Despite having moved around a lot during my 27 years, I can count the times I have been homesick on 2 fingers; once, at age 9, when I went to sleep-away camp in Lake Tsala Apopka, Florida and again at age 24, when car wreck injuries kept me in Guatemala for 3 months. Both times, I employed passionate countdowns to the date I could return home (sundown meant I could subtract half a day). I fixed only the best images of my homes in my mind and kept them before me, shining, like St. Elmo’s fire. Despite receiving only the very best care from my extremely loving and generous relatives as I recuperated from a broken back and leg surgery, my homesickness was such that I vowed I would never leave New York again. You can see how very obviously I am a woman of my word.
Living in Japan, when I am the furthest away I have ever been from home, I am not homesick. I miss my friends and family and become frustrated with the language barrier but I have never counted down the days until I could return home to New York. When my students learn where I am from, they gasp: “Ehhhhhh!!!” and I feel a swelling sense of pride as I begin to tell them about my city – the lush, green parks nestled between tall buildings that are a mix of shiny modern and red bricked Colonial, the seasonal multi-cultural street fairs bubbling with $1 Thai food, zeppole, fresh lemonade, arepa, Italian sausage and crepe vendors, the madness that courses beneath the veneer of busy-ness. I tell them of the homeless man I once saw dressed in a wedding dress, his long white beard flowing in the gales of November wind as he pushed a stacked shopping cart down Avenue A. I tell them that I used to be a theater critic and see plays once every two weeks (“Ehhh????”). I tell them that I used to work several jobs to pay my rent (“Ehhh???”). When they tell me that they are heading to New York for a home stay or a vacation, I write down in their notebooks: “Gray’s Papaya” and instruct them to get a “Recession Special” – under 3 dollars for 2 hot dogs and a medium drink. I recommend getting dogs with sauerkraut and onions and a pina colada.
Of course, there is no Thanksgiving in Japan but this week at my school is Thanksgiving lesson week. We teach our students about corn, bread, cranberries, green beans, sweet potatoes, apple pie, pumpkin pie and turkey. The students are mystified by the turkey, for it barely exists in Japan apart from as a sandwich filling choice in Subway restaurants. My 5 year olds giggled each time I held up the turkey flashcard.
“Chicken!” they chortled, falling over each other. “Chicken!”
“No,” I said. “Chicken does this: buck-a-buck-aw!! But a turkey does this:” I gobbled, thrumming my fingers against my wattle for maximum effect.
“Chicken!” they cried.
It was through handling these flash cards that I began to think of all of the good smells that came with stuffing and mashed potatoes. My brother, Diego, is going to Florida to visit my parents for Thanksgiving – I thought of this and the fact that several Guatemalan relatives are going to visit at the same time; relatives I would love to see. I remembered Thanksgivings in college – lugging home frozen birds from Food Emporium and embedding pats of butter and cloves of garlic in its skin. Erma was the Bakery Wizard and whipped up such creations as pumpkin cheesecake and apple crumbles. Peaches introduced me to the infamous Green Bean Casserole – always absent from my immigrant parents’ Thanksgivings. Each year we put those cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and Durkee’s French Onions to good use. Pillsbury biscuits – if you please! Ah … Thanksgiving dinners in college always necessitated quick changes from our jeans to our pajama pants.
Thinking of all this, I was a trifle homesick for the first time in 10 months. Not a homesickness I couldn’t handle but a homesickness nonetheless. Keep in mind, though, that my homesickness is not noble or sentimental; I have become homesick not through memories of days past or beloved faces but through a mixture of greed, hunger and mashed potato lust.
Yesterday, Thanksgiving proper, I greeted Gil, my Australian coworker, with: “Happy Turkey Day!”
“Oh, right,” he groused. “Kind of a dodgy holiday, innit?”
“Excuse me!” I cried. “How dare you? It’s an incredible holiday full of family and Stove Top stuffing!”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “You took the Indians’ food and then killed them off. What a holiday!”
“I beg your pardon!” I said. “We celebrate killing the indians on a different day – Thanksgiving is pure!”
Last Saturday, I asked Bearded Dan – a Texan who has lived in Japan for years – what most American ex-pats did on Thanksgiving.
“Are we sentenced to dinners at KFC?” I asked nervously. Bearded Dan chuckled.
“No,” he said. “That’s Christmas! But Tin Pan Alley has a Thanksgiving dinner every year.”
“Tin Pan Alley – really? No kidding?” I said excitedly, because Tin Pan alley is a foreigner bar near my apartment. “With real turkey and everything?”
Oh, heck yes. All hail the foreigner community! I teach no children on Thursday so the day had been free of making hand-shaped turkeys and discussing yams but the day flew by as I fixed the image of turkey and stuffing in my brain. I fixed a countdown; 7 classes to go. 6 and a half classes to go. 3 classes to go. Once Yabba-dabba-doo-gimme-my-goshdarn-turkey time hit, I rushed home, noting as I jumped off the train that several sarari men behind me were giggling: “Sonna no kankei nee!”
I met Sean at Otako Station’s Central Exit, breathless.
“Do you want to come to Tin Pan Alley with me?” I blurted. “They have turkey and stuffing!”
“Oh God, ye Americans,” he muttered. “It’s kind of an ungrateful holiday, isn’t it, like? ‘T’ank you very much for da turkey but we’re gonta kill ye now….”
“Look,” I said. “My ancestors had nothing to do with colonizing America, but they would have colonized the heck out of Ireland if the weather weren’t so lousy. Are you coming or not????”
How could he resist?
Tin Pan Alley was packed with the usual crowd of slightly familiar foreign faces and exuberant Japanese. Live acoustic music assaulted our eardrums and smoke infiltrated our nostrils. My watering eyes immediately lit upon the Thanksgiving dinner menu: turkey, “staffing,” cranberry “sause,” gravy “sause,” veggies, mashed potatoes and bread for 1500 yen. Pumpkin pie was 500 yen extra, but the last slice was being served to my right as I read the menu. I spied customers at the bar next to me, sampling the American culinary delights from public school-grade styrofoam plates. In the dark, surrounded by smokers, shouting over the music, I waited somewhat patiently for such a plate to become mine. And then it was.
Sean leaned over and sniffed at my food, asking what the cranberry sauce was and why the mashed potatoes had gravy on them. I invited him to share my dinner, which he did gingerly, admitting that the combination was quite nice. I savored my turkey and real mashed potatoes, imagining my folks back home, only just waking up and, after brushing the ever-curious Heifer aside, beginning to put the culinary drama into motion. I thought of the crowd probably just beginning to pack around Macy’s to take in the cheerful succession of wobbling parade floats. I thought about my usual tradition of eating so much Stove Top stuffing that I couldn’t stand the sight of it until July. The stuffing at Tin Pan Alley was fresh, too – made of croutons I recognized from the 100 yen store and bulked up with crunchy celery. All in all, a most excellent Thanksgiving dinner.
Nonetheless, as soon as our last forkfuls left the plate, Sean and I booked it out of Tin Pan Alley – turkey and stuffing or no, we both detest smoky, crowded bars.