Football, Black Friday and pumpkin pie: International students’ take on Thanksgiving

Nov. 13, 2018, 11:49 p.m.

If you came to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner (or more like a really late lunch), you’d realize almost immediately how obviously stereotypical the food, people and conversation are. To begin with, everyone arrives at least half hour earlier than promised to “beat the traffic.” They enter the house without knocking, arms full of appetizers and side dishes that need reheating. Obligatory hugs and kisses are exchanged with every person whether you’re related to them or not. Then, every college-aged attendee is asked the following questions at least half a dozen times: How’s school going? Are you dating anyone? Do you want me to set you up with [insert random person you’ve met maybe once]? Do you have homework over break? Have you gotten sick at all? How’s the party scene? When do you come home for winter break?

The conversation turns from an interrogation to a play-by-play narration of whatever football game is put on during appetizer hour. Everyone under the age of 25 takes this opportunity to scroll through other people’s celebratory Thanksgiving Instagram and Facebook posts. Eventually, the appetizers disappear, and eyes begin to drift from the TV to the kitchen. Those cooking the meal take the hint and announce that dinner will be ready in five minutes (translation: 20-25 minutes because someone put the turkey in too late). The great migration to the dining room begins with the elders; they settle at the heads up of the so-called “adult table.” Aunts and uncles fill in the rest of the seats. The younger crowd occupies the “kids’ table” (FYI, the name has been a misnomer for years).

Someone gives a sappy Thanksgiving toast/prayer/story before giving the rest of the family the go-ahead to take as many rounds of food as they can. In between large bites, relatives repeat the same stories from the year before (though the majority don’t remember). The “kids’ table” is mostly silent, except for the low chorus of Snapchat stories playing out loud. After some time dirty dishes begin to pile high in the sink, and a variety of store-bought and homemade (but mostly store-bought) desserts are put out on the table. In a matter of minutes, all the dishes are partially eaten, their remains to be haphazardly wrapped up and forced into the hands of relatives taking an Irish exit.

While my sarcastic description of my family’s Thanksgiving suggests otherwise, I really do love sentiment behind the holiday. I’m just not sure I’d bring one of my international friends with me without first prefacing what they’re about to experience. I mean, American Thanksgivings really are unique experiences, especially if you wake up at 3 a.m. the next morning to go Black Friday shopping. Many international students at Stanford don’t go home for the week-long break but instead stay on campus or go home with a friend. As a result, numerous Resident Fellows, religious groups and student organizations hold Thanksgiving dinners if students want to share a home-cooked meal with the people who support them on campus.

In thinking about the variety of Thanksgiving options, I wondered what it would feel like to celebrate such an iconic American holiday for the first time. The earliest memory I have of Thanksgiving is of drawing hand turkeys in preschool. I can assure you it was exciting at the time, but I wanted to know whether international students felt a similar sense of excitement during their first Thanksgiving experience. And so, I spoke with five international students in my year to get their hard take on food, atmosphere and shopping, among other things.

Surprisingly, none of them was blown away or overwhelmed by the experience. Thanksgiving is often portrayed in TV series and movies (“Friends” has 10 Turkey Day-themed episodes). On some level, all of them knew what to expect coming into the holiday. Letícia Souza ’20, whose hometown is Pindamonhangaba, Brazil, didn’t feel any sense of expected grandiosity.

“Thanksgiving [didn’t] feel so big to me,” she says. “I watched many movies and series portraying it, but it feels like a family holiday. Since my family [didn’t] celebrate with me, not even through FaceTime, I [didn’t] have the feeling I think I should have.”

The privilege of having those closest to you in attendance on the family-oriented holiday can make a tremendous difference in its relative importance. Although, for Emma Abdullah — who hails from Brest, France — having family in the U.S. didn’t really affect the way she celebrated Thanksgiving.

“I don’t think I particularly had a first impression. It seemed similar to a family gathering for other celebrations or just a large casual family meal. Everyone just hangs out and eats,” she says. “But I do like how it’s a national holiday dedicated to spending time together.”

For Keaton Ollech, who is from Victoria, Canada, American Thanksgiving wasn’t much different than its Canadian counterpart with respect to food, but the culture surrounding the holiday is much different. In Canada, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday of October (Can you imagine Thanksgiving before Halloween?) to honor the autumn harvest. In addition, football isn’t an associated Canadian tradition, so people aren’t glued to the TV for a good portion of the afternoon and evening.

Both Abdullah and Souza likened the holiday to Christmas, and Jack Akerman — who comes from Bogotá, Colombia — thought its secularity was unique, considering his home country doesn’t have a holiday parallel to Thanksgiving.

“I celebrated my first Thanksgiving with a friend’s family,” Akerman says. “His parents immigrated from Iran, so I didn’t expect them to celebrate [it]. I was also surprised how much everyone liked it. Everyone I talked to really loves it, especially the fact that it’s completely secular and family-focused.”

Aside from its negative, complicated roots, there is a certain beauty to Thanksgiving’s purpose of bringing people together and being thankful. Anyone is free to celebrate the holiday regardless of race, ethnicity or religion and make it their own. For example, Akerman’s first Thanksgiving had an international twist. Most of the food was Persian, except for the turkey. He loved everything but the gravy (I know!). And he wasn’t the only one who had mixed feelings about the food.

Souza, an extremely talented chef (and one of the winners of Stanford’s 15th Annual Cardinal Cook-Off), says, “The turkey felt kind of bland to me, but I think it is because I ate it only overdone. I would make a turkey that is moist in the inside and throw hot oil on top of it afterwards to have a crispy outside. Maybe add some bacon and onions to the side.”

Aye Chan Moe ’20 from Yangon, Burma also didn’t feel much excitement for the turkey. “The homemade turkey from alumni didn’t change my life or anything, but the next year I had Thanksgiving dinner at Arrillaga, and I regretted not savoring the homemade one.”

Although some believe the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie make Thanksgiving the best holiday, the hundreds of thousands who participate in Black Friday shopping may feel differently. I’ve personally never had the willpower to get up early enough, but I am a fan of Cyber Monday. The possibility of having things stolen out of my hands or getting trampled by full-grown adults also doesn’t appeal to me (and several of the international students).

“Freshman year, I went to the Stanford Shopping Center for Black Friday, getting up extra early and arriving at 6:00 a.m.,” Ollech says. “There were hardly any people there, though, and many of the stories didn’t even have sales because they’re high-end boutiques that don’t use sales as a promotional tactic.”

In contrast, Souza felt Black Friday was totally worth the time and effort: “I love Black Friday! I am not wealthy, so I often wait until Black Friday to buy things I’ve wanted all year. It is also a great day to check airplane tickets and save to go back home on winter break. I’m still proud of the price I paid for my Stanford bike as well.”

But like me, Chan Moe isn’t eager to hop on the Black Friday bandwagon. “I’ve never participated in Black Friday, but from what I’ve seen on TV, I don’t think I’d ever want to,” she says. “I just don’t think any discount is worth getting potentially hurt over, so I’ll stick to online shopping for now.”

With Thanksgiving break right around the corner, I hope that all international students have the chance to celebrate in their own way, whether that be watching a movie and eating a huge bowl of garlic mashed potatoes or having a drunken conversation with a friend about how much they’re thankful for corgis. As long as there’s food and happiness, they’ve experienced an American Thanksgiving the right way.


Contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’

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