New Organizing Project blogger
So, Thanksgiving is this week. To be honest, my family and I never really celebrated Thanksgiving in any sort of ‘traditional’ sense. Supposedly, we used to actually have a turkey for the festivities but then our oven broke and that was the end of that.
As far back as I can remember, my family’s big Thanksgiving dinner was celebrated with hot pot. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some hot pot but it’s not anything particularly spectacular. I remember wondering why we never had the big turkey with stuffing and sides of yams, mashed potatoes, greens, etc. like I always saw in the movies or on television. And alternately, when I happened to spend one Thanksgiving with a childhood friend of mine, who is white, Thanksgiving dinner seemed to be set-up straight out of a picture book; the turkey and accoutrements were all so…’American.’
When I was younger and really grappling with what it meant to be ‘American,’ I remember wishing that we could have the turkey and celebrate Thanksgiving like everyone else. To be like all the white families on television where everything looked so picture perfect — this is how I thought American families had to authentically celebrate Thanksgiving. As my Asian American identity has changed and evolved over the years, I’ve come to the realization that there isn’t one way to celebrate Thanksgiving. In an extension of this, there isn’t one way to be American. I suppose it sounds really simple but it was a conclusion that took me a while to get to because I wanted so badly to be ‘mainstream’ and to fit in. The fact that my family does hot pot for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas doesn’t make us any less American. For me, it has all been a part of reconciling who I am as a Chinese/Taiwanese American.
And part of this ongoing identity search has been unearthing the ugly and horrific stories of what really happened on Thanksgiving. As I mentioned above, whenever I saw Thanksgiving specials on television, everything always looked so picture perfect, especially in regards to talking about Thanksgiving’s history.
My K-12 education didn’t tell me the real story of what actually happened on Thanksgiving. Instead, I was fed the same sugar-coated information that I got from television and the movies: the pilgrims needed help, the Indians provided that assistance and thus, all were one big happy family giving thanks to one another. Nothing about the mass disease the Europeans spread to the Indians, decimating the Native population. No discussion around how Thanksgiving reinforces stereotypes and doesn’t force Americans to face their ugly past. Like the disregard for telling a history that is comprehensive, truthful and accurately representative of all people’s history in the United States, those with institutional power have attempted to hide and cover up the shameful truths of what they’ve done to marginalized communities since their initial arrival in the U.S.
So then what really happened? Well, when the pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, they were poor, hungry and helpless and dying off by the masses. The crops they had attempted to grow had failed and they were reeling from disease and starvation. The Wampanaog tribe encountered them and took pity on them, teaching them how to successfully grow crops and survive. But even though the Indians aided them in a time of desperate need, the Pilgrims betrayed them, never seeing them any more than savages. Eventually, much of the disease the Pilgrims brought with them from Europe decimated the Native population and the Pilgrims essentially robbed the Indians of land they believed to be ‘rightfully theirs.’
It’s a horrific story of greed, selfishness and self-righteousness that needs to be told so that we can continue to work our way towards building and educating ourselves to be more honest and reflective. So that we can teach our youth that there is no one way to celebrate Thanksgiving, to be American. And so that we can continue to reconcile an American history that is complex and often ugly, and in turn, grow to be a society that is inclusive of all people’s histories and experiences. That is what I’ll be giving thanks for this Thanksgiving.