Newcomers give thanks

Many add their own traditions to America's family holiday


You can learn about McDonald's, Star Wars, baseball, Disney and Michaels Jackson and Jordan without ever setting foot on American soil. Not so Thanksgiving: To appreciate its importance in American culture - with the emphasis on the family, on counting blessings and on stuffing one's stomach with no reluctance - you have to be here.

For those born outside this country, Thanksgiving offers one of the easiest paths to assimilation. Most are introduced to the holiday by an American family; before long they're hosting their own Thanksgiving meals.

Yet foreigners come to America with their own traditions, some of which are products of celebrations similar to Thanksgiving, and most still make room for tastes and customs from their homeland.

That's why throughout the Baltimore area, today's celebration will include Salvadoran pupusas, South Korean song pyun and Nigerian family stories.

This is Thanksgiving, foreign-born American style:

Pravin Moktan, case manager and outreach worker for People Encouraging People, from Katmandu, Nepal

For more than three years, Pravin Moktan has braced himself for what will be an emotional family reunion.

His wife, Dipa, and daughter, Deviyani, are in Nepal, their arrivals delayed because of immigration problems. His son, Kundan, arrived in August but could spend only 36 hours in Baltimore before heading for college in upstate New York.

Moktan, 47, hoped to have his family reunited by Thanksgiving, but his hopes have gone for naught.

"When Thanksgiving comes, I just get sick," said the Baltimore resident. "Everybody's with their families, and you're all alone."

Yet the holiday has also shown him how quickly Americans welcome outsiders into their fold. Each year, Moktan has been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner.

"It really reminds me of our culture. We don't have Thanksgiving as such, but we have one time that we meet with all of our friends and family members and have dinner with them."

The celebration is called Dashain, the largest festival of the year. Running about 10 days from late September to early October, it commemorates a great victory of the gods over wicked demons.

Celebrants travel from one village to another, feasting on chicken, goat or duck at each stop.

"Here, you hang onto one family all day," he said. "There, you go from family to family; you eat a little food and go on to the next family."

Last year, Moktan sought to return the favor to friends who had invited him for Thanksgiving dinner. He served them turkey with the flavors of Dashain: mustard oil, ginger, garlic, cloves and cumin powder.

"It was a completely different [turkey] recipe," he said, laughing. "But it tasted good."

Juana Amaya, stay-at-home mom from San Miguel, El Salvador

Juana Amaya misses the warm climate of El Salvador. She misses her country's sweet pastries and the hot-liquid chocolate that makes American packaged candy bars pale in comparison.

But she is part of a growing Latino community in East Baltimore, where many of her country's cultures and cuisines are now right in her backyard.

Amaya, 35, left a job as a domestic worker in El Salvador seven years ago for a new life in America and has since married. And though she relishes the warmth and hospitality she's received from Americans, she prefers the food she grew up on.

"I miss the traditions of my country," said Amaya, speaking through an interpreter. "But it's not a painful absence because I can make my native food in my own kitchen, and my mom sends me [pastries]."

That's why her Thanksgiving table will include pupusas - the staple food of El Salvador.

Pupusas are made of corn and water and cooked over a stove until brown and served with beans, cheese and meat. They're similar to Mexican tortillas, only thicker. Pupusas are served on the El Salvadoran holiday most similar to Thanksgiving: the feasts for local patron saints.

"We have a Mass in church, thanking that the town has continued to be blessed by [the local saint's] protection," said Amaya.

David Han, convenience store products wholesaler, from Seoul, South Korea

On Thanksgiving, David Han and his family will have two Thanksgiving meals. At noon, he and his immediate family will celebrate the holiday by themselves.

That evening, they will invite another family from South Korea for dinner and a crash course in American culture.

That, says the Lutherville resident, is how Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout much of Baltimore's Korean community. Those who have been here for years help newcomers assimilate, and the Thanksgiving meal offers an ideal teaching tool.

"Often," said Han, 50, "we have college students who are on their own and families who just got here."

For some newcomers, the holiday is not far removed from the South Korean holiday Chusok, an annual, three-day holiday held in August when families gather together to give thanks to their ancestors for the harvest.

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