A New American Pilgrim at Thanksgiving

I have always found pleasure in the fact that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a joint celebration by pilgrims … Continued

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).

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  • faithfulservant3

    I often think about my experiences; in private school, college and law school as the only black in the classroom. Occasionally I discuss it with others. But, I’ve never been the only black in a state! That must have really been tough. I just got a few more reasons to be thankful: sometimes we need reminding that there are always those who walk more difficult paths, and relearning how rewarding it is to look at life from the perspectives of others.

  • kengelhart

    Beautiful! Thanks, I.J.

  • ScottChallenger

    Thanks for sharing your story. It brought emotion to my eyes.

  • meg_online

    What a heartwarming story! Thank you, IJ.

  • TejwantSMalik

    Thanksgiving in not about stuffed turkeys, pumpkin pies and mashed potatoes. It is about Thanks. Thanks means appreciation. Thanks means accepting a shoulder to lean on. It means accepting what we lack, even from a stranger. It means when smiled at rather than frowned at. It means an extended hand.It means seeing no stranger and feeling no enmity,and IJ, Truman must have seen that in your eyes amongst the test tubes.Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

  • ravindersinghtaneja

    I share some of I.J. Singh’s experience myself: in 1976,fresh off the boat (so to speak) with nowhere to go on Thanksgiving, I found myself warmly received and “taken in” on Thanksgiving by the family of my then Graduate Advisor, Professor Zagorin. Experiences like this one have shaped the sense of America as a welcoming and hospitable place that many of us (like IJ and me) share. Today, my family and I will be giving thanks with a graduate student from OSU – and so the cycle continues.

  • Manjit

    As always a great article. Reading your articles about the experiences you have had in your life are not only touching but amazing too. I was feeling sad about the coming holidays with an empty nest, but I have not one but two meals to devour today. It’s not about eating the the scrumptious food but, being with the friends who love you and want to share the day with you. Yes, I will be counting my blessings today. I have been blessed to have great loving people in my life. Thank you I.J. Singh.

  • need4trth

    http://www.need4trth.blogspot.comHAPPY THANKSGIVING……We really wanted to focus on the freedom of the holidays today and give everyone something they could enjoy and indulge in which has no caloric value at all but is still just as sweet as “pumpkin ice cream pie’, or ‘cranberry flavored sorbet’, you take whichever you choose. The only difference is this will add no extra pounds too have to take off through gruelling self discipline of diet and exercise. So we here at ‘Fact of The Matter’ decided today we would like to list some of the things we are thankful for. It doesn’t matter if you are an Atheist or Agnostic, a Buddhist, A Christian, A Muslim, A Zoroastrian, or just a plain old Sinner Man/Woman. I think when we all sit back and look at our plight and then at the plight of those close too us and those that are of no relation at all we can find something to be thankful for.I am thankful number one for the friends I have. I don’t have many of these rare beings. I am eluded by the way in which we engage, court, tend, and mature friendships. Yet, God (He whom I believe in ) has seen fit to add to my ‘so-called life’, those who desire only my good and participate in bringing me to a more lovable me, and a more mature me. I thank god for you. YOU all know who you are. Sad thing is I could count you on one hand. Joyous thing is you make up for all those friends I don’t have and even wish I had through your just ever increasing value. I thank God for my friends who I can count on….

  • need4trth

    http://www.need4trth.blogspot.comHAPPY THANKSGIVING……We really wanted to focus on the freedom of the holidays today and give everyone something they could enjoy and indulge in which has no caloric value at all but is still just as sweet as “pumpkin ice cream pie’, or ‘cranberry flavored sorbet’, you take whichever you choose. The only difference is this will add no extra pounds too have to take off through gruelling self discipline of diet and exercise. So we here at ‘Fact of The Matter’ decided today we would like to list some of the things we are thankful for. It doesn’t matter if you are an Atheist or Agnostic, a Buddhist, A Christian, A Muslim, A Zoroastrian, or just a plain old Sinner Man/Woman. I think when we all sit back and look at our plight and then at the plight of those close too us and those that are of no relation at all we can find something to be thankful for.I am thankful number one for the friends I have. I don’t have many of these rare beings. I am eluded by the way in which we engage, court, tend, and mature friendships. Yet, God (He whom I believe in ) has seen fit to add to my ‘so-called life’, those who desire only my good and participate in bringing me to a more lovable me, and a more mature me. I thank god for you. YOU all know who you are. Sad thing is I could count you on one hand. Joyous thing is you make up for all those friends I don’t have and even wish I had through your just ever increasing value. I thank God for my friends who I can count on….

  • abhab

    I have had a similar experience to Mr. Singh when I came to this country as a “foreign student” in the early 50s of the last century. Then the USA population was half of what it is today. I have since graduating from college traveled and lived in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. I have recently written an essay mainly to my nine American grandchildren, some of whom had asked me to share it with the World.

