Feeling Conflicted on Thanksgiving

For Viet Thanh Nguyen, a member of a refugee family, preparing the holiday meal does not bring up warm and fuzzy memories.

Comments: 47

  1. Dear Professor Nguyen, Thank you for your thoughtful words. My family has lived in America since the turn of the 18th century, and we are also aware of the mythical nature of Thanksgiving. For us, it isn’t really about the bird - it’s more of a conversation piece to either scold or rejoice over. Thanksgiving is more about family and close friendships (our “chosen” family). I believe the old narrative of Pilgrims and Native Americans has been effectively debunked, but the meaning of Thanksgiving survives even without the myths. You, sir, are a true American who embraces the truth behind the both the tragic facts and the hopeful symbolism of our most American holiday. Just remember to enjoy yourself a little. Regards, Mary R.

  2. This essay confirms for me that Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of our great American, yes, American. writers working today. I was born in Kentucky, but I too am ambivalent about what it means to be American, and Americanized. In some ways, I too am American not entirely by choice, but by circumstance. That is one way to becoming American. We need a country where our individual dualities and the ambiguities of our history are acknowledged, where we don't all need to pretend to relish the whole turkey to prove that we belong.

  3. Thank you for this, Professor Nguyen. I have such gratitude that you share your experiences, perspective, and literary gifts with the world. Many share a similar confliction, but we Americans generally avoid factual introspection. Thank you for pushing all of us to think differently.

  4. Blaming the Pilgrims for genocide seems to be inconsistent with available facts since conflicts and atrocities committed by earlier English vistors had already set the scene for conflict prior to their arrival. They appear to have inherited conflict rather than having initiated it.

  5. Thank you for expressing so eloquently how many Americanized Asian feel about celebrating a holiday that wasn't part of our DNA. Yet, every year, we put our game face on and put together a feast for our families. Perhaps, the essence of these gatherings is not about celebrating but about gathering and sharing our bounties, regardless of origins. It is not unlike the way many non-Christians immigrants celebrate Christmas.

  6. Dear Professor Nguyen: I have to admit that I was appalled initially at reading this essay of yours, particularly after I had just finished your glorious Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, thinking, as you predicted someone would, oh, come on Bro, you have the best of the best of the best, and yet you are filled with unhappy thoughts and must you rub our historical narratives in our faces like this? I am the child of Russian refugees who were ravaged by WWII, were enslaved by the Nazis as slave labor in Germany, and freed from this servitude by the end of the War and American participation. We arrived in the US in the late 50s, not speaking a word of English, living our difficult emigre lives in NYC, working three jobs, at once, but so very grateful to be in America. After advanced degrees from the finest universities this country can offer and great successes professionally, we would all sit down once a year for a Thanksgiving meal, (one which my Slavic family never 'got', since everyone hated turkey and didn't appreciate pecan pie) and relive verbally from whence we came. And how lucky we were to be alive. My mother had a tradition of inviting anyone who was 'homeless', without family, or caught in between 'successes' (which was her way of describing being without work), and there were sometimes 25 people sitting down all over our smallish apartment near Columbia University. Thanksgiving is about THAT sir, and I wish you much-continued success.

  7. Professor Nguyen knocks it out of the park. Bravo.

  8. Wonderful piece. We can each teach what Thanksgiving means to us and our family. I was taken and saddened by your view that Thanksgiving was a celebration and remembrance of genocide and would like to offer my view of the holiday – a celebration of humanity and helping each other. The Mayflower carried 102 people in 1620. These immigrants (they were not called Pilgrims until 1840) were drawn to a new land by the promise of being able to practice their religion and a better life. They landed in the wrong place, froze on their boat for the first winter and, by spring, they had lost half of their people. They were then welcomed by an Abenaki Indian who spoke English and, later, Squanto, of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto, had no reason to like these Europeans having been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping and returning with the help of other English people. But, Squanto helped these immigrants by teaching them how to cultivate food and introducing them to the Wampanoag tribe (with whom an alliance was formed and lasted for fifty years). In November of that year these immigrants had a successful harvest and invited members from the Wampanoag tribe and others to give thanks. A lot of bad things followed that were brought about by these immigrants and should not be forgotten. But this act, this human desire to help your fellow person, for me that is what Thanksgiving is about. It is an act that is celebrated once a year but practiced daily.

