What Thanksgiving means to a Bengali

Bangladesh is kinda like the pathetic little brother of its eastern neighbor, India. Following its secession from Pakistan in 1971, it has been ridden with poverty, political disaster, and religious turmoil during all forty-or-so years of its existence. My family migrated to America in 1994 for obvious reasons.

Having moved to America when I was less than a year old, I remembered nothing of my homeland besides what I could glean from photographs and home video. During a prolonged trip there in 2007, which was also my first time back since birth, I was able to get back in touch with my native culture (more on this trip in a future post). Although I spoke Bengali, ate Bengali foods, and attended Bengali get-togethers back “home”, recognizing the inglorious land from which I came was a bit of a shock. Well, by then a thoroughly spoiled American adolescent, a big shock.

America is a country of immigrants. It has been described as a melting pot, patchwork quilt, and even a tossed salad by my seventh-grade social studies teacher. I am living proof of your heterogeneous-mixture-of-choice.

Anyway, it should be no surprise that Thanksgiving is generally “un-American” in our household. That is, it’s not like you’d normally picture it. In previous years, we’ve attended potlucks with family friends—other Bengalis, usually numbering close to a hundred people. At these potlucks, you won’t typically find the characteristic glazed turkey or the picturesque, autumn-themed table ornamentation. Instead, you’ll find platters of bhaji, chicken and beef curry, korma, jasmine rice, and kebabs. A few years ago, I remember there being turkey, but nothing you’d recognize as something classically American.

Despite differences in cuisine, a Bengali Thanksgiving and an American Thanksgiving have one thing in common: thanks-giving. It’s a time for friends and family to get together and take pleasure in one another’s company. Considering that for some people “Thanksgiving” is synonymous with “Black Friday”, it’s striking how out of touch we can become with our own kin, or even our own friends. For those who participate, Thanksgiving in Minnesota compounds the effect; people can’t escape the warmth of indoors.

Even though this Turkey Day will be another turkeyless one, it’s significance remains great. I’m sure Thanksgiving means a great deal to immigrants,  because it does to this Bengali. Personally, I’m looking forward to the korma.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

(This was published in the Sun Sailor local newspaper in 2010.)


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