For seven years, I was the director of an adult literacy program in suburban Philadelphia. Immigrants from many countries filled our English as a Second Language classes, but most of the students in our family literacy program were from South Korea.
As part of this program, we hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner each year. It was a way to introduce immigrants to this cultural holiday and teach them some of our customs, including the foods we traditionally eat on Thanksgiving. Our staff prepared most of the food, but students were given recipes for side dishes and invited to contribute if they wanted.
Invariably, a few of the students would bring dishes from their culture, and we would include the kimchi and rice in our Thanksgiving meal.
Our guests at the literacy council Thanksgiving dinners would gingerly try bites of turkey and cranberry sauce, and I loved watching them register the different tastes and textures. Food is an important part of any culture, and this dinner was a wonderful opportunity for people to try something new.
I wished my parents had attended such a class.
Growing up, we never had turkey for Thanksgiving; apparently turkeys were not available in Poland. We had ham or kielbasa or stuffed cabbage and a duck soup that I fear most Americans would not even try. Mashed potatoes were probably the only thing our Thanksgiving dinners had in common with the rest of America.
My mother did not care when I came home from school excited about traditional Thanksgiving dinners; she had never cooked a turkey and did not see the need for it.
Being thankful was what the holiday was about to her, and I could see her point. But I always felt a bit odd when kids talked about turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce—and I had nothing to contribute.
I have since come to understand that while we tend to think of one “traditional” American Thanksgiving dinner, the truth is that people in different regions of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds personalize Thanksgiving dinner. A simple Google search of “turkey stuffing” brings up hundreds of different recipes.
Merging cultures is part of the American tradition, and kimchi would have been as foreign to our Thanksgiving dinners growing up as the creamed onions I once had at a friend’s home in suburban Philadelphia or the Southern cornbread stuffing I was served in Virginia.
Recalling all those dinners this Thanksgiving made me think of the ways Americans can segregate ourselves into groups that reinforce our beliefs and allow us to stay in our comfort zones. We can tell ourselves that the Norman Rockwell portrait of a Thanksgiving dinner is the only true portrait, but that is just not true. Our country is made up of people from many different cultures and the blending of those cultures makes our country unique.
Honoring our heritage is important, but moving beyond our comfort zones makes life more interesting. Maybe it is time to try some kimchi.