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News From America

Matthew Pillsbury, Jing Fong Dim Sum, New York, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

We Don’t Eat It Here

People living in countries that aren’t the US explain the meaning of Thanksgiving, from the splendor of “harvest day” to the tradition that is gun violence.

“As a South African, what do I think of American Thanksgiving? Is that where they eat the turkey?”

This is Janni Willem, 37, who lives in Durban, a city of 3.5 million people, the busiest port on the African continent. He has a thick, jolly voice that’s perfect for the phone, and is extraordinarily friendly considering I’m a total stranger who’s wasting his time. Still, he isn’t afraid to tell me how ridiculous I sound.

“Sorry, but it’s like this,” he explains. “I could ask you about the Indian festival of Diwali. The festival of light? But it’s not really relevant. Thanksgiving is the same for a South African. It has no relevance.”

Willem works at a call center for Power Legends, an electrical company based out of Perth, Australia, which is how I found him. “When your line doesn’t work you can call us for a fix,” he says about it. “Though usually the people who call me tend to be Australian, since, you know, that’s where the company is located. Usually not Americans calling about, uh—”

“Thanksgiving,” I prompt him.

He sighs at just the mention of the word. “Hold on, hold on,” he says with long grunt, really wracking his brain. “It’s got something to do with the Indians? The only reason I know that is I just watched Free Birds with my kids.”

Free Birds?”

“It’s an animation where a turkey goes back in time and changes history so that turkeys are spared and pizzas are eaten instead of turkeys.”

Willem tells me he has twin eight-year-old boys. When I ask if that’s ever difficult, raising two kids of the same age, he replies, dumbfounded, “It’s awesome, is what it is.”

Has Janni ever left South Africa?

“No, I like it here just fine,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have anything to compare it to. Better than America, I’d say—if I look at the kind of the thing that’s happening there. I think of America, I think of gun violence and sad people.”

“There’s some other stuff, too,” I point out shyly.

“Turkeys, yes,” he says. “Poor things.”

Unfortunately, Janni has a call waiting now—probably a family in Australia who needs their electricity restored, he says. “A little more important, no offense,” he says. “But I’ll stay on for a last question, all right?” 

“Are there holidays in South Africa that might be similar to Thanksgiving?” I ask. “A feasting day? A harvest day? Something like that?”

“Sorry, but I really think you called the wrong person.” Janni says, laughing hard. “On top of everything, I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.”

 

In Chennai, India, not far from where the English East India Trading Company built its first factory off the Coromandel Coast, Wayne Robson, 58, has just gotten off the phone with a school administrator about replacing the expired bulb of a Sony LCD projector. Robson, who works for Young India Films, a retailer specializing in educational tools and technology, was happy to oblige the man. With me, though, he’s not so accommodating, at least not at first.

“This call has nothing to do with the marketing of this organization?” Wayne asks me sternly. “Nothing to do with sales?”

“No, nothing to do with the company,” I assure him.

Finally he can’t help but laugh. “Please, then. Help me,” he says, softening up. “What on Earth do you want from me?”

“I like it here just fine. I think of America, I think of gun violence and sad people.”

Robson has worked for Young India Films for the past seven years. Before that, he was living in Mumbai, which he calls “Bombay,” where he built and installed custom air conditioning units.

“I was getting too tired, though. One has to adjust to things in life,” he says, adding that he was born and raised in Chennai and that in many ways he was glad to return. “Here it is less busy. And I am closer to my siblings and cousins.” 

What does he know about Thanksgiving?

“I have two sisters in the United States, they would be knowing more about this,” he mentions. “But thanking god. Basically thanking god for what he has done for the past year. That’s my opinion about it, anyway,” Wayne says, laughing again. “For what very little it’s worth.”

“Where do your sisters live?”

“One in Dallas, Texas,” Wayne answers proudly. “Working for General Motors. The other is in Indianapolis working for a social organization. But it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to them.”

“How long has it been?”

“Almost two weeks now,” he says.

Does he have any plans to visit the United States himself?

“I doubt I ever will,” he tells me. “I am a bit too old now. Also it’s very expensive to travel so far.”

Wayne puts me on hold for a moment—a customer in the store needs his assistance, he says—and when he returns he’s lost his warm, grandfatherly air. “I have lot going on suddenly, Matt. I think I’ll have to say goodbye now.”

Hoping to sneak one last question in, I blurt out the first one that pops into my head. “Do you like turkey?”

“Well, no,” he says.

“Why not?”

There’s a long pause, as though he isn’t sure if I’m joking or not. “Because we don’t eat it here,” he says. “I’m in India.”

 

In Midwestern America it’s early in the evening, but in South Korea the sun has barely come up.

“No, no, I was awake,” insists the dried-out voice of a man I’ve clearly just woken up. In the background something clatters to the floor—the man’s eyeglasses, it sounds like—and he makes a long straining sound as he bends over to pick up the item. “Really, there’s no need to apologize,” he says, yawning and smacking his lips. “I am happy to talk.”

This is Scott Kim, 39, who lives in Daegu, the lush, subtropical capital of South Korea’s Gyeongsangbuk-do province. He answers initially with the Korean telephone greeting of “Yeoboseyo,” but then switches to English easily. Kim happens to run The Best Way English School, where he tutors Koreans of all ages on how to sound like a natural English speaker. “Koreans learn English in middle school and high school, but it’s mostly written English,” he tells me. “Speaking can be difficult for the older generation.”

