By Alexandra Ryan
Every year for my birthday since I was big enough to open my own gifts, my mother has baked me a homemade cake. As simple as it is, she stays true to my one and only, most favorite in the world: vanilla rainbow sprinkle cake. After it cools down, she paints the surface in a blanket of vanilla frosting, and covers it in a zoo of gummy animals, who hide between what has now become a forest of candles.
This Thanksgiving, I am turning twenty-six years old. I will be celebrating my birthday, and the American holiday where it is socially acceptable to stuff your face with food until you are forced to unbutton your pants, in Japan. This year marks the third year I have not been home to celebrate with my family, or my hometown friends.
While I’m not about to deny that I love birthday parties, gifts and cake, I’m also not the type of person who needs an over the top extravaganza of a birthday celebration. None of my birthday parties have ever been featured on MTV, I have never received a car, and I have never rented a hotel room or had bottle service at a club. The same goes for celebrating Thanksgiving; I’ve yet to celebrate it at a club with a bottle of Grey Goose, versus a turkey. Normally, my immediate family just spends it at home together, sometimes in the company of a few close family friends, sometimes just with the four of us. My Dad watches football, my mom cooks, and my brother and I have to set the table and help clean up before and after. Both days have always just been slightly different than normal and I’ve never really considered what either of them meant to me, and how important the people are who I spend them with.
When you first move abroad, it’s impossible to anticipate how quickly your friends become your family. These once, not long ago strangers, suddenly are as close to you as people you’ve spent years developing friendships with. The circumstances of life in a foreign country tend to propel people toward one another, and they become your entire social and emotional network of support. When you move abroad, you are truly alone. It is the friends that you make that play the defining role in your happiness, and who shape your experience in that country.
Last year in Thailand, I arrived at work to find my office dripping in streamers and filled with rabbit shaped balloons, bobbing up and down. My coworker, who eventually became my best friend in Thailand, arrived early at work to decorate the office before school started. She planned ahead and bought all the decorations and her and the other teachers kept it a secret so that I would be truly surprised. She knew that I had just adopted two baby rabbits, hence the thought behind the balloons. There was a sweet and sincere card on my desk, and throughout the day and into that evening she went above and beyond to make sure I had an amazing birthday. I forgot to mention, we hadn’t even known one another two weeks.
A month later I spent a humid and hot Christmas at a friend’s house, who hosted a huge dinner for many of the foreigners. Friends from around the world brought different dishes, various gifts, and their own cultural traditions to the dinner, and we shared a night that I will always remember. Holidays abroad are about sharing the things you miss from home, with people away from their own homes. Holidays abroad are about celebrating with your friends and including new people in your plans. Holidays are about making everyone feel as if they are part of a family.
Every four years, my birthday and Thanksgiving collide on the calendar, and they are forced to make room for one another on the same date. That’s this year.
As I gather for a Thanksgiving birthday dinner party, I’ll be surrounded by friends from six different countries. Thanksgiving isn’t really about Indians and Pilgrims and the fantasy history we have created around them, it’s about being thankful for what life has given you. I couldn’t be more thankful for the family I have found in Japan. I may be a thousand miles from the city I know, the house I grew up in and the people I love. Another holiday will go by without seeing the familiar faces of my family and my best friends.
I will pop edamame into my mouth as I await the sushi with sides of seared beef wrapped tofu, rather than the traditional roasted turkey with its dates of stuffing, mashed potatoes and garlic string beans. Dinner will most likely be followed by green tea ice cream, not pumpkin pie. And unfortunately, I know that my mom’s rainbow sprinkle cake will not make it to the dinner table here in Japan. But I’m ok with that. I’m ok with everything from home that will remain in California while I celebrate abroad. Being away makes me appreciate the family I am away from, and the new family I have found.
Unfortunately, there won’t be any rainbow sprinkle cake, but I’m okay with that because last year’s wish came true. I found a life abroad that makes me happy.
Allie combined her love of foreign cultures, spontaneous adventures, working with children and art, and let it carry her to Thailand, where she worked as a kindergarden teacher. After finishing the year in Thailand, she moved to Japan, and currently works at an international preschool, where she started the school’s first blog. Her blog, Blue Eyed Sensei, documents a foreigner’s experience in a Japanese school. She documents her other adventures at Taking Up Your Precious Time.