I have always found pleasure in the fact that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a joint celebration by pilgrims in Indians, even though these were the Native Americans, not Indians from India as I am. I discovered the power of this day to bring together families and friends almost by accident in 1965. I was in my first year of graduate school in Oregon. I was the only Sikh in town and perhaps in the state.
A lab exam had been scheduled for Monday following the holiday weekend, so the morning of Thanksgiving Day the lab was teeming with medical and graduate students cramming for the test. But by noon, the place was deserted. Everyone else had gone to their families and friends for football and food.
A financially-strapped student, I tried to find a modest restaurant. But none were open, not even McDonald’s. This was Oregon, not New York; even restaurant workers and grocery stores seemed to have taken the day off. So back I went to the lab and tried to push away any thoughts of food.
Soon entered a fellow student. He was in a hurry and wanted to spend a few last minutes at study before rushing home. When just about out of the door, he turned to me and casually wondered where I was headed for the holiday. When he saw my predicament, he immediately called his mother, and then invited – nay insisted – that I come home with him.
Truman Sasaki was Nisei-Japanese. It was modest home, a small family headed by the mother. It was a not a food fest but a most welcome meal in the warm embrace of a loving family. Sure, there was the turkey but it was accompanied by miso soup and hot Saki. I wondered how Truman Sasaki got his name. I didn’t know anything about the travails of the Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. I learned how almost 120,000 had been interned by a government that distrusted their loyalty. My young classmate was born around that time. The parents named him after President Harry Truman to reassure others.
As I enjoyed myself through this Japanese-American Thanksgiving, I understood why the holiday is important. People come to the Thanksgiving table for a variety of reasons and expectations. Most immigrants like me come to the Thanksgiving table as the pilgrims did — with a sense of hope; with dreams and the energy to pursue them, perhaps to reinvent ourselves and our lives here in a new world.
For the Sasakis that Thanksgiving was more than 20 years after their ordeal. For me it was over 40 years ago. Now every Thanksgiving gives new life and meaning to the hopes and dreams I came with. Most Sikh places of worship (gurdwaras) have a kitchen that serves a simple meal to all those who come to the service. Many American gurdwaras now celebrate Thanksgiving by donating meals at homeless centers.
Every Thanksgiving now, the idea is to invite someone ho has no place to go. The turkey stuffing has become like me; it mixes the best of American cuisine with the treasured flavors of the curries of my childhood in India.
I.J. Singh is a professor of anatomical sciences at New York University and is a regular columnist for sikhchic.com. He also is the author of four collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in North America:Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias (1994, 1998); The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim’s Progress (2001); Being & Becoming a Sikh (2003); The World According to Sikhi (2006).