Thanksgiving as a Pilgrim
In 1620, the pilgrims set sail across the ocean, leaving everything they knew and loved behind them. Built upon hopes and dreams, they delved into an adventure of the unknown. In 2009, I set out on my own pilgrimage into the unknown. I crossed the ocean, leaving everything I knew behind me, and landed in a new land that I knew very little about.
Four months had past since my maiden journey and I was settling into my new life in Hanoi, Vietnam. I lived on a friendly street, where the local Vietnamese quickly welcomed me into their homes, as their friend, and as a part of their family. Although the language barrier divided us, we managed to share stories, laughs and customs.
While the heat persisted, I knew that back home in Colorado, the leaves had fallen and the cold frosts of winter had taken full effect. Thanksgiving had arrived. I missed my family and I yearned for a good, old–fashioned American meal. I joined my Vietnamese friends that evening and attempted to explain to them the importance of the day and what it entailed. Through picture books and my broken Vietnamese, the message had somehow vaguely gotten across, at least the important points. An extravagant meal was in order, and as my new family, they insisted on taking me out for my special holiday.
In Vietnamese culture, “xan ran,” or snake, is reserved for the most special occasions and is believed to improve health and result in a long life, so it was only fitting that this would be the main dish at our Thanksgiving feast.
I’ve traditionally been a very picky eater. Back home I avoided my family's most sought-after Thanksgiving dish, cleverly donned, “the green stuff,” like the plague. I had managed to live off of a rice and noodle diet the past four months, vowing to never ingest the strange looking, but highly acclaimed traditional Vietnamese dishes. Upon entering the snake restaurant, my stomach dropped and I quickly lost my appetite. “I can’t do this,” I thought, but I knew I had to. Turning down this meal would cause my Vietnamese friends to “lose face,” and me to lose their friendship.
All around me snakes were being slaughtered at patrons' tables and we were next. I watched in horror and waited for our meal to arrive. Thirty minutes later, a feast was laid before us. From one snake, our entire table was filled with dishes made using every part of the snake. I tried the snake skin first. Crunchy, salty, and delicious. I moved on to a dish made from the meat, and dipped it in its special sauce. Also delicious. My confidence was building, so I went for a piece of stomach, then brain. This was easily the best meal I had ever had. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived; the coveted snake heart. As the guest of honor, the still beating heart was placed before me. After a few moments of encouragement, I swallowed it down whole in a glass of blood. I felt it sliding and beating against my throat as it went down. Surprisingly delicious.
In that moment, I realized for the very first time what Thanksgiving was really about. It was the merging of two entirely different cultures, customs and beliefs. It was the building of long lasting friendships. It was overcoming fears and accepting this new place as my own. It was experiencing Thanksgiving as a pilgrim and for the first time, feeling truly thankful for everything I had.
I think my mom will also be happy to know that this year the “green stuff” won’t look that scary to me.