Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays; a window into our country and its people. Whenever we host international visitors at Thanksgiving time we enjoy watching them soak in what it means to be American–from football and family to turkey and pumpkin pie. Well, the same cultural excitement is available to Americans working overseas. When you take a one- or two-week family vacation, staying at a hotel or resort, you relax and have fun but are rarely involved with (or even aware of) national holidays. However, when you are in country for an extended stay, like a working vacation, you have time to make friends and meet locals, and that usually means joining them in life-cycle events and holiday celebrations–a superb way to become part of a community and learn about its culture.
For example, while living in Mauritius, my wife and I participated in the festive holiday of Diwali, the Festival of Lights. We joined a local family to light the clay lamps lining their sidewalk and bake the sweets traditionally given to friends and family–all the while learning about Hindu traditions and practices on this small Indian Ocean island.
We were invited to participate in a Haldi, a Hindu ceremony held for a bride and groom on the night before their wedding. The couple is entertained with good-natured jokes and smeared (literally) with a paste made from cooking oil, sandalwood, and turmeric–a mixture thought to bring good luck and fertility. It is a raucous and playful time, a bit like a bachelor or bachelorette party in the U.S. After the ceremony, a festive meal is served on banana leaves and eaten with fingers.
While living in Kuala Lumpur we participated in what surely must be the most unusual religious celebration anywhere in the world–Thaipusam, a Hindu ceremony celebrated by Tamils in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is a time for repentance and gift giving for the purpose of avoiding future calamity and grief. The penitents, upwards of one million strong, wash themselves in a river, shave off their hair, and don a ceremonial yellow robe. Then, piercing their flesh with large hooks connected to ropes, they pull a chariot, called a kavadi, loaded with gifts of milk, fruit, and rice, up a steep hillside. This mortification of human flesh is hard for a non-Hindu to watch but is a fascinating glimpse into a very different culture.
Ruth and I have celebrated many other holidays and life cycle events–with Buddhists in Mongolia, Janes in India, Muslims in Turkey, and Kikuyu tribesmen in Kenya. We also attended Jewish services that were quite different from what we are used to–for example, a Passover Seder prepared by Islamic women wearing the hijab and attended by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. During these events we learned a great deal about the country, its culture, and its people–far more than we ever would as short-term tourists.
So, as you enjoy the turkey and stuffing this holiday season, think about the many holidays and life cycle events that would be fun to learn about, observe, and participate in, just as my international visitors have enjoyed being part of Thanksgiving. Then do just that by applying for and taking a working vacation as described in my book. I promise you won’t regret it.