by Chaplain Takako Terino
I experienced my first American Thanksgiving dinner in April of 1979, in Long Beach, CA. I was 13 years old and was visiting the United States for the first time during the spring break between my 7th and 8th grades. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to see a bit of the world outside Japan, so they had me go on a “home-stay” program where I would stay with an American family with children around my age.
The Winters, a family of six and a dog, welcomed me as a part of their family for one week. My host-sister, Joette, was 12 years old and in the 6th grade. So, I went to school with her every day that week, shadowing her everywhere and we became fast friends; we were sisters! I had only 1 year of classroom instruction in English and my Japanese teacher had covered only the “present tense,” which meant I did not know there was such thing as the past tense or the future tense, not to mention the present perfect, present progressive, future perfect, etc. It meant I understood when someone asked me a question that started with “Do you…,” but not when they asked me “Did you” or “Will you” or “Have you…” questions. This made our days full of misunderstanding and miscommunication, which were sometimes really funny (which I can tell you another time) but most of the time excruciatingly frustrating. We tried to understand each other until both of us were in tears! This also meant I didn’t know what exactly was going on around me most of the time, but that didn’t stop me from going with the flow and having a great time, because my American family made me feel safe and I was welcome there.
One sunny April afternoon after school, my American sister took me to her Granny’s home around the corner from “our” house, where the whole family and a few friends had gathered. I saw a large table in the middle of the living room, decorated with special linens, and on it were platters of food that looked exotic to me. I saw a whole bird roasted golden brown (I had never seen a whole bird served on a platter) and other dishes I couldn’t tell what they were. There was a pie that was brown in color. My sister Joette told me it was a “pumpkin pie” and I should try it. Now, pumpkin is a vegetable and a pie is a sweet dessert, and, in my head, “vegetable” and “dessert” did not go together, so I politely declined. I did help myself to another brownish dish called “stuffing,” which was savory and delicious.
That afternoon, it was not only my tummy that was full; my heart was filled by the warmth of the spirit of those loving souls that had gathered at the table. Still, I had no idea what occasion had called for such an extravagant feast. Maybe it was Granny’s birthday, I imagined. Whatever it was, I felt grateful to have been part of it.
My experience of that week with that family directly translated into my understanding of the essence of the country that was the United States of America. Their spirit of generosity and hospitality not only welcomed and accepted me but also empowered me.
After a few years, I was back for more, this time as a 10th grader enrolled in a boarding school in Oklahoma. I was invited to the home of a local day student for the Thanksgiving Dinner, and I recognized that whole roasted bird and the brown pie! And I had my happy reunion with the stuffing. It was then I realized the radical hospitality my American host family had extended to me; they had Thanksgiving Dinner in April, just so I, a Japanese girl, could have a truly American experience.
Radical hospitality — that’s what Thanksgiving means to me, beyond all the “exotic” food in abundance. All of my student years, I continue to be the grateful guest at many a Thanksgiving table, and along the way, I learned that there is much that was not hospitable in the true history behind the “story” of Thanksgiving that’s been told. And this year, most of us will not get to be at the Thanksgiving table with our loved ones. It is all the more reason I invite you to imagine ways to live out the spirit of radical hospitality this year, making Thanksgiving a truly American experience of welcoming all and sharing with all. May it be so. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!