other social media site to their 1,000+ friends. It was quite an interesting sight to see.
I sat down and asked them several questions because it was the first time I had the chance to ask the younger generation how they felt about sharing practically every detail of their lives. One said that it was part of everyday culture to take a photo of his meal, upload the photo, and write a caption – hitting the send button – before praying for a meal.
They informed me that different social media outlets offer different forms of communication. For example, Instagram photos for those you share with your 300+ personal friends, while Facebook photos are for those tangential 1000+ friends. (Side note: I’ve even had a friend’s son, a 4th grader, tell me he had 45 friends on Instagram, which is like Facebook but for young people – kids his age.) Then when you really want to live in the moment, you send a photo on Snapchat, which you can send to an individual, he/she can open the file and have only a few seconds to view the photo before it is deleted from Snapchat and your view, unless you save it in those precious few seconds.
Talk about living in the moment. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that a photo is not deleted forever, but probably stored somewhere on a server; they just don’t have access to it anymore. (Even when you click on Snapchat’s blog link above, I am not totally convinced that a photo is deleted forever as they claim. Reading further down their October 14th post, law enforcement authorities with proper search warrants, can still gain access to a particular file(s).)
It was eye opening to hear their opinions about how much they are willing to reveal, because I feel an internal struggle as I share photos on the blog detailing our family experiences for the world to see. I try to carefully choose what to share and make several revisions to posts before they go up live on the blog. (But hey, that may be due to my former job experiences, which made me a little more cautious about what information goes out on the world wide web.)
2. That our Korean-Canadian friends have never eaten green bean casserole.
We recently met some Korean-Canadians who have come to live in the Midwest for a few months. I’ve gained a new perspective regarding their perceptions about American culture, even the micro-culture of a predominantly Dutch-American community.
When we first met for dinner months ago, many of the lifestyle choices they’ve made in the States reminded me of how we lived in Cyprus last year. For example, fewer toys and knick-knacks in the apartment in return for more time to travel and see other parts of the world we would have never traveled to.
One would assume Canadian Thanksgiving, held the second Monday of October, is all about the turkey. But according to Wikipedia, Canadians also play (American) football and eat pumpkin pie. The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving is tied to explorer Martin Frobisher, a British explorer, who arrived in Newfoundland 43 years before the pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving dinner.
Some articles say that Canadian Thanksgiving is not as big as in the U.S., but they do celebrate in relation to the harvest schedule. Originally, the date for Canadian Thanksgiving was set for November 6th, but the government moved the date up in October to coincide with fall harvest season in the upper part of the North American continent.
And just when you think massive consumerism is only tied to American culture, our friends shared how Canadians cross the border to participate in Black Friday sales. Lines would form for miles as people waited to cross back over the border with all their spoils. Global consumerism has spilled across the border now, as there are even Black Friday sales in parts of Canada.
But it wasn’t crossing over the border for Black Friday sales that was the cultural eye opener; it was that our Canadian friends have never eaten green bean casserole. Apparently, it’s a classic American side dish that Campbell’s Soup Company created in 1955. Many Americans had green beans and cream of mushroom on hand in their homes, thus an American side dish was born. (I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s also been known to grace our mouths regularly throughout the year.)
3. Lastly, that our South Korean friends have never eaten a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to meet a new South Korean friend who is living abroad in the States. Her husband has been friends with my husband for a few years, and this was our opportunity to get to know one another better. Initially, we met to help each other with our Korean and English speaking skills, but the relationship has blossomed into discussing, sharing, and learning about one another’s Korean and American cultural experiences.
I learned about how the Korean education system differs from the American public school system. Students begin their school year in February and attend classes year-round with a few breaks here and there. South Korea also celebrates Thanksgiving, called Chuseok. Much like the Canadian fall harvest schedule, Korea’s Thanksgiving also centers around the fall harvest schedule, but according to the lunar calendar year. South Koreans make their pilgrimage to their parents’ hometown to celebrate with family and eat delectable marinated Korean meats, noodle dishes, tons of little side dishes, and bowls of rice.
As we share cultural differences about Korea and the U.S., it’s funny how my friend assumed that I am fully assimilated in American culture, even though I am ethnically Korean. I have shared with her how I struggle between both cultures all the time, and it doesn’t get easier as I get older. She shares her experiences of living in the U.S., and how she’ll take her experiences back and see life in Korea differently.
We thoroughly enjoyed having our South Korean friends come and experience a very American Thanksgiving. I was nervous to have our friends’ parents in our home because they would be eating American food, a first-time for them. But they graciously tried new foods, watched American football, and sipped hot ginger tea after dinner.
Four Generations of Koreans in One House
My favorite moment of the evening would have to be watching four generations of Koreans from all over come to our home and break bread with one another – our South Korean friends’ parents holding the newest addition of another family, Korean-American college students teaching me about social media culture, and kids of the same ethnicity but from different geographical locations playing like those things didn’t matter.
Although some of these new friendships may be short-term, as they will be returning back to their home countries, we’ve built relationships that I hope can transcend distance and time with the connection of these social media networks like Facebook and old school methods of communication like snail mail.
From my hometown to yours,