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How Thanksgiving became a beloved holiday for a homesick student from India

Malaka Gharib/NPR
Malaka Gharib/NPR

Updated November 23, 2022 at 6:54 AM ET

I celebrated my first Thanksgiving in 2002. I'd arrived in the United States in August of that year to start graduate school at the University of Missouri, Columbia. A few months later, I was invited to my first Thanksgiving dinner at a house shared by two Indians, one American, two New Zealanders and their sweet black Labrador, named Willow.

There was no turkey. The couple from New Zealand — the cooks in the house — were vegan, so they made tofurky and lots of vegetables. It was a delicious meal. We stuffed ourselves, shared stories, laughed a lot and eventually faded into a food coma.

I fell in love with the holiday right away. How could I not? I was so far from home and my family in India. Just a few months into my stay in America, I was struggling to understand American friendliness — everyone was quick to smile, say hello and joke around, but there were barriers to getting closer to people. Invitations to people's homes — a deep part of the culture back home in India — weren't common. There were invisible but strict boundaries to friendships that I was just starting to decipher.

I'd been missing my family terribly and was homesick. But over that first Thanksgiving meal, I forgot my homesickness. This coming together of a random group of people from different backgrounds and different corners of the globe, all away from their own families, momentarily cured my longings for home. I suddenly felt as if I belonged.

The food was different from any I'd ever had before. And yet, the experience felt familiar. It reminded me of all the religious festivals back home, because they too involve people gathering over food.

My first Thanksgiving reassured me that I was going to be all right. A shared meal seems to help erase differences and remind us of the things we have in common, like generosity, kindness, the need for love and the company of others.

At the Thanksgiving meals I've since taken part in, I've been impressed by how welcoming the table is to foreign dishes.

Years later, when I lived in Boston, I was put in charge of bringing, of all things, mango lassi, a cold, sweet drink made with mango pulp, sugar and yogurt, at the Thanksgiving dinner hosted by an American Jewish friend of mine and his Lebanese wife. My friend Ari and his wife, Ghinwa, both love the drink and thought its taste and rich orange color would be the perfect fit for this fall festival. My lassi joined Middle Eastern dishes like fatoush and tabbouleh as well as apple strudel brought by a German friend.

I have come to love this holiday so much that when I moved to New Delhi in 2013, I didn't want to give it up. I co-hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with an Indian friend of mine who'd spent a decade in the U.S. We couldn't find a turkey, so my friend Anannya made chicken as well as stuffing and some roasted vegetables. She invited a Canadian colleague who'd recently bought an oven (still a novelty in Indian kitchens!) and was excited to make a pie. The Indian pumpkin wasn't the right texture for pumpkin pie, so she made a chocolate pie instead.

My contribution wasn't mango lassi — in India, it's traditionally a summer drink. So I made mojitos. It's also a summer drink, but rum is a well-loved winter alcohol in India. The mojitos were so popular that I remember making glass after glass till we almost ran out of rum. You can guess how happy everyone was even before they started the big meal.

A year later, I was invited to a proper American Thanksgiving with American expats, hosted by the India correspondent of the Washington Post, Annie Gowen. She had gone to great lengths to find a turkey, buying one at the American Embassy school for $145. "Tradition doesn't come cheap!" Annie recently reminded me in a Facebook message.

To me, Thanksgiving is a holiday that gives stray ones — like me that first year in America — a sense of home, warmth and family. It has also come to symbolize something I so love about this country – how people from disparate backgrounds, geographies and languages can gather and become friends, taking the place of family members who are far away.

My love for this holiday is certainly in keeping with its global roots. After all, it was started by immigrants in a new land, trying to create a new life and a sense of family in their adopted homeland.

Now, 20 years since I first arrived in this country, I have my own little family here and an extended family of in-laws. And the holiday has taken on a new meaning for me as I think about what it will come to mean to my Generation COVID toddler.

After two years of pandemic interruptions to this family gathering, my husband, my son and I will drive to my sister-in-law's house in a Philadelphia suburb this Thursday morning. My husband's parents and other siblings will join us. The menu will mostly be traditional with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, except for my contribution – mango lassi.

This will be the first time my son gets to celebrate the holiday with his American cousins.

Having spent much of my childhood moving between different parts of India, I always lamented not spending festivals with my grandparents and cousins. That's why it means so much to know that my son will grow up celebrating my favorite American holiday with his extended family. And that perhaps, my Indian beverage will become a part of his childhood Thanksgiving memories.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.