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Project Xpat: Thanksgiving In Faraway Lands

Evy Gedlinske, last Thanksgiving.
Michelle Lin
Evy Gedlinske, last Thanksgiving.

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday – with its site-specific sounds, smells, tastes, colors and rituals – is a meaningful, memory-making must-do kind of thing.

Even – maybe, especially – for those Americans living in other countries.

Far away from family, friends and foundations, expatriates often seize on the familiar when pausing to give thanks. The tried-and-true traditional dishes, such as turkey and cranberries and cornbread. And decorations, such as pumpkins and flint-corn bundles and autumnal-colored construction-paper handprint-turkeys – with finger-shaped feathers.

Sometimes you have to do without; sometimes you have to make do. And sometimes, in France, you have to make deux.

Origami turkey.
origami_madness / Flickr
Origami turkey.

For Project Xpat, we at NPR asked our expat LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers and Viewers – on Facebook to tell us how they will be observing Thanksgiving this year. Hundreds and hundreds of people — from around the world – responded in various and very telling ways.

Sticky Rice And Camote Pie

Originally from Chicago, Ill. and Iowa City, Iowa, Michelle Lin and her husband, Troy Gedlinske, are living in Tokyo, Japan with their six-year old daughter, Evy. "Due to work and school," Michelle says, "we are planning on pushing our celebration to Saturday. Our meal is going to be a hybrid: Roasted chicken might replace turkey because our combo microwave-convection oven is pretty small. Sushi and other seafood will definitely make an appearance, and per my own Chinese-American roots, Chinese sticky rice — nuo mi fan — will replace stuffing."

In Saudi Arabia, Therese Hartwell writes, "Most likely we will sit down to eat just in time to hear the call to prayer from the mosque — a gentle reminder of how thankful we are for the blessing of living in and learning about a culture very different from our native one. While being an ex-pat always presents certain challenges, what a gift it is to be able to share another culture ... Truly something for which to give thanks."

Celebrating in Tuscany, Lauren Cicione reports from Italy, "is always glorious. I use my mom's recipes but the local fresh ingredients make all the dishes that much better. Sorry mom! Our local butcher special orders the tachino ... We use the butcher's homemade sausage of cinta sinese for the stuffing. Cranberries are nowhere to be found so we improvise with a tangy beet salad. Roasted fennel always somehow sneaks in."

Kathryn Colvig says, "I am an expat living in Costa Rica. Although pumpkins originated in Central America, none can be found in my neck of the woods, I make camote — kind of like a sweet potato — pie."

And Agneta Howland admits that she and some other expats will be celebrating Thanksgiving — in Hell. The town of Hell, Norway. "Looking forward to it," she adds.

Happy Steaksgiving

Resourceful residents abroad plan to use American ingenuity when it comes to replicating the repast. Kelly Sandberg puts a Swedish twist on certain traditional dishes, including "gravy with locally foraged chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms ... homemade lingonberry sauce with berries we pick in the forest, and my own variation on stuffing I make using knäckebröd." Alison George Buck in Scotland is looking forward to sage whiskey turkey. And because turkey is hard to come by in Argentina, Jamila M. Williams plans to celebrate "Steaksgiving" in Buenos Aires.

Turkey can be hard to find in other countries as well. Sarah Clardy Polk reports: "My husband is at the NATO Role 3 Trauma hospital in Kandahar this year. He's Jewish and will also have the Hanukkah/Thanksgiving overlap. On his last deployment to Afghanistan, the supply truck with food got delayed a few days. Not only was there no turkey, but no food at all. The locals and the Dutch at the neighboring base helped out, and I think they ate mostly Afghani food."

Zesty cranberry yogurt.
/ Shaina Shealy
Shaina Shealy
Zesty cranberry yogurt.

In Jerusalem, Shaina Shealy is planning a little Thanksgivinnovating. For the first time in decades, she points out, the American holiday falls on the same day as Channukah. Israeli vendors "are already stacking their stalls with Channukah sufganyiot — donuts — glistening with sugar and dripping with red jelly" she says. "I'm counting on Jerusalem's Chanukah goodies to fill the American Thanksgiving void, but I know I'll miss the flavors and feel of being home."

To import Thanksgiving flavors, Shaina wants to prepare her own baked pumpkin spice version of Chanukah sufganyiot. "I know that baking donuts is a total insult to Israelis," she says, "but it's the only way I'll be able to stomach Chanukah and Thanksgiving indulgences all in the same week."

She is also plotting to put a healthy Thanksgiving twist on a Channukah classic, by replacing "sour cream with zesty cranberry yogurt as a side for latkes. Maybe I'll even experiment with sweet potato latkes."

Zen-like Zachary Hill writes: "I'm in Japan and I'll probably just have a lot of ramen and karaage. I'm not really a traditionalist."

No Pressure Cooking

For certain Americans, however, being out of country during the holidays is its own blessing "As a multi-decade expat," writes James Ladwig, "I am relieved to live somewhere there is no pressure to celebrate the start of the genocide of Native Americans that Thanksgiving hides with a vacuous Christians' reinterpretation of pagan harvest festivals ..."

Expat Joann Kingsley points out: People in other countries are often working on Thanksgiving Thursday and it can be dangerous in some countries to flaunt one's American-ness. "If I am really honest," she says, "sometimes it is easier to ... carry on as if it isn't a holiday rather than to try and re-create a holiday like those of my childhood — which are fond memories, but now, without the people who made them so, only a painful memory of those I've lost."

And Heather Goulooze-Wicks adds: "My experience as an expat of 12 years is that it is not Thanksgiving outside of the states."


We hope American expatriates will share photos of Thanksgiving celebrations and tables and gatherings from around the world. Please send them to us on Thanksgiving Day — and over the long holiday weekend --at protojournalist@npr.org or post them using the hashtag #nprexpat


The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.