Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my cousin got engaged. All reports say this is a good thing: he’s been living with his girlfriend, they’ve been together for over a year, she’s supposedly wonderful and will be a great addition to the family. Everyone I talk to is excited, and I know I should be too, but for some reason I wasn’t.
It’s a classic for a reason. Hand-turkeys with my special education class. Here’s my turkey, because photos of students online is a cardinal taboo.
How do you celebrate Thanksgiving when you live on the other side of the planet? When you’ve finished your dinner before your loved ones at home have even started cooking it? When most people around you don’t even know the word for “turkey” in their language? (Hint: shichimencho, or 7 faced bird, if you’re in Japan).
With such a family oriented holiday, it’s easy to get swept up in homesickness and forget all the things that we do have to be thankful living abroad. So, here are my tips for getting through Thanksgiving when you’re the only one celebrating it.
1. Start early! This past week has been completely Thanksgiving oriented, with Thanksgiving classes at school and a themed bulletin board. If you’re cooking, you’re going to have to start more than a week early, though. Start planning out the menu and looking for ingredients at least a month ahead because there’s a good chance you’ll have to be ordering some if you want to duplicate your home spread.
2. Spread the word! All of my students have been making hand turkeys and I’ve been talking it up with my friends and coworkers. Celebrating a holiday alone can be really lonely, so it’s important to make sure that people around you know about it, so at the very least they’ll understand why you’re leaving work a few minutes early to go get the turkey in the oven.
3. Get others involved! I like to bake an extra pumpkin pie a day early and bring it in for my coworkers. Most of them have never had traditional American pumpkin pie, and they enjoy trying it and sharing my culture with me. It also starts my holiday early and guarantees that I’ll be getting a lot of “Happy Thanksgivings!” throughout the work day.
4. Find the other expats! This one is pretty predictable, but even if you’re deeply immersed in your own community, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to connect with the other foreigners in your area. Besides, it’s much less work making one dish than ten!
So how am I celebrating? All my other JET Programme friends and I are heading out to a huge traditional Thanksgiving dinner! As a devoted food lover, I can tell you that I’ve been looking forward to this meal for at least a month. I’d promise pictures, but realistically the food will be in my stomach long before I remember to take my camera out!
Last weekend, typhoon Vongfong parked itself over Okinawa. The wind howled through the cracks in my windows like a person crying out in pain. Every now and then I’d hear a metallic thud as something left unsecured was flung into something unmovable, like a trashcan into a tree or a car into a building. Water flooded the streets and seeped into my apartment every way it could: the vent in my bathroom, the vent in my air conditioner, the crack in a bathroom window, door jambs and window ledges. Power on the island flickered on and off; I made it through Saturday, but sometime in the night it died, and I spent the next 24 hours eating canned soup and thanking my lucky stars that at least I still had water and gas.
Normally, the first trip to the beach after a typhoon is a bit depressing. The pristine sands are covered in trash and debris thrown up on shore–old washing machines and worn out jeans wrapped around downed branches. A few days ago I took my book and went out to survey the damage. I can only imagine that with the season drawing to an end, the currents have begun to shift, because this time, instead of rubbish, the beach was covered with bleached white coral, pristine shells, and sea urchins. I spread my mat on the sand, and played with the hermit crabs pinching at my toes as the sun set.
My time in Vietnam ended in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals prefer, Saigon. It was hot and sticky, and I was for once glad to have packed shorts. The city felt more modern then the rest of the country, more metropolitan, and more like the rest of SE Asia. The traffic was indescribable, the shops were bustling, and western companies were around every corner. The country’s first McDonald’s was under construction when I visited. Beautiful monuments and official buildings cluster in upscale districts, wedged between designer malls for wealthy tourists. In the less pristine areas, taxi drivers harassed tourists for fares, something unheard of in the rest of the country. In some ways, even this was refreshing. In the northern parts of Vietnam, there is a stiffness. In Saigon, it feels like the city has collectively decided to breathe.
I just think it’s good to have your luggage stolen every once in a while. What would you do if your passport was inside? Say you don’t have lodging for a night. You’re renting an apartment and you don’t have hot water so you have to go and talk to your landlord, but the guy doesn’t speak Japanese. Those experiences build character. When face with a challenge, you’re struck with the feeling of conquering the world. You feel like you can do anything, like a new seed has sprung up inside you. You seen afraid of things you can’t do, like speaking a different language. Your little comfort zone break down, and you begin to think before you act so you won’t wind up doing something foolish. You stop panicking as much. It’s a good thing.
Amrita, by Yoshimoto Banana (214)
Last week Super Typhoon Neoguri hit Okinawa. It brought with it record breaking winds and torrential rain. On Monday evening, the supermarkets were crammed with people buying last minute provisions: bottles of water, canned foods and energy bars, extra-bright candles, matches and lighters. Even though every family on island keeps a fully stocked typhoon kit, this one looked to be a bad one, and doing those few last minute purchases helped to create a false sense of safety.
When I came home on Monday night, I filled my tub with water, checked the latches on all my windows, made sure my balcony was clear, and locked the door, slipping the emergency chain into place. It stayed that way for two days.
The thing people don’t tell you about typhoons is how incredibly boring they are. Provided you’re in a safe place, and my third floor apartment, with it’s concrete walls and metal barred windows is definitely safe, the biggest hardship of a typhoon is figuring how to fill the hours. While I can happily spend an entire weekend at home, when all of a sudden I’m unable to go out, stir-craziness sets in. I get restless. I pace the rooms of my apartment, I watch hours of television without being able to say what I saw, I read the same page over and over. During Neoguri, I cooked enough food to feed me the rest of the week, carefully packaging individual meal-sized portions in tupperware in my fridge. My lunch today is the final container.
The entire time, lightning flickered through the sky and my apartment howled as wind swept through cracks. My shoji rattled in their tracks, the paper covered with violent shadows. From my window I watched a large tree in my apartment’s parking lot be decimated by wind. The branches were torn off one by one and flung across the ground. When Wednesday evening came, not a leaf remained. At times, it was scary. I worried I would lose power, water, or gas. I worried that the ocean level would rise and sweep away my car. I worried that my friends who were in less safe areas would be hurt. Every hour or so my phone would ring loudly, and the screen would come up completely covered in Japanese. I recognized the characters for “emergency”, “evacuation”, “danger.” My neighborhood was never one of the ones on the list that followed.
Then it was gone. After leaving Okinawa water-logged and covered in debris, the typhoon began to head up to the main islands of Japan, losing power as it went. It gradually dissipated into a Tropical Storm, and finally dissolved all together.
Back in Okinawa, we are still doing repairs. The road by my house is closed, the bridge that I normally take to go to school completely swept out. Silt and rocks still coat the roads, and there are areas of the city where stop and street lights still aren’t back on, although business and residential areas have all had power restored by now. But we are lucky. This storm was a killer. Even here, in a wealthy developed nation, on an island designed to withstand typhoons, two lives were lost. Neoguri marks the start of the Okinawan typhoon season. As the summer continues, I can only hope that Neoguri is the worst one heading our direction this year.