  9. Being of Irish descent, I think back to the reasons my paternal ancestors hopped a boat from Ireland to America. My best guess: genocide. Starvation. Maybe DNA traces that line back to fallen kings and forgotten customs. Maybe culture really is in the DNA. My half-Vietnamese son loves noodles but his older sister is much more a meat and potatoes girl. Their grandmother spends hours lovingly preparing the most elaborate Viet home-cooking you could imagine. No supermarket deli fallout here. We'd be just as likely to have scratch Bún Riêu on our table next week. My wife, on the other hand, who was a toddler when her parents fled the Fall of Saigon, prefers to cook Mediterranean food. It is ironic this tumbled marriage of culture pours into our well-fed children, the heirs of diverse people who came to this place (albeit at different times) fleeing strife and hunger. Our Thanksgiving has evolved away from tradition. Indeed, it is my inlaws who will press more for turkey than anyone next week. My wife and I would rather spatchcock chickens, but we did spend all weekend making turkey stock for gravy and there will always be mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on our Thanksgiving table. When we all sit down at that table, our little multi-national conglomeration of language and culture will give thanks that we are the lucky beneficiaries of the hardships our ancestors endured to bring us to this place where we have a chance at moving past war and strife. It will be a fine meal.

  10. I think of the thanksgiving meal like you It's an American ersatz Seder We remember the things that brought us through The plenty, scarcity, sweet & bitter

  11. 'Some American readers will condemn me for being a politically correct killjoy. Other readers are thinking: “Go back to Vietnam. And take your son with you.” Please refrain from sending me your letters. I already have plenty like them and don’t need any more, thank you.' If you do go back to Vietnam, can you take me with you?

  12. In 1971 when you were about 8 months old at Ban Me Thuot, I had Thanksgiving dinner on a tray at Long Binh. My last immigrant grandparent had died that year,so our family's transition from Slovak to American was about complete,including a third successive generation serving in the Armed Forces. In our CT town, there is still a monument to a battle in which the settlers massacred the local native tribe. So, yes, there was genocide. But since it was long before your tribe and mine arrived, let's focus on the Thanksgiving part and what we can do to build community going forward . Pass the nouc mam, please.

  13. Perhaps the true Americanization of the author--a very talented writer, capable of great success writing on multiple subjects--was when he realized he could become rich and famous by constantly denouncing America to Progressive Americans. He has succeeded brilliantly in this regard. As with Trump, branding pays off.

  14. As a teacher of English to newly arrived (legal) immigrants, I suggest we need to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving. my students, and especially the asylum seekers, are grateful to be here, as am I, an eighth-generation WASP “American.” Surely there is enough time for your son to learn about the history of this country without spoiling what traditionally has been seen as a day we forget our differences and celebrate our freedoms, however limited they may be.

  15. I find it interesting that you qualify your newly arrived immigrants with their legality. Why is that?

  16. Thank you for your essay, more bitter than sweet, it reflects an experienced tragedy and being conflicted by two worlds, history, cultures, racial and language differences. You and your 'boy boy' son are indeed Americans and Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the love in our lives and be grateful. As to the 'boy boy', my grandson was and is meta boy to the max, that's ok, the main thing is that he is also kind. And I'm on common ground with you on the cranberry sauce. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  17. Thank you for a beautiful and thoughtful essay.

  18. Thanksgiving is as adaptable as ones imagination. Many years ago when our boys were little, rambunctious and not impressed by my spending hours in the kitchen to cook them food they didn’t particularly care for, we had hotdogs. They loved it! I told them I hoped when they were grown and sitting in a ballpark enjoying a hotdog that they would remember this holiday and smile. I was a little embarrassed when our youngest came home from school the next week, telling me the teacher did not believe him when he told her about our thanksgiving menu. We recreated this many years later when our kitchen was under renovation. Hotdogs, hamburgers and all the fixings. Our oldest, against my wishes, posted a picture of it on Facebook with the caption, “best thanksgiving ever.” I also loved the year we got Indian food take out, and the one we spent at the racetrack in New Orleans. The best may have been when we traveled to Baton Rouge and our son, in drug rehab, along with others in recovery, cooked and served turkey and all the fixings. We were just so grateful for his life, and anyone who struggles. Thanksgiving is a state of mind. It is what you make it.

  19. So, the requisite emotional damage begins early. I expect great things from your son, the future writer.

  20. Wow. Perhaps he’s looking at Thanksgiving through the wrong historical prism. I look at Thanksgiving as a day to be grateful that I can buy food. In college years ago, I was so poor that for 30 days, all I ate was air-popped popcorn and a bottle of French dressing. 30 long days. Afterwards, I was like Scarlett O’Hara when she proclaimed, “I’ll never be hungry again.” I don’t think that if I moved to his birth country that I’d freely criticize his holidays. Just like God means something different to each of us, Thanksgiving has different meanings. Let’s simply celebrate that we have enough food.

  21. Pretty wild that you would provide liberal as your name, then suggest that an American citizen whose parents brought him here as a kid shouldn't say anything critical about American culture.

