Sacrifices of Travel: Thanksgiving Away From Home

If I had to pick a favorite holiday, I’d stop for a moment on Easter, because of the copious amounts of chocolate involved, then I’d debate over Christmas and the great times with family and gifts and hot chocolate, but eventually, I’d conclude that Thanksgiving, with all of the aromas and haste, rows of seats and unearthly amounts of incredible food, is definitely it. Something about the big table, mixture of gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes and the fact that it’s usually not terribly cold, not just yet. So yes, after serious though, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. Hands down.

One of the sacrifices that expats and long-term travelers, study abroaders and other world explorers all make is missing family events. Sometimes they are birthdays, graduations, unexpected funerals or just regular, annual holidays. As the missing family member abroad, I often try to Skype in for parties, send messages and generally just let my family know that I wish I could be there for the event. It’s never quite the same, but it’s something. And once a year, that event I’ve missed is Thanksgiving.

Three years ago, after my semester abroad had ended in Buenos Aires, I spent a month traversing the country and visiting every city I could get myself to. I made a choice to miss Thanksgiving in exchange for the adventures, a choice I wouldn’t take back. But not being there for the turkey, the stuffing, the family shenanigans and occasional mishaps was hard. Three years ago, in a mountain city of Argentina with friends I’d only met a week prior, we came together and did our best to celebrate. Me and Zoe, an American working in Bariloche, cut and boiled potatoes, prepared a casserole and readied chicken to be baked. Someone else would bring the pie. Ironically, the Argentines showed up, saw our cooking attempts and immediately fixed everything; turning up the heat on the potatoes and slicing open the chicken to cut cooking time in half.

Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.
Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.

We ate and laughed, and though the food was good, we enjoyed the holiday more for the people. But just as the smiling faces of friends were comforting to me, they were also a reminder of exactly what I was missing.

Almost two years ago, I signed my contract to move to Korea and teach English. On Thanksgiving, last year, I worked. The foreigners in town chose the following Saturday to get together and have potluck style Thanksgiving dinner. Two homemade pumpkin pies arrived, mashed potatoes were devoured (before I even got any!) and chickens were roasted, turkey hadn’t made its way into town. We had all of the classic fixings of Thanksgiving, aside from Turkey, and we stuffed ourselves to the breaking point in true Thanksgiving tradition. As the night wore on, it developed into singing and merriment which had to be taken outside. A long line of foreigners poured into the streets of this small Korean town, celebrating their holiday, like a single bit of sun on an otherwise cloudy day.

Last year's Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.
Last year’s Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.

A week ago, I labored over a cutting board, slicing carrots into strips, peeling ginger with my fingers and adding clove after clove of garlic to the mixture. The end result was far from pretty, but finger-licking good and I dutifully carried my Tupperware containers to the annual foreigner’s Thanksgiving potluck. We packed ourselves into the tiny apartment, ate a strange mix of foods including spicy pasta, bacon mac and cheese and roasted chicken. Mashed potatoes had been promised but not delivered, stuffing arrived almost an hour late and gravy was nowhere to be found. Pumpkin pie, store bought but a god-send nonetheless, was delivered several hours after we’d finished our food. Wine was consumed, ice cream was spilled and space was tight and cramped; what last year had felt very Thanksgiving-like, this year felt nothing of the sort.

The food was good, though, and the laughter was still there. What was supposed to be a Thanksgiving potluck was more of a strange miscellaneous potluck drinking-fest with pumpkin pie and stuffing. I had my fun, I enjoyed spending time with my friends, but at the end of the night, I wasn’t hesitant to go home. More than any year before, this Thanksgiving reminded me, painfully so, of what I was missing. Of what I’d given up to live abroad, teach and earn money in another culture and expand my horizons.

My five months in Argentina, one month of it backpacking and my year and a half of life and work in Korea are experiences that could never be replicated at home. They’ve brought me trials and lessons, laughter and new ways of thinking. My brain expanded to accommodate new languages, faces and customs. I’ve grown as a person and become more confident, daring and content with what I already have. But I haven’t lived as an expat without sacrifice; missing my favorite holiday and the family that go with it are a price I pay. Missing Thanksgiving three years running is part of that cost.

Is it worth it?

Yes.

Do I miss my family and mashed potatoes?

More than they’ll ever know.

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Have you missed holidays while traveling or living abroad? What do you miss the most from Thanksgiving? Is there one holiday you refuse to miss?

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