As an ESL teacher in Thailand I initially tried to celebrate all the unique American and Western holidays for the benefit of my students. I have always felt it was a mistake to divorce culture from language, and the English language is rich in vernacular and vocabulary celebrating the Glorious Fourth, Valentine’s Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Christmas, New Years, and, most especially, Thanksgiving.
Since I’m a movie nut, I even once managed to teach the holidays to a group of adult Thais by showing them the movie “Holiday Inn”, with Bing Crosby. I smugly thought I knew all there was to know about Western holidays, but there is one animated scene in the film where a turkey scrambles anxiously about on the calendar page for November, finally settling on the 24th. When my astute students asked me about that I had to confess my total ignorance (this was back before everyone had a pc and access to Google.) It took me a week to find out that until 1942 Thanksgiving could be any day in November that the President picked. The date was a political football, because Democrats wanted it earlier in the month so merchants could start their Christmas sales earlier, and Republicans wanted it to be the latter in the month, where Abraham Lincoln had originally placed it. In 1942 Congress passed a law making the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving; they didn’t like the idea of the President playing Pope with an American holiday. That’s where it’s been ever since.
My first year in Thailand as an English teacher was spent up in Khorat. I introduced my class to the Pilgrims and Indians (pardon me, Native Americans) and we talked about the great feast they held together, which eventually became the basis for Thanksgiving.
In a moment of overzealous exuberance I told my class that we would have an old-fashioned Thanksgiving meal together at the end of November. They could bring the rice and somtum, and I . . . I would provide the roasted turkey!
There were still hundreds of American servicemen in Thailand back then, at the tail end of the Vietnam war, so I thought I could get one of them to get me a frozen Butterball from the PX and roast it for me.
It was not to be. My military sources snubbed me like a draft card burner. In desperation I scoured the countryside until I found a Thai farmer who actually raised a few turkeys. They weren’t easy to raise, he said; snakes ate them right after they hatched, and they succumbed to the heat quite easily, but he managed to save a few each season, and was happy to sell me a live one for 100 baht.
Back then an ESL teacher up in the Northeast of Thailand could afford to have a maid, so I bid mine to kill and pluck the bird, and then cook it. She had no trouble with the killing and plucking, having done that to hundreds of chickens and ducks back on her family’s farm, but she was unclear on the concept of ‘roasting’. So when I got back from my morning classes to pick up the turkey for that afternoon’s feast I found she had attempted to fry the whole carcass in the biggest wok she could find. The bird was black on the outside, and pink on the inside.
Having seen some of the things the Thais would eat, I decided that underdone turkey would not kill any of my students, although I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. So the feast went off without a hitch. The kids attacked the bird, wore black Pilgrim hats or hopped around in Native American war feathers, and a good time was had by all.
However, when it came to the wishbone there was a bit of a problem. When I explained that the person who got the biggest part of it would be granted their wish, they decided this was too powerful for a mere student. Only another teacher would be worthy of such an honor. So I ran down a pretty young Thai gal who taught typing and geography, and she and I pulled on the wishbone. I was wishing that I had enough courage to ask her out on a date. Of course, I didn’t know what her wish was – you’re not supposed to tell. She won the biggest piece, so her wish would come true. My students gathered around her with sincere congratulations – how could something as exotic as a turkey wishbone not be effective?
The rest of that school year flew by and I was packing up my desk to move down to Bangkok to teach at a new school when I ran into that same teacher. I took the opportunity to wish her well, and asked her playfully what her wish had been and if it had been granted. She batted her eyes at me, then looked down at the floor as she said “I wished for the chance to be with you, Khun Tim.”
I arrived in Bangkok the next day with a rather sore derriere – having kicked myself all the way from Khorat in lieu of taking the bus.