Junior discusses celebrating holidays of different cultures

February 13, 2020 — by Manasi Garg

Thanksgiving at my family’s house means our plates are loaded with traditional American food like turkey and gravy next to Indian food like daal chawal and sabji. Then we all cram into one room to announce what we’re thankful for and gorge  ourselves with food. Later the adults, fueled with adult beverages, karaoke to old Bollywood songs, while the kids dance and talk until 2 a.m.

While many people celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives, our festivities are instead filled with family friends not related to us by blood, since most of my extended family lives 8,000 miles away in India. 

For the past few years, we’ve spent Thanksgiving with our family friends — my parents’ various school and college friends from India who, like my parents, immigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled down in the Bay Area. My parents have other friends of different ethnicities, but finding people who had grown up with similar childhoods and had kids our age provided a source of solidarity and comfort in a foreign country. They became our family away from family.

Although my family has preserved our native culture by celebrating holidays like Diwali and Holi, we’ve also adopted American holidays like Thanksgiving and Halloween. 

But it wasn’t always like this. For the first 12 years of my life, our family barely, if at all, celebrated Thanksgiving. It was just another American holiday with no cultural or historical relevance. One year, we bought a tiny rotisserie chicken from Safeway (it was the participation trophy of Thanksgiving meals). Another year, we spent a cold, miserable winter at the Grand Canyon watching cartoons in a hotel room. Most years, we just forgot about it entirely.

But as we and our family friends got older and soccer games and speech tournaments and jobs and college applications overtook our schedules, we began to see each other less often. Everyone traveled over summer and winter breaks, but Thanksgiving — which to me had just been a nice excuse to sleep in for a few days — was the only time all of our friends were at home.

So in 2014, my family decided to host a real Thanksgiving celebration. While the main point was to reconnect with friends, we obviously took advantage of the fact that, by American “law,” we had to have a giant feast.

Now, every year my family and I wake up bright and early, turn on some holiday music and spend all day in the kitchen. And my dad, who had never even seen a turkey until he came to the U.S. for grad school 30 years ago, cleans, seasons and roasts a 12-pound turkey every year, clearly with the expertise of Gordon Ramsay. In the evening, our friends show up laden with Indian food and endless desserts. 

And honestly, most of the adults, who, unlike us, suffered through Indian history rather than APUSH, don’t know why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving or the gruesome history behind the holiday. But it’s not the U.S. we’re celebrating. It’s the celebration of the good life our families have been able to make in a new country despite cultural barriers and the separation from relatives in India.

But of course, our community in the U.S. doesn’t just consist of our parents’ old friends. Ironically, while we celebrate Thanksgiving, arguably the most American of all holidays besides the Fourth of July, with other Indian immigrant families, every year for Diwali my family and I light firecrackers and share sweets with our neighbors, which include an Indian family, an elderly Caucasian couple and a Chinese family who recently immigrated to the U.S.

Our Chinese neighbors always bring Chinese desserts and we provide Indian snacks. We light candles and set them up around our house together and give some to our neighbors. Then we all hang out in the cul de sac, setting off giant firecrackers, explaining the history of Diwali and just enjoying each other’s company.

Being immersed in a variety of cultures can sometimes feel like the ultimate balancing act. I’ve often had intense identity crises and worried about whether I’m “American enough” or, on the contrary, “Indian enough,” as if I could just split my entire sense of self and heritage in two seperate categories. But the beautiful thing about growing up in such a multicultural society is that we don’t have to do that. We can embrace both, keeping our ancestral roots alive while adopting holidays from the country we call home.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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