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Back in November, which seems like an eternity ago, I taught my students about the American Festival of Thanksgiving. I compared Thanksgiving to the Hindu festival of Pongal, which is celebrated in January. Pongal is a festival to celebrate the harvest.

Pongal (Tamil: பொங்கல்) means ‘spillover’, as in overflowing pots of rice. It marks the reaping of the harvest, and the change of seasons – the end of the rainy season. Here in Trinco, the population is overwhelmingly Tamil, and Tamils are generally Hindu.

The festival lasts four days, but only the first day is a national holiday. Today marks the day of sun worship. WIthout the sun, crops would not grow, and the world would be consumed by eternal darkness. Tomorrow is a day of worship for cows. Cows are crucial to the farming process, before tractors they were the sole means of tilling land (and still a popular method here in Sri Lanka). Cows provide the milk that is used to make Pongal, a sweet and savory rice cooked with  cardamom, jaggery, raisins, and cashew nuts. The last day of Pongal is a day of bird worship, and also a time for sisters to pray for their brother’s happiness. (Sorry girls, there is no day for your brothers to pray for your happiness)

This morning, one of my coworkers from Sarvodaya called me and asked if he could stop by. He brought me a heaping pile of Pongal, and two bananas. It was delicious. Tomorrow, at 5pm, I will be joining his family for their Pongal celebrations.

I’m curious to see whether any of my students show up for class tomorrow, as it a cultural day of festival – but not a national holiday. As often happens, I’ll find out in the morning whether I have class.

 

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Pongal and bananas.

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012 — 2 Comments

Thanksgiving has come and gone in Sri Lanka, largely it was unnoticed. In an attempt to share some American culture with my students, I decided that the entirety of my classes today would be based on the American festival of Thanksgiving.

I began class by writing the following on the board: Today is Thursday, November 22. In America it Thanksgiving, a holiday that is like Pongal.

The comparison to Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, helped. But I was surprised that the word holiday caused some problems. My students were confused about the difference between a holy day and a holiday. For my later classes I opted to exclude the word holiday, in favor of festival. Things went better.

I then spoke for a few minutes about the festival, telling my students about turkey, parades, pie, and football. Most of this was lost on them, so I pulled out my secret weapon – Charlie Brown.

We watched a great YouTube highlight reel of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Having these visuals helped to convey the holiday. I then brought up some footage from the Macy’s Parade, and they got the concept; they preferred saying big balloons though.

Turkey was a hard sell. They thought I meant chicken, and it took a lot of selling on my part to convince them that a turkey was distinct from a chicken.

When we got to the word pie, I was heartbroken. They had no idea what a pie was, the pictures were of no help. Imagine leading a life and having no conception of pie. After I told them that pie is a sweet, like cake, they were accepting of the strange dish.

Football was an easier sell. Like Europe, Sri Lanka refers to soccer as football. But I had a miniature football that I broke out. My class of boys thought I meant rugby, while the girls just accepted it.

Class went pretty well today.

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As for me, my dinner consisted of rice and curry. This was the first, and hopefully only, Thanksgiving that I ate dinner alone. It was an unremarkable occasion, and it really made me appreciate all of the great Thanksgivings with the family.

A Thanksgiving delayed is better than a Thanksgiving denied. Growing up in a restaurant family you get used to celebrating holidays on off days. The date of celebration doesn’t matter as much as the act of celebrating. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of next Friday, when the Fulbrighters of Sri Lanka will join together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Living and working in Sri Lanka has made me much more thankful for all the amenities we enjoy in America. But this year, the thing I’m most thankful for is my fellow Fulbrighters. It’s great to have someone in your own times zone (and country code) to call or text during those rough moments that invariably arise when living abroad.

I can’t wait to write the blog post Thanksgiving Part Two.

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