  22. What an amazing celebration of contradictions that is America! Thank you for writing this and helping us find words to express what we feel at this time. Thanksgiving is a conflict ridden time for me. I am grateful for what this country has helped me achieve yet being called racial slurs at supermarket when going back to my car after buying the turkey brings into sharp relief the contradictions that I face as an immigrant.

  23. We apologize. America has been experiencing accelerating problems with a high and rising incidence of feral swine since last fall. Repairs are currently being effected.

  24. “History and America are contradictory and ambiguous, and yes, 4-year-olds who are capable of being racist and sexist should be exposed to some of that ambiguity as a form of inoculation.” Are they? Should they? Maybe myths like ‘thanksgivings’ were meant to set a goal, a standard. Maybe myths like that and ‘the noble savage’, etc., have prevented in someways even worse. You can expose the brutal truth about your nations past, without cynically debunking it’s positive mythology. However, you can not both have and eat your stuffing.

  25. Nguyen condemns both the Thanksgiving holiday and the food. Polls show Thanksgiving is the most popular American holiday with immigrants. Many of us come here acquainted with harvest festivals. And many feel gratitude. It's traditional to add or replace the "standard" Thanksgiving foods with favorites from home. No need to trash American food that doesn't appeal to you. Just serve up whatever you like! It's a flexible holiday -- make it our own. Why not educate yourself beyond a cursory level before you start pontificating about mass murder and indoctrinating your toddler? The US went to war with Germany in the 20th century -- does that mean the German Von Steuben's contribution to our Revolutionary War victory should be condemned and repudiated? The first Thanksgiving story, and the years surrounding it weren't a myth or a story of genocide. (You can start learning about this with Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. Then read up on Native American history perhaps beginning with the book 1491.) As origin stories go, the Thanksgiving tale is about as accurate as any. There was friendship and help, and saving each other's lives. No, it didn't last. Fifty years later King Philip's War started (named after Metacom, son of Massasoit), as Metacom realized the English settlers were arriving in droves and expanding in unsustainable amounts. He led an effort to drive out the settlers, and the war was a massive disaster for all. Read and learn, Mr Nguyen.

  26. Did you actually read the whole article?

  27. I remember the Italian-American Thanksgivings of my youth. Huge turkey of course but also tons of delicious red-sauce Italian food. My parents were born in the US but plenty of my friends' parents were Italian immigrants who also had Italian Thanksgivings.

  28. jade ann, did you read the man's bio at the bottom of the article? Pretty certain he doesn't need anyone telling him what to read....

  29. Americans should look in the mirror to free themselves of hypocrisy, just as Mr. Nguyen has done.

  30. I grew up in the South Bay not far from where Viet Thanh Nguyen describes. I feel a tinge of pride that my public elementary school classrooms were probably some of the most diverse in the country. But I had no idea what that meant at the time. I remember noticing how friends' kitchens smelled different from mine as food was made by their grandparents, and that religious altars in their houses adorned different gods and prayers. Normalizing our melting pot of cultures in the US from a young age is so important. Education is greatly enriched when students have as much to learn from each other as they do from their teachers. At such a young age, I couldn't have fully appreciated what my Asian American friends' grandparents had gone through to be in the US now, or what they had left behind. One line that has stuck with me since I read "The Sympathizer" comes from Japanese American Ms. Mori, where she explains that you always have to claim your Asian-American-ness. You can never leave out the American part, or they will take it from you. As a young, white woman sheltered by my Bay Area upbringing, I never could have understood or appreciated fully what it is like to be any non-European-descendant American. Nguyen's writing, along with a strong recognition of the legacy of the American War in Vietnam and lesser known, in neighboring Laos (where I lived the past year), gave me a chance to peer into the realities and histories of American immigrants. I still have much to learn.

  31. @Madeline DahmThank you for having the courage to understand.

  32. That last sentence made me cry. All that our Americanization does, and does not but should, mean. I feel it so keenly reading this beautiful essay.

  33. A few years ago i was talking with one of my Chinese students about how she and her family celebrated Thanksgiving. "Fish," she said. "We always have fish." And no turkey, cranberries, stuffing, or any of the other ritual foods of Thanksgiving. My next question was, Did her family celebrate this meal as Thanksgiving, or was it just another Thursday dinner? "Are you kidding?," she said. "Of course we celebrate Thanksgiving. We just do it our way." And that's one of the beauties of Thanksgiving. It is our most protean holiday, one which no one interest or group has been able to hijack for its own, to the exclusion of others. Thanksgiving is to celebrate - in an enormous variety of ways, all good.

  34. My American wife, who is of Chinese ancestry, insists on turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Me, I would be be happy with a bowl of pho ga. But it is the most meaningful holiday for me and my family.

