Saturday, November 10, 2007
It’s that most wonderful time of year again, when I feel that America is at its most exciting, benevolent best; I have always found the flurry of activity going on during the weeks leading up to the holidays to be extremely moving and heart warming.
Thanksgiving, will be especially poignant for me this year because I will be part of the festivities at my parent’s home in New Jersey, an unusual occurrence, since I‘ve been living half way around the world, in Turkey, for the past twenty years.
As much as I am looking forward to this occasion, I also have to admit to a feeling of trepidation; I suspect this will also be cause for me to revisit the haunting memories of my past. Whenever I find myself in New Jersey around the holiday season, a redundant trip down memory lane seems to be unavoidable, everything coming back with a vengeance.
Going home for the holidays is an idea we look upon with such romantic connotations in America. It seems to be the only time when we are all allowed the time and opportunity to get back in touch with family, friends and those of significant importance from the past we leave behind to go on our own life's journey.
The nostalgia of the return to the place where I spent my formative years has always been full of turmoil for me. Maybe this has something to do with my whole world turning upside down at the age of twelve by our move to the States; from that day on I was never an ordinary child going through the trials of growing up but instantly became someone who had to justify her existence in a world where she would always consider herself an outsider?
I was alone for my first holidays in the States, without either of my parents or my little brother. My father had taken me there ahead of them so that I could start school. I was staying with friends of my parents, writing letters to my friends and family in Turkey and keeping their responses underneath my pillow, in the hope of reuniting with them in my dreams.
I remember spending my first Thanksgiving at my uncle's house with his family; I was laying eyes on them for the very first time. They were all so warm and welcoming, explaining their customs to me and asking me all sorts of questions about my country and our own traditions. I felt like an oddity amongst this family of strangers with their different habits of getting together only once or twice a year and their informal way of addressing their aunts and uncles by their first names; coming from a country where, it was unheard of a week going by without seeing our grandparents and even the man on the street was called uncle, I was shocked to say the least. They seemed just as surprised to see a young girl from Turkey who could communicate with them fluently in their own language. Christmas was a similar affair with another family I was staying with. Although everyone treated me kindly I still felt so removed, so alone. Luckily my own family was by my side by New Year's Eve.
Our story became one of many who moved to the States in hopes of finding greater prosperity. In a short period of time we adapted to our new country embracing their culture and some of their traditions (like Thanksgiving) as our own. That's the unique thing about Turkish people; they can be very adaptable - I guess it comes from living in such a chaotic part of the world where anything can happen.
Until recently, that same feeling of loneliness and despair always settled over me, around this time of year. This is actually surprising, since I revel in the enchantment of the holidays where gaiety and joy seem to be enforced on one and all. The magic of the season, connecting and sharing with one another have always been notions I have nurtured over the years but for some unfathomable reason, in the past, I had felt like a fraud celebrating these holidays that weren't a part of my culture.
The concept of celebrations during New Year's was not something my family picked up when we moved to the States either. When I was a little girl in Istanbul, we used to celebrate the New Year just like Christmas, with a tree and presents and even a turkey. The ironic thing about it is that I never felt out of place celebrating New Years in this fashion, in a Muslim country where it was not the usual practice. It was something we had always done. I only started to question these notions after we moved to America, where Christmas meant so much more.
For the longest time, I kept on wondering why was it that even though I had become a part of the fabric of America, I had difficulty identifying with the most basic of American celebrations. To me it felt as if all that was done to rejoice was a constant reminder of how foreign we actually were. When previously, New Years was nothing more than a pretext to exchange presents and have a good time, now became something that was suppose to have a profound sentimental significance. Unfortunately, for us as a family it was something that was just an affectation without any religious or cultural implications behind to support it.
These reflections were uppermost in my mind as I started to raise a family of my own. Instilling an understanding of their own culture and heritage became one of the foremost priorities for my children. I firmly believe that without a true understanding and acceptance of who we really are, it is not possible to come to terms with our place in this world.
Most of the mandates of religion might seem to be at odds with the world we live in today but it is my understanding that basically, first and foremost, it is an inherent part of our culture we have to accept. With this in mind, after I had kids, I started to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. What was just a month of a more subdued kind of a living for us, before we had children, became so much more with a whole new meaning for the past fifteen years. The breaking of the fast has become a ritual my kids absolutely adore and look forward to as Ramadan nears. Since they partake in the fasting a couple of days themselves, they seem to have a better understanding of compassion and patience, even if it is for a limited period of time.
After Ramadan is over, the 'Bayram' holiday that follows is about visiting relatives and eating lots of sweets. Although, I think the part children seem to enjoy the most involve the money they receive from all the elderly relatives upon kissing their hands to honor them on this holy day.
Just being a part of these few rituals leaves me with a feeling of deep connection to my roots and a deeper insight to why I am the way I am; there is such contentment in this. It is my most fervent hope that this is a feeling I can instill in my children as well and they won't feel so forlorn or vulnerable trying to survive as individuals in diverse cultures.
We have a fabulous saying in Turkish "To the crazy every day is a holiday." I think this explains where I stand quite nicely right about now. Nowadays, I fast for Ramadan, take my children to see as many relatives as I can find during the religious holidays, and then I get my tree right after Thanksgiving, decorate the whole house, bake cookies for the whole month leading up to New Years and even prepare gift bags to pass out to the sick children in the hospital. The whole month of December is one of joy, celebration and sharing in our household. We really get into the spirit of things without any reluctance. I guess I had to acknowledge my own culture and formulate my own adaptation before I could be a confidant reveler in the celebrations of the world.
So, as I am trying to envision myself at the Thanksgiving table in my parent's house this year, I find myself contemplating all I have to be thankful for about the peace of mind I have finally garnered concerning who I am and where I come from. It feels so nice to be able to sort through the jumble of ideas and feelings that have been cluttering up my mind all these years. For once I do not refute myself the right to enjoy Thanksgiving; it is actually quite nice to remember all the warm feelings America can evoke in people.
And at last but not least, I am looking forward to some great Christmas Shopping.
I wish everyone all that is happy and merry in their preparations this holiday season no matter what their cultural or religious inclinations.