  • coloradodog

    Yesterday, in Mexico, I had no Thanksgiving for the first time. One of my students gave me a bottle of wine and his early morning class off today for which I am thankful. I am homesick however for left-over turkey not boiled Mexican-style and pumpkin pie which is something rare here.My fondest memories of Thanksgiving are of my always generous father who would bring airmen home from the local base and poor inner-city kids from the local Job Core facility if they had no where to go. Sharing with others was always part of Thanksgivings past. I am thankful for those memories.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    I J SinghIt was a good story, and I don’t want to criticize. However…(There is always a “however.”)The first Thanksgiving among the English in the New World was not in 1621 in Massachusetts; it was in 1619, at Berkley Plantation, in Virginia.Remember Virginia? The Queen came to America last year to help commemerate the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement at Jamestown. Plymouth still has 12 years to go for their 400th anniversary.The problem comes from the defeat, punishment, and partition of Virginia during the Civil War, and the degradation of its place in American history, and the transference of its old glory and pride to New England. Virginia made a big mistake, in choosing up sides with the Confederacy, and had a greater and more catastrohic delcine than probably any other state in the Union. Anyway that is the story about the old Thanksgiving in the New World, that took place in Virginia, before the Pilgrims had even set sail.

  • thopaine

    Thank you for a heart warming story,especially about the stockading of the Japanese-americans. But…This is really a day to mourn the annihilation of the native american peoples and culture.The very same people who saved the early settlers, and welcomed them into their lands,were turned on by the settlers, and eventually ended with nothing but the Bureau of Indian Affairs.We must not celebrate this day of mourning, but rather seek reconciliation for what was genocide.

  • TejwantSMalik

    thopaine writes: Interesting perspective. Allow me to share something with you. Guru Arjan, the 5th Guru of the Sikhs was tortured to death by King Jehangir- the mughal emperor of the time, a fundamentalist Muslim. The reason was the attractiveness of the idea based Sikhism against the dogmatic Islam was making Hindus and Muslims flock towards it which threatened the Islamic religion of the emperor. Guru Arjan was put on a hot plate and hot sand was poured over his head. It was indeed a very torturous death in the hot Indian summer of June in 1606.On the 16 June of every year since 1606, the Sikhs have commemorated the martyrdom of their first martyr, the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev. All the 10 Sikh Gurus had taught the message of compassion, love, dedication, hard work, worship of one God and the commitment to peace and harmony for all the peoples of the world. To commemorate this hot day,one is ought to find stalls on every corner in all around India where Sikhs live and also at all the Sikh Gurdwaras- Temples around the world, offering sweetened water to quench the thirst of the passerbys of any hue,creed or faith. Thanksgiving may be time for mourning but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can commemorate the sacrifices of the native Indians in the simillar manner?

  • spidermean2

    DAnielDen, continue with your stupid lies. How can the settlers in Virginia be thankful when they were almost at the brink of leaving the place because of too much trouble happening with them. They were NOT a godly lot.

  • spidermean2

    Abhab, that’s a very good and wondeful essay. The Bible has stated that America (not the liberal, evolutionists, atheists) will inherit and rule this world in peace for a thousand years.The best part is that the Bible is always 100 percent accurate.God truly blesses America. Anybody who would touch it will surely pay a big price. Putin, Chavez, Iran’s rulers and many more world leaders who despise America are not giving their people a bright future. It will be doom for their country.America, on the other hand, should change its liberal ways coz it too will be punished.

  • ParamjeetSinghBagga

    Dear Dr. Singh,Thanks for a heart warming essay and sharing your experience as a young immigrant in the 60s. I am sure, like myself, many people will be able to relate to it with their own experiences. After one gets over the commerical aspects of the weekend, Thanksgiving holiday probably aquires different meanings to different people. For the less fortunate, it may mean soup and a sandwich that they may be able to enjoy at community centers and other similar places. For many others, it probably boils down to a family get together. However, I have also noticed a new brand of events associated with the weekend. I am referring to the Interfaith efforts. Many communities/cultures have been using this time to get to know each other better. This is obviously a geat effort reflected by the changing demographics of the US and increasing need to learn about each others’ cultural and religious backgrounds. I sincerely believe that interfaith meetings are truely in line with the holiday spirit and with the Thanksgiving weekend.Paramjeet

  • sparrow4

    “The Bible has stated that America (not the liberal, evolutionists, atheists) will inherit and rule this world in peace for a thousand years.”Well, that must be a different bible than the one everyone else uses because America was not even a mote in G-d’s eye when the bible was written. Just another illustration of why spidermean is not to be taken seriously. He rewrites the bible, and has appointed himself G-d’s mouthpiece. Not to mention he is rather a bloodthirsty sort- hating liberals, people who believe in evolution, atheists and in fact, anyone with with brains. he has mentioned several times that he can hardly wait for them all to be blown away. Yes- a real American, is spidermean- about as American as Adolf Hitler.

  • knivesanddemons

    Seriously Spidermean, being an engineer, maybe you could whip up something, such as a gun, and do God and the world a favor and blow your brains out. You say you are an engineer but you are more like a programmer – you can’t read or write.

  • spidermean2

    “neither can he know (or understand) them (the Bible), because they are SPIRITUALLY DISCERNED.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Spiderman, what have you got against Virginia?