  35. My family founder came early with the Dutch to New Netherlands and married a local gal, first nation of course. New Netherlands had "refugees" from New England seeking a more liberal, less Puritanical governance. The confusing strains started early in this land Prof Nguyen. And reinvention including holidays is ongoing.

  36. My Dad also went back to VN after 20 years, twice, and that was it. I shared with you the thoughts on DNA test; my Dad would be the same :) No matter what food we have at our table at Thanksgiving, I thank that there is a day off, that my family members attempt to come home to have a meal together. We share stories about children, memories, and laughters.

  37. I feel sorrow that a holiday I see as mainly a day to give thanks would make someone feel so conflicted. There is no requirement to eat turkey (although, of course it is a traditional food) or anything else. For Heaven’s sake, serve food that the expected diners would actually like to eat, be it turkey, fish, Tofurkey or pizza. I do not focus on the evils perpetrated on Native Americans when discussing the holiday with junior members of my family. At what age should we ask children to process the idea of genocide, anyway? it is a subject that needs to be taught, and deserves proper acknowledgement in an age appropriate time. I expect to not be with my family this Thanksgiving, but I will still take time to give thanks for the people I love and the good things in my life. Focusing on the day as a day to focus on simple gratitude and enjoy a peaceful day of reflection this year eliminates for me any conflict. I am not particularly religious, but I appreciate a chance to count my blessings, which are many.

  38. Thanksgiving is the most meaningful holiday for me and my family. I do have one conflicted feeling: Do millions of turkeys have to die for our celebration? Can we "pardon" them all?

  39. I am a fifth generation American born into very fortunate circumstances and I have a lot more than most people for which to be thankful. Yet, I also feel quite ambivalent about America. Yes, life is very good for me; but my fortune has been at the expense of millions of people ranging from native Americans, to African-Americans to Vietnamese and people of the Philippines, Nicaragua and countless other nations we more often than not have unjustly invaded or otherwise oppressed. America has committed more than one genocide and maybe we who are living today should be grateful that our nation is not currently committing another - merely aiding and abetting the Saudis to commit one in Yemen and the dictator in the Philippines to slaughter his own people.. It is hard for most Americans to believe - because most Americans are criminally ignorant of American history and many Americans are astonishingly fatuous - but the U.S.A. often has not been the "good guy."

  40. Thanksgiving is not about genocide. Our American history contains genocide and other unsavory to horrific moments and actions, but Thanksgiving does not, except where the turkeys are concerned. The Pilgrims did not lie in wait for the Native Americans on that first feast day and slaughter them as they appeared for the meal. That came later and perhaps earlier. On Thanksgiving, these very different groups of people helped each other, ate together, played together. That is what Thanksgiving celebrates and that is what is important to remember, to be thankful for, and to try to create again.

  41. Excellent article. Thanks for being an American. Thanks for keeping our eyes open.

  42. There was no genocide during that early Thanksgiving. War was not genocide. Sure we fought Native Americans but NOT because of their race. It was over land, power and other things. Were some Americans and Native Americans involved in killing to get rid of all individuals of a particular race. They sure were but the U.S. government and other State governments did NOT want to kill all Native Americans nor did they have that as a national policy. Mr. Nguyen might try reading American history and the stories surrounding the different wars and resettlement issues during the early years of our nation's birth. In the southwest until the 1860s the Natives were winning and killing whites and Mexicans at will. Genocide was on their minds and in their hearts. Maybe rightly so but war can be like that. There were many forces driving the settlement of America genocide was NOT a major one if at all. If it were the entire "reservation" system as bad as it was would never have been necessary. The corrupt Indian Agency system would have never been necessary too. After 1870 the military was perfectly capable of killing every Native American within the U.S. but that was not even considered. Custer found out they still had a lot of fight left in the community. Some cultural genocide was a terrible result of European migration but not physical elimination.

  43. @Gorbud To rephrase a quote from the Rwandan genocide era, "How many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?" You may want to educate yourself about what constitutes a genocide, as well was the issues surrounding the attempted eradication of the American bison as well as redistribution of indigenous children via the American Indian boarding schools and Mormon adoption efforts.

  44. I'm an American living in Vietnam looking at family and friends pictures on Facebook knowing most of them aren't conflicted about the celebration because they don't care about the history of America. They choose to ignore the ugly parts - the parts that a lot of people continually say don't matter anymore, when they still reverberate through the country today. Thank you for sharing your writing. "The Sympathizer" is a wonderful book. (And I love living in Vietnam where the people have been incredibly welcoming despite what we Americans did here).

  45. People who find American customs and traditions offensive are free to find a place elsewhere that doesn’t offend them.

  46. I was ready to hate on this article, but I'm glad I read the whole thing. Well done.

  47. it was a very good article, it helped me get my school work done.