Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving spread

Fully realizing that I’m behind the ball, I want to post about my Thanksgiving dinner in Almaty. I hosted and provided utensils as a way to absolve myself from cooking, and I invited my new friends and invited them to invite their friends. Come nine o’clock (the meal was late because Thursday was not a day off), I had about twenty people in my apartment and an amazing array of food. Although there is rumored to be a turkey farm in Southern Kazakhstan, we were forced to substitute chickens, and instead whatever the traditional Thanksgiving beverage might be we had vodka. Seven bottles. Otherwise, we had versions of most of the classics: mashed potatoes, stuffing, several pies, &c.

Guests included both Americans and non-Americans, although the former were in the majority. There are a surprising number of young Americans in Almaty on different grants and programs, suggesting the wide variety of programs, both private and government, that send Americans abroad: the Fulbright, Princeton-in-Asia, American Councils, and the Peace Corps. It was nice, given all the expected and unexpected changes occurring in the expat community that come with heightened security and the end of a calendar year / academic semester, to gather friends together and celebrate.

A still from Alexander Ugay's 2007 film 'Bastion'

However, I’ve found over years abroad that Thanksgiving dinners are always most fun when initiating non-Americans into this quintessentially American holiday. The lack of a defensible historical record to back up traditions, the semi-religious nature of this civic holiday and the obligatory quantities of food combine in such a way as to boggle the mind of anyone for whom Thanksgiving is not a native habit. This year was no exception, although it was my first time celebrating Kazakhstan in a former Soviet country, and one of the participants said something that really struck me.

Alexander Ugay (a.k.a. Sasha U) is a successful, young, Korean-Kazakh artist with whose work I was familiar before i learned that we had mutual friends. After having seen a large quantity of underwhelming, uninspiring post-Soviet, nationalist shlock in this country, Sasha is one of the young artists whose works sustain my faith that there are creative talents here that deserve serious attention. Anyway, Sasha laughs and giggles easily, and only more so after we’d had several vodkas together, but suddenly he stopped short and said, gently but seriously, that he really loved the idea of a holiday constructed around the idea of giving thanks. During the Soviet period, he continued, no one ever thanked anyone for anything. Perhaps they didn’t feel they had much to be thankful for.

More food and friends.

Another friend later pointed out that this has not changed altogether. I would not characterize it exactly as “unusual” or “uncommon” to hear people saying “спасибо” (spasiba, Russian) or “рахмет” (rakhmet, Kazakh), but I am marked as an American by the frequency with which I say it in simple situations, such as exiting a bus. It is not, in my opinion, that people are ruder here, simply that there are ways other than giving thanks in order to be polite.

Thinking about this, however, I’ve realize that I, for one, like that Americans say “thank you” a lot. Unlike other words, such as “sorry” or the superlatives that pepper American vernaculars, “thank you” need not wear thin for overuse. Moreover, I for one, have a lot for which to be thankful. To name just two, I am thankful to Senator Fulbright for affording me the extraordinary opportunity to come to Kazakhstan for a year, and I am thankful to my dear family, friends and blog-readers. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, where ever in the world you are.

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3 comments
  1. swdp said:

    I did my best to introduce Thanksgiving to Kamphaengphet, but I only got as far as “There is food,” “There is family,” and “This is a turkey.”

    No clear need for it, though: The Thais are not shy with ขอบคุณ (khop khun).

    I am thankful for One Steppe at a Time, my reliable source for Central Asia news and analysis!

    • Ha, thanks Sam! How do you say “turkey” in Thai? The word in Russian is, perhaps no coincidentally, very similar to the Russian word for “Indian” (as in Native American), leading inevitably to humorous situations in which white Americans say they eat Indians for a special meal once a year. This is more or less in-line with what the Soviet education system taught, so it’s always met with credulity and thinly-veiled horror.

      • swdp said:

        The Thai word for turkey is ไก่งวง (gai gnuaang), which literally means “chicken-tentacle.” But I didn’t know that at the time, and none of my colleagues had ever seen/heard of a turkey before, so I settled for “gigantic chicken.”

        Of course, gathering around a table and eating a gigantic chicken hardly seems like much of a celebration– certainly not compared to feasting on an Iroquois.

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