Viewing Thanksgiving From Abroad
An American who has traveled extensively around the world shares his perspective on why Americans should truly “give thanks” on Thanksgiving.
I’ve had several opportunities to celebrate that quintessential American holiday—Thanksgiving Day—outside of the United States. When I was 19, I was a teacher in a refugee camp in the Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand. The plight of my Laotian hill-tribe students, displaced by the Vietnam War and its aftermath, preparing to move to other countries with languages and cultures totally foreign to them, made me more thankful for the freedom, stability and prosperity I had always enjoyed—but not always noticed.
Thanksgiving in Asia and France
One year, an American missionary couple who had lived in Asia for decades invited several of us aid workers to their home for Thanksgiving dinner, and it was much like home. The couple knew how to find all the ingredients needed for the traditional meal: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, even pumpkin pie—no mean feat on the banks of the Mekong River.
The missionary offered a prayer of thanks before the meal, and in the course of the day we Americans sang traditional American folk songs, discussed the origins of the holiday and also shared favorite memories of the day. There was an endearing intensity to doing all that in a Buddhist country wilting in tropical heat on the other side of the world.
Years later when my wife and I were living in France, we would gather each year to celebrate Thanksgiving with a group of expatriates and Europeans who had lived in the States. It was easier to find the meal’s ingredients in Europe, but we still felt homesick pondering treasured memories.
It’s been my privilege to see much of the world, some 80 countries on six continents, including some places with the best quality of life, and some with the worst. Most people around the world feel love and loyalty for their home culture, which is good and normal. But I must say that in my experience, the U.S. provides a unique mix of qualities that allow an exceptional quality of life: a blend of physical prosperity, personal and societal freedoms, openness to innovation and progress, technological advancement, and many avenues for personal growth and fulfillment. Many people around the world long to be part of it.
When people in other countries learn that I am an American, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked, sometimes half-jokingly and sometimes in dead earnest, “Please take me home with you!” One African man exclaimed, “I want to go to a country where poor people are fat!”
And we must admit, we Americans didn’t really do anything to deserve all this. These myriad blessings were there when we were born, bequeathed to us by our forefathers who felt strongly that these blessings were continually the gift of a benevolent Creator. Our challenge is to not take these blessings for granted—even though they are all we have ever known.
The importance of giving thanks
William Penn, one of the fathers who set the fledgling colonies on the road to democracy and religious freedom, once said: “The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.”
We see many troubles in the world around us, some possibly quite close to home. Some people focus so much on what they don’t like that they overlook the many good things we enjoy every day.
William Penn’s advice is still timely, and Thanksgiving is an excellent time to consider our blessings in detail. Taking the time to acknowledge the good we’ve received from God will make us happier. As the psalmist said, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD. … For You, LORD, have made me glad through Your work” (Psalm 92:1-4).
Keep the thanks in Thanksgiving.
To learn more about the importance of giving thanks to God, watch our video commentary “Thanksgiving Leftovers.”