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Thursday, 21 January 2016 23:37

The night I learned what Thanksgiving is all about

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(I write this story in the form of a Personal Narrative; for more on how to write this sort of essay, read this.)

Charlie Brown is an American cultural icon. And a famous cartoon is the 1966 "A Charlie Brown Christmas." A key moment in the film is when Charlie Brown, with exasperation, cries out, "Doesn't anybody know what Christmas is all about?!"

You can see an excerpt here: A Charlie Brown Christmas

But, unlike the malls, let's not rush Christmas, and focus on Thanksgiving for now.

 This is my story of when I personally learned "what Thanksgiving is all about."



It was 1985. (Not 1984, the book by George Orwell I deeply enjoy.) A third year university student, I had chosen to leave my familiar environment at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, for the challenge of a Junior Year Abroad in Münster, Germany. The delights were many (being surrounded by German, the fresh bread, etc.), but the challenges were many too (being surrounded by German, the lousy weather, etc.). Looking back, I realize I was [partly] going through the classic "Four Phases of Culture Shock."

1. Honeymoon Phase (Everything is wonderful, it's like being on vacation.) That sums up the first few weeks: making friends in Germany, being surrounded by the language, setting up my dorm room, etc.


2. Culture Shock (Everything is crazy, and you feel way out of place.)


3. Adaptation (You gradually get used to the new place, and can see the pros and cons of your new situation.)


4. Enculturation (You feel "at home" in the new place.)

(Being in Germany for just about 10 months total, I probably ended up in stage 3...getting to stage 4 takes longer, and not everyone makes it there.)

But back to my story:


Since American Thanksgiving comes in late November, by that time of year I had already been in Germany about two and a half months. In other words, the "newness" had definitely worn off, and I was no longer in the "honeymoon phase." Two months of classes where everything was in German, rain and snow while I was riding my bike around town, nightfall around 5:00, plus the culture shock and homesickness (this was my first extended time away from home) was all taking its toll.

And then came Thanksgiving. This was my first major holiday to miss with family, and as you know, holidays are a particularly hard time to be in a foreign zone. Thanksgiving has been called "the most American, American holiday," and it does not exist in Germany--no fat turkeys, no pictures of smiling Pilgrim children, nichts.


Thanksgiving Day was uneventful: got up, rode my bike to classes (in Germany, most university buildings are scattered about a city, not clustered on a campus), lunch in the Mensa, etc. But as evening fell, I began to truly miss home. Knowing my family in Virginia, USA would be gathering to eat around lunchtime, I called them around 6:00 pm, accounting for the time difference. In today's world of cell phones and Instagram, this is hard to imagine. But 1985 was still in the Cold War, I had not yet seen my first fax machine, and there was only one way I could call my family: leave my dorm room, descend three flights of steps, walk outside the Internationales Studentenheim where I lived, and go to the single phone booth in the courtyard, out by the main street, Bismarckallee.

That night is etched in my memory. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home. By late November, the sun set there before 4:30, some 40 minutes earlier than in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, and when you consider most winter days in Western Germany were cloudy, it was often dark and gloomy before 4:00. It was so cold, the Aasee lake across the street was frozen over enough for people to ice skate on. I still remember the crunch, crunch my boots made as I walked across the snow-encrusted courtyard, in the darkness. Fortunately, the phone booth was empty. I chucked a few German mark coins into the slot--thunk, thunk--and dialed the number. The phone rang, and I could then hear my loved ones on the other end, at mom and dad's house. With excited chatter, they asked about how things were going for me in Germany, about their Thanksgiving meal preparations, how they missed me, etc. I gave them a brief update on life in Münster, told them how much I missed them, and we all wished each other a happy Thanksgiving. And then, as the marks' value dwindled in the phone, it was over. Dead line. Silence. I cradled the phone receiver back on the hook, and trudged silently back across the courtyard. Crunch, Crunch.


It was cold and gloomy outside, but the inside of the dorm could hardly be called a cheery place. Our Hausmeister, an older, heavy-set man, personified German thrift by keeping the temperature about as low as he could, and seemingly using the lowest-wattage light bulbs possible. I quietly climbed the dimly-lit concrete stairs, and retreated to the relative comfort of my room. At least I had decorated it as I had wished, and had added some extra lights in an attempt to brighten things up some.


