Thanksgiving is the occasion or requirement, not necessarily welcome, that one eats with many other people, while looking at their faces even. As a contemporary American, I take many meals alone while staring at a medium, which in my case is the computer and, before that, the newspaper. I eat in silence and darkness. It hasn’t always been this way.
My first Thanksgiving, I had just turned twelve and had been in the US all of six months. I was living in Tacoma with my father, kid brother and a woman who would morph into my stepmother. Even then, we hated each other. For $150 a month, we had a one bedroom apartment not far from my school, McKinley Elementary. My brother and I slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor, with our treasure a tiny black and white TV, a tutor in American culture and English.
Each afternoon, the magic box would usher in Bugs Bunny, then Shirley Temple or the Three Stooges, to be followed by Jimmy Snuka. No more dismal or heroic singing, as on Vietnamese television. No more body counts or political speeches. This is America, boys and girls, where everything is goofy and fun!
Though they hardly knew us, the people next door generously invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t a family but two young couples, with the men bearded. We ate on the floor. I had just learned, “May I,” so I tried out, “May I have the corn, please.” This linguistic feeler elicited a compliment from one of our sweet hosts, which flattered me. In Vietnam, I had studied French from kindergarten onward, but since I had no need to speak it, I never owned any French, not even a mouthful, yet here I was, already careening forward with a new, reckless tongue that I wagged about like some lashing weapon.
For whatever it’s worth, it’s true that Americans do say “thank you” and “sorry” quite readily, at least much more often than Vietnamese, and I’m only talking about ordinary people, of course, not any official. The American government should apologize constantly, but never does. Better yet, it should cease and desist from all the looting, carnage and destruction that require that it gets on its knees and begs forgiveness from man, gods and gaia.
So what am I suggesting? I’m saying that Americans are for most part kind and generous, unlike its murderous government. I’m claiming that our 99% are mostly fair and decent, unlike the 1% that rule and represent us. Working against humanity and country, this 1% bring shame and dishonor to our name.
In 1976, my father decided that we should join my aunt in Houston, so he drove us 2,400 miles in his Chevette, the cheapest on the market. In the middle of the Sonoran desert, this crappy car died, so strangers had to come to our aid. This was before the cell phone, so a passing motorist had to use a payphone to call for a tow truck, and, even more incredibly, a mechanic at this garage invited us into his home for the night, since we couldn’t afford a motel. My brother and I played with his two boys, and his wife made burgers for us all. My father did give them some money, maybe $20, as a token thank you, but their kindness and graciousness were truly marvelous, though at the time, as a kid, I didn’t fully appreciate it.
In 1983, during my second year in art school, I had another memorable Thanksgiving dinner, this time at the home of a professor, Boris Putterman. I had started out calling Boris “Mr. Putterman,” but he insisted on “Boris,” which is the informal, American way. Boris liked my progress as a young painter, and also my confidence, which later he would discover, to his dismay if not disgust, to be an unwarranted cockiness. Stoked by a combustion of social, intellectual, alcoholic, dope, speed and sexual awakenings, I even declared to Boris, “You should never say sorry!” His response, “Where did you get that?! You should always say you’re sorry.” Life would kick my ass good upon leaving school, however, so I got my comeuppance in ample dosage. Whether in an individual or nation, hubris is a distortion that demands correction, for sooner or later the proper perspective and proportion will reassert themselves.
It’s strange but from all the conversations of that night at Boris’, the only bit that’s stuck in my mind was uttered by his mother, “I don’t see how people can eat chicken wings. There’s no meat on them!” Instead of fading, this will only mean more and more in the years ahead, and not just to me but nearly all Americans, so be thankful for what’s left, but unless some are made to feel sorry very soon, the rest of us will be kicked in the ass.
- A shorter version of this appears in the Guardian.