We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.
But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh.
To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.
Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.
Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.
It meant that I never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.
But how hard could it be?
At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.
The conversation went like this:
“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.
“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”
“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.
When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”
And then I went to pick them up.
They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.
I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.
I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin. I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.
It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.
When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.
Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.
Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section!