It was about 6:00-ish. Many people look back on their lives and wish they had spent less money. As I look back on my life, I see some times when I should have spent more. But since my parents were across the Atlantic and a bail-out not very handy, I kept a tight grip on the purse strings. I usually took lunches in the student Mensa, where the subsidized meals were only a couple of dollars. But to stretch out my funds, I usually bought groceries at the budget Aldi supermarket, along with many of the other cash-strapped students and foreign guest workers in Germany. There has been no small excitement as Aldi opened its first store in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia this month, but Aldi and I go way back, to the 1980's, to Germany. So to prepare my solo "dinner," I pulled out the very large loaf of bread I had bought, some butter and jams...then I sat there at my desk, which doubled as my table when I ate alone, and thought:

Why am I here?

What am I doing here? 

If I had stayed at William and Mary, I could have been home for Thanksgiving, having a huge feast right now, instead of sitting in this room by myself, getting ready to eat cold bread!

(Looking back, I now see it would have been wise to find a few friends and tell them, "Hey, tomorrow is American Thanksgiving, and I don't want to be alone on that day. Can we get together and have dinner and do something fun?" But for whatever reason, I did not do that. Live and learn. But still it all worked out for the best....)

Sitting there alone, looking at my meal of bread and jam, I was overcome with sadness, even self-pity.

And to this day I don't know exactly what triggered it, but then I suddenly pushed myself away from the desk, stood up, and walked to the middle of my dorm room. Lifting my hands and closing my eyes, I began to thank God. Immediately, my melancholy vanished and was replaced with a deep-seated joy, almost delight. I reminded myself that Thanksgiving is not just about the turkey and pumpkin pie, but it's about being thankful for what you have. So I began to think of all the wonderful things I had to be thankful for at that moment: being able to study in Germany; knowing German; the friends I had there and what I had already learned; a trip to Budapest, Hungary to look forward to over Christmas; the blessing of carrying a US passport that let me travel all over the world; the money, health, and language skills I had that made travel possible.... The longer I stood there (totally alone, mind you), arms raised and thanking God for all I had to be grateful for, the more joy I experienced. To this day, it was a moment and feeling I have never forgotten. And I do now know how long I stood there thanking God--maybe a couple of minutes--but before I sat down, as I was still standing, I heard a knock at the door.

Opening my door and peering out into the dimly-lit hallway, I saw a couple of Chinese girls standing there, smiling. We had met a few times before in our dorm, set aside for foreign students, but were not what you would call "friends." As I remember, they were a few years older than me, and had wanted to study in the US but could not get the visa, so they came to Germany to attend university instead, and had arrived recently. With beaming smiles, they told me, "We have cooked a big Chinese meal, and would like to invite you to join us."

You can imagine my delight and surprise, so of course I immediately accepted, told them that today was American Thanksgiving, but that I had planned to eat a cold meal of bread and jam, until they had come to invite me. As proof, I showed them the loaf sitting on my desk, and they roared with laughter. They too expressed amazement, not knowing (obviously) that that day was Thanksgiving, and they too were glad they had invited me so I did not have to be alone. They guided me to the even more dimly-lit basement of our dormitory, but sure enough, they had prepared a veritable Chinese feast, all they had cooked from scratch. It smelled delicious and tasted even better. I tried to explain to them how I had been so sad to have been alone on that holiday, but that I had learned through that experience to be thankful for what I had, and how their arrival was like a gift from God to me. They politely nodded, and kept joking among themselves, in Chinese, about the big loaf of bread, gesturing to show its enormity and laughing some more.

chinese thanksgiving


Chinese feast

That was Thanksgiving 1985, and we communicated in a mixture of English and German. I would not learn my first Chinese until 1989, when I was preparing to move to China to teach English, but those girls and I did have a few more meals together that year, and they taught me how to use chopsticks. That's why, when I moved to Taiwan in 1989, I already knew how to use them. Over the years many Chinese have, politely, complimented me on how well I handle chopsticks, and all I can say is 谢谢.  我在德国学习. (Thank you. I learned that in Germany.) The fact that a white guy from Roanoke, Virginia USA learned to use chopsticks in Germany just shows that God has a wonderful sense of irony and humor.

Months passed. I did go visit friends in Budapest for Christmas, turned 21 that spring, visited the former USSR in May, and finished the year, bagging the full 30 credits to bring back to William and Mary, where I was able to graduate on time the next year. But I will never forget that cold night in November 1985, when, thousands of miles away from home and everything familiar, from all the "props" that make us feel comfortable, I learned "what Thanksgiving is all about."

Read 24921 times Last modified on Monday, 21 August 2017 22:54
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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