It’s Not Turkey That Makes Thanksgiving Special

As I walked through the doorway of the kindergarten, a little blur of limbs darted over and wrapped herself around my legs. "Mamedome!" she tried to say, in the garbled language of a two-year old. I laughed in delight and shock and a strange feeling that made me want to tear up a little bit, staring down at Baby Anna, who had cried at my presence and the color of my skin for the first two months of my homestay.

She crawls all over me now; grabs with chubby hands at my hair, wraps her arms around my back and chortles with delight when her feet lift off the ground as I whirl her in circles for an airplane ride. During September and October, every time she ran from me it was a little reminder that I was still a visitor in a new place, a place I couldn't yet call home. Then, slowly, she grabbed onto my finger to toddle over to the kitchen. One day, everywhere I went, I heard her calling my name. 

The strange feeling of being caught with a mix of laughter and tears is becoming more and more familiar, transforming into something I can name. It's belonging, belonging in my beautiful, rural village of Bapate where I never expected to weave such a colorful fabric of home. It hits me on my walks home from the neighboring village of Koloban, when my walk of ten minutes suddenly turns into fifteen or twenty once I pause and chat with the ladies jabbering away outside the bitika and wave hello to my uncle relaxing with his friends and talk to the elementary school kids meandering home from school in their oversized blue uniforms. Belonging hit me last night when Simone and Nanette and some random visitor to our house tickled me until laughter spilled out uncontrollably.

So despite being thousands of miles away from the United States this Thanksgiving, eating the ubiquitous and infamous ceebu jen in place of my traditional turkey and mashed potatoes and homemade pumpkin pie, this Thanksgiving, I have more to be grateful for than ever before. It's not to say there haven't been rough moments along the way, tears and all. That would be a lie. But I'm beginning to focus on all the little pieces of the fabric of my life that used to go overlooked; the feel of a cool breeze whispering over my skin after my bucket shower, the taste of a savory beigne on my tongue, the sound of my name called out in greeting around the village.

This year, this Thanksgiving, my gratitudes are grander than my mistakes and misunderstandings. They grace the cool November morning that made my family pull out their long sleeved jackets; the afternoon my siblings and I drizzled batter on a hot griddle, designing letters out of pancake mix, yelling in surprise in Laala when oil spilled in little rivulets onto the floor. The night where my breath caught in my throat when I raised my glance to stars swept across a magnificent, never-ending sky.

It's true that this Thanksgiving, I won't be with the people I love back home. I'll miss helping my brother concoct apple pie and vanilla bean ice cream masterpieces. Yet home is no longer only the town where I grew up; home is with me now, not as a geographical concept, but as coordinates within myself. Home is made up of moments where a two-year old grabs my legs, the moments where I feel belonging and connection and familiarity. Maybe home is a place I needed to lose to discover where it truly existed.

This Thanksgiving, I won't be surrounded by my grandparents or the smell of turkey roasting in the oven or frost etching patterns onto the windows. Instead, my day of gratitude will be spent with Baby Anna and all twenty-some of my siblings and cousins and relatives. The sun will rise bright and hot at midday despite the cool morning, and I'll sit and listen to the wind rustling through the leaves of our mango trees— the rich vibrations of the call to prayer echoing from the mosque— my mother laughing deep and low as conversation blurs around me in the beauty of another language.
And, more importantly than the food we eat or how we celebrate, I know that this Thanksgiving, I'll be surrounded by family.