My first Thanksgiving
One Thursday in November, I woke up wanting an explanation for the biggest day of the year. Having arrived from Manila only a few weeks before, I asked the pretty girl whose New York life I upended why we were celebrating that day with a turkey.
"Something about Columbus and the pilgrims," was her lazy reply. Instead of explaining, she called her cousin and handed the phone to me. He gave me a longer version of the Thanksgiving story, of which I remembered only the words "pilgrims" and "America."
Of course I judged these Americans of Filipino descent. How dare these citizens not know the history of their nation? After reacting so harshly, I learned that there were several versions of this holiday's origins, among them stories that it was not some friendly campfire that had transpired but a harrowing genocide of Native Americans, followed by a feast celebrating the victory of the Europeans who were successful in grabbing their land.
I had nothing to be proud of, not knowing much more about the beginnings of the Philippines other than Lapu-Lapu and Magellan, at one point believing that colonization was a gift. I also didn't know enough to object. It became apparent that my cocky Manila swagger did not work in a country I thought I knew well from the screen but had no clue about in real life. I'd just arrived.
I still marveled at the size and girth of the street pigeons, the loud and assertive voices of people, and the coldness of the air that instantly penetrated the thickest jacket I brought from home.
I was a newbie to the holiday festivities so I just went along, getting into a car with two cousins and two pitbulls heading to Newtown, Connecticut, where I stepped out of the vehicle making crunching sounds as I first set foot on snow. The next morning I got up early and went for a walk with my camera, curiously capturing icicles, a frozen lake, and my nose that was so cold it couldn't feel my gloved fingers pinching it.
Inside, the family waited, frying tawilis in an outdoor kitchen so it would not stink up the house, serving it with rice and eggs and a saucer of vinegar.
"Oh don't worry, she likes to explore," my girlfriend said to her aunt and uncle when they looked for me. I walked in with my boots caked in snow and was met with the smell of fried fish and garlic rice accenting a background aroma of smoked meat, pineapple juice and cloves, as my new Tita baked a holiday ham.
After breakfast, Tito washed a whole chicken well and cut it into pieces. "The secret to making a good arroz caldo," he said, "is to clean the chicken very, very well." He pulled the pieces of fat off the meat, washed them repeatedly, and rubbed them with baking soda which supposedly removed any foul odors.
He simmered the pieces in a pot of rice porridge we spooned into bowls all afternoon while the boys watched football and I wrote in my journal, grabbing handfuls of pretzels and bite-size Hershey bars in a bowl, thinking them special, forgetting where I was for a minute before noticing that nobody else paid the candies any mind.
At dinner, the family sat down to pray and gave thanks for the meal and for the blessings of the past year. I was at a loss, because aside from making the trek to the US, I was without a job or direction, and was grateful only for hospitality of others.
Served on the table was a huge golden brown bird with traditional sides of cranberry, yams, and stuffing. Beside the main event was the traditional Filipino ham served with a pineapple glaze, and pandesal and empanadas sourced from someone's coworker’s friend's cousin’s kitchen. Someone always seemed to supply a town's Pinoys with homemade goodies, no matter how sparse the Filipino population was.
I made myself small at the table to pardon my intrusion into this family of Fil-Ams. My partner and her cousins spoke so casually with perfect American accents while I watched my every word, engaging in Tagalog conversations with their parents who seemed to appreciate my po and opo. Everyone shoveled food onto their plates and congratulated each dish's creator. I sat burping fragments of the fishy breakfast, the gingery arroz, and the turkey and hamon dinner.
Before I moved to the US I feared my days would begin with pancakes, continue with burgers, and end with meatloaf. I was afraid that in order to completely assimilate I had to give up all that I knew and adapt to what was the norm. But at my first Thanksgiving table I realized that at the forefront of these American traditions would be the Filipinos carving their own adaptations and compromises, mixing their own practices and delicacies with established ones.
Somehow Filipino traditions and cultural practices always seeped through, and while kids grew up with few indicators of their ethnicity other than their looks, they were able to say dinuguan or nilaga, or even make kare-kare.
Over a decade ago, I flew to New York to chase someone I had only known for three weeks. Before then I believed that when Pinoys left the Philippines, they shed everything and morphed into a brown version of American TV characters, and forced themselves to adapt to the culture, food, and traditions of their adoptive land. When I moved to the US I didn't have to give up much after all, as it turned out I ended up with a woman who also enjoyed longganisa breakfasts and didn't mind if I went out of my way to soak bangus in vinegar and garlic for some traditional daing.
At my first Thanksgiving feast, where the smells of tawilis, arroz caldo, and hamon mixed with the fruity, meaty, and hearty aromas of a typical turkey dinner, I thought that maybe that's how it would be: the Filipino in me standing out against a blended background of what it was to be American. I gave thanks for the reality that I didn't have to erase myself after all.
Happy Thanksgiving! – Rappler.com
Shakira Andrea Sison is a Palanca Award-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours writing stories in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. She will be in Turkey for Turkey Day. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison and on Facebook.com/sisonshakira.
#BalikBayan is a project that aims to harness and engage Filipinos all over the world to collectively rediscover and redefine Filipino identity.