Thanksgiving and Chopsticks: Learning to live in a new culture with old holidays

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

Having adopted life in Kinsale, County Cork Ireland over five years ago now we have become adept at managing the celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday specific to one country when living in another. Upon reflection, the changes we have experienced are instructive of our settling in and making connections within our community.


The first year I remember both celebrating and ruing the differences in what it took to get things done. On the one hand, there were no lines in the markets and we could purchase a free range turkey with no bother because few others wanted them in November.  However, we had to do without pumpkin pies as there was no filling to be found and the real pumpkins had all been sold earlier in the season.  Our guests were neighbours, older gentle and interesting folk who had graciously included us in the small gatherings that happened in the neighborhood.  Much of the conversation around the table made little sense to us, and in truth the Cork accents were often so strong as to render us incapable of reply.

The second year was an experiment in mixed cultures, one that perhaps did not lead to the best entertainment experience of our lives.  We had sorted the pumpkin pie issue by simply bringing cans home in a suitcase after travel to the US. The turkey was the best we had ever had, coming as it did from the local butcher.  Our guest list included a younger couple who we knew from the town, the older gentleman who manages the works of our village, and an American who had rented one of the houses close by.  Unfortunately the American was of the sort who felt that his way was the best way and “What was wrong with the locals that they didn’t…?”  Not answering his emails being at the top of his list.  The one brief moment of connection for me was when I explained to him what I had learned from my Rotary group in Cork – that people here are so closely connected that they seldom resort to emails, at most texting.  Why move to the impersonal when you can go downtown for lunch and run into everyone you need to see?  What we were experiencing was our lack of connection rather than their rudeness.  The Irish couple concurred and I felt as though I had won a prize in multicultural understanding.  When the older gentleman fell asleep at the table it seemed a proper comment on the evening.

Our third year felt as though we were finally at home and Thanksgiving modeled much of the lessons we had been learning.  We were flexible, resulting in a bigger dinner on the Saturday while we took the heart of the celebration of our holiday to our multicultural group meeting on the Thursday by sharing pumpkin pie.  Having built real homey connections with people, our guest list including the folks with whom we walked our dogs, worked, and lived close to, all of them people who shared other events regularly with us.  We understood 95% of what was said throughout the evening, only really breaking down at the end when our guests fell into politics and sports.  There was only one man whose accent was strong enough to cause me to have to ask him to repeat himself so I could answer a question.  And best of all people stayed, talked and laughed until well after 1:00am.  Great craic!

It wasn’t until the fourth year that we unpacked the China, and rolled out the bits and bobs that truly make the celebration one with historic memory by including grandmothers silver, the tablecloth we picked up in Hungary, and the centerpiece that included the little bits of handmade crafts from Africa.

Perhaps, in retrospect, that is the greatest gift of moving to Ireland for us, that we become increasingly part of the world culture because travel is easier and the community norm allows for greater multicultural mix. That is the reason that this year we are moving both towards and away from what would have been our traditional celebration and taking Thanksgiving to a new high by incorporating our regular group of friends in a feast that stretches the tradition to include chopsticks.

We found that it didn’t work for us to have a meal on any day but Thursday so we are back to the traditional day while being adventurous instead with the food on the table. Our friend from China, Tina, will be making the feast and we are adding Chinese traditions to our American norm. In China, it is bad luck to have an odd number of main dishes so we will have a small amount of soup and then six dishes to be shared together: a couple of types of dumplings, a vegetable and potato salad, and a stuffed tofu and a spicy tofu.  Tina and her friend Grace will teach us how to make all these, thus adding to the repertoire of our lives.

Thanksgiving continues to teach us many things as it helps us to reflect on our lives, and how much we have to be grateful for in our adopted home echoing the original Thanksgiving feast. Those settlers long ago found warmth and helpfulness in their new neighbours, who taught them new skills, literally keeping them alive over the  first winter. While nothing in our journey has been so extreme, we continue to find the connections with other people in the appreciation of the wide world in which we live in as sources for our deepest gratitude.