“This is a very unusual call,” Scott mentions suddenly, sounding oddly neutral about it, as though it’s a natural phenomenon over which neither one of us has any control.

I explain that I’d imagined “The Best Way English School” as a place of business and not a private residence. “Again, I’m so sorry for waking you up,” I say.

“I was awake,” he reminds me. “Really, I am not a deep sleeper.”

I ask Scott if he wouldn’t mind describing some of the local geography. He mentions Mount Palgongsan—the tallest mountain in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province, famous for the Buddhist shrines in its surrounding foothills—but says his view has lately been marred by light city smog. 

“Is Scott a common name in Korea?” I wonder.

“No, it’s a nickname,” he tells me. “I was working at a language institute. One of my American friends, he chose the name. Makes things much easier.”

When I ask Scott if he’d like to tell me his Korean name, he laughs for the only time during our conversation. “It’s fine. Please just call me Scott.”

Scott has been to the United States a number of times—he loves New York, for instance, which he calls “the most multicultural city in the world”—but says he doesn’t know much about Thanksgiving. “I’ve heard it’s been celebrated since the pioneer period? The American Indian and the newcomers. They give thanks for each other. I would like to experience it. What is it like?”

I do my best to describe the basic idea: the getting the day off from work, the roasting of the turkey, the family and friends gathered around the table. 

“So you don’t have any ceremony or rituals,” Scott says.

“Sometimes people go around the table and say what they’re thankful for,” I offer.

“This is a very unusual call,” Scott mentions suddenly, sounding oddly neutral about it, as though it’s a natural phenomenon over which neither one of us has any control.

In South Korea they have a similar holiday, he says. “We call it Hangawi. Thanksgiving for the ancestors. We thanks-give because we have a good harvest season. We go to the leader’s home. To the first son’s or to the mother’s or to the father’s home.” His own family, for example—he has just one brother—goes home every year to his mother’s house. “We cook a lot of different food. It’s kind of a ceremony. Not a religious ceremony, but—do you know Confucius? It’s complicated. But we cook like a rice cake? I’m not sure what you would call it.” (Wikipedia lists Songpyeon, a kneaded rice cake filled with sesame seeds, beans, and chestnuts, as the quintessential Hangawi dish.)

Hangawi always happens in September, Scott tells me, but the date varies on account of fluctuations in the lunar calendar, which he says is what most East Asian countries go by.

“Thanksgiving is like that, too,” I say. “It’s always on a Thursday, but the date is never the same.”

“Ah, it’s pretty similar, then,” he says. “Just with a different name.”

 

Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt is famously the only shopping center in the world located on water. Wedged between the cyclist-swarmed city squares of the Koningsplein and the Muntplein, the market consists of a row of barges floating along the narrow Singel Canal. For centuries, the Bloemenmarkt sold flowers that were freshly delivered from the countryside by boat. Today the shops sell everything from keychains to stroop waffles. 

In one of these tiny, floating shops, Andre B., 44, is about to close up for the night. He answers the phone first in Dutch, then, sensing the slightest hesitation, begins again in English without even hearing my voice. He speaks perfectly, albeit in a cranking, staccato rhythm, his accent lilting at the ends of declarations as if trying extra hard to be agreeable. The truth is it’s been a long night, he’s filling in for a sick colleague, and he’s anxious to get home.

“Yes, I can talk,” Andre says quickly, but without enthusiasm. “But just for a minute, OK?”

I begin by asking the name of the shop.

Andre groans, onto me. “Ah you know where you’re calling to, so you know where I work.”

“Right,” I say. “But can you describe it for me?”

He sighs. “OK, so it is the Magic Mushroom Gallery? Psychedelic mushroom shop, including all kind of herbal products for parties. The idea is that instead of using bad chemical drugs, we try to bring the similar kind of effects and… uhh… excitements? But based on all organic ingredients. It’s an exciting job. All kinds of characters, all kinds of languages. Judges. Housemothers.”

“Maybe we don’t have a celebrating holiday for it. But I’d say we celebrate those things. Sharing, hospitality, family, friends, love. I’d say we celebrate those things as often as possible.”

Andre is by profession both a cook and a restorer of monumental architecture. He’s only helping out at the Magic Mushroom Gallery as a side gig, he says. He seems understandably reluctant to tell me anything about his personal life. Every time I ask him if he has family or a partner, he lobs a question back at me instead of answering. “What kind of magazine are you writing for?” he asks suspiciously. “Is it available here?”

I give him our web address.

“Ah, you can only see it on the internet,” he says. “So it’s not really a magazine. Guess this sounds better than just saying ‘some website,’ though?”

“That’s right. It does.”

Andre has been to the States several times before, but has yet to take part of any official Thanksgiving dinners. He spent most of that time in Nevada and Arizona, wandering through the beautiful deserts. But he seems genuinely curious about the holiday. “Is it true, it comes from the native Indians?” he asks me.

“That’s kind of the story behind it, but I think it’s actually a lot more complicated? It didn’t become a national holiday until after the Civil War—”

“Right, but the big lines,” he interrupts. “That’s the part people like. What does Thanksgiving mean to you?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Spending time with friends. Being in a warm house.”

Andre thinks for a minute.

“Maybe we don’t have a celebrating holiday for it. But I’d say we celebrate those things. Sharing, hospitality, family, friends, love. I’d say we celebrate those things as often as possible. We don’t need a special day for it,” Andre says. “Then again, it sounds nice the way you say it. Being in a warm house. I don’t see the harm.”

biopic

TMN editor Matt Ray Robison is a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor. More by Matt Ray Robison