Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages

Becoming Bicultural: Celebrating Thanksgiving

A personal example of the process of becoming bicultural

When my wife, our two-year-old son and I first came to live in the United States, we were struck by the many differences that existed between our original culture and our new culture. Many of the things that related to how people lived and worked, what they ate, how they socialized and so on, were quite apparent, but some were not. They were hidden and we had to be introduced to them.

As we acculturated to our new life in the United States, and slowly became bicultural (see here), we initially passed by very traditional American events, most notably Thanksgiving. When our first Thanksgiving weekend arrived, we had been in the US for some four months only and we thought it was like any other extended weekend. In our original culture, there were many such weekends, and so we didn't pay much attention to this one. On the Thursday itself (we didn't yet know it was called Thanksgiving Day), we simply went on a hike in the nearby hills!

As we were coming back in the afternoon, we found everything terribly quiet in our neighborhood; never did we realize what was going on in millions of homes all over the country!

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In the fall of our second year, quite by chance, we met an American friend whom we had known a few years before in our home university. We started chatting with her and at some point she asked us if we would like to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. We gratefully accepted, not quite realizing what that meant.

We were asked to arrive at 2 p.m. which we thought was a bit late for lunch (we had little knowledge of how the day was organized) and we were greeted warmly by her parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and many children. Then, as we went from the kitchen to the children's room, and then to the living room where a football game was showing on TV, we realized that we wouldn't be eating for some time yet. That afternoon and then evening, we discovered a totally new celebration with its well-established traditions, both culinary and social.

A year later, our first Thanksgiving Day initiation was long over, and we weren't really thinking about doing anything special. But our son enrolled in a preschool program started talking about Thanksgiving as well the size of the turkey we would have and all the trimmings that would go with it. So we decided to give the meal a try. In addition, since the playground we took him to was next to a football field, we watched with interest the local game that morning without really understanding the rules.

Little by little, Thanksgiving became part of our family tradition, just like Halloween. Our son, through his contacts at school and his neighborhood friends, knew more about these holidays than we did and was instrumental is helping us get things straight. (It is a well known phenomenon that parents acculturate to a new culture in part through their children).

With time we felt sufficiently comfortable with the Thanksgiving menu that we invited a Belgian couple who had just arrived to join us on that day. It was fun telling them about the tradition (we had done our homework beforehand) and to talk about the events that take place. I had started enjoying football and had learned from a friendly colleague what to look at, and not look at, when watching a game, so we switched on the TV.

With time, our Belgian friends took over organizing the Thanksgiving dinner and, over the years, the number of faces around the table increased as our children were born (their four and our additional one). We continued this tradition of going to their house on that day until we returned to Europe.

During our first years back, we continued celebrating Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day, just as if we were in the States. Our boys would invite a few friends over and we would give them a crash course on the tradition, without the football games though, much to my regret. But with time, things changed a little. We found it more convenient to have the meal on a Saturday since there is no school the next day. Also, we replaced the turkey with a smaller bird (more easily available in our local stores) and we added a European dessert in place of the customary pumpkin pie.

We do phone our Belgian-American friends each year on Thanksgiving Day, however, to get their latest news and give them ours. We keep promising that we will come to their home for the next Thanksgiving, like in the old times, but we still haven't made it over. This said, it is definitely time to do so as our Thanksgiving ritual is becoming much too European.... and is slowing waning!


Photo by Anja Bier on www.publicdomainpictures.net


Reference

Grosjean, F. Bilinguals who are also bicultural. Chapter 10 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

 

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html

François Grosjean's website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch

 

François Grosjean, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, among other books.

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