Thanksgiving

My first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was in 1971 – shortly after I was placed with my adoptive family. That year, the Thanksgiving holiday also fell on my 3rd (presumed) birthday – as it does now every 9 or so years – and my adoptive family has always made a big deal of this fact. The holiday and my birthday have always been connected. My birthday has been so tied to Thanksgiving that after I grew up and left the home, my parents often forgot to call me on my actual birthday if it didn’t land on the holiday.

My parents are traditionalists and I grew to love the Norman Rockwell idea of Thanksgiving. Usually my mom hosted and both sets of grandparents attended, sometimes with other relatives as well. We did the same thing every year – roast turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with roasted marshmallows on top, and pies. We also had a birthday cake every year.¬†Most years the table was decorated with assorted crafts that my siblings and I had made in school – inspired by the lore of the “first Thanksgiving” shared by Pilgrims and Indians. This false presentation of the relationship between the colonial settlers and the first nations peoples became paper pilgrim hats and hands eagle feather headdresses on the dining room table. We always held hands and took turns saying what we were thankful for. I was never one who comfortably publicly stated thanks in a circle, not as a child and still now as an adult. Fortunately, my adoptive parents have never made me feel like I should express gratitude for having been adopted; though they were quick to give thanks for my presence in the family. My dad or my grandfather would say the grace, always including thanking of “the hands that prepared the meal.” Never did the Thanksgiving dinner prayer include a land acknowledgement that we were on stolen indigenous land.

It wasn’t until I was in my undergraduate social work program that I first really learned about the extent of the Native American boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Program. Learning about the removal of Indian children into white adoptive families and boarding schools as a form of cultural genocide was a defining moment. I had already begun the work of critically analyzing Thanksgiving as a problematic centering of white settler colonialism. As I described in my essay in Parenting as Adoptees, when my daughter was 12, she became upset when her grandmother asked her to read a story about the “first Thanksgiving” that she knew was problematic. Back then, however, I wasn’t ready to take a hard stand; I learned from my daughter that trying to placate family came at the cost of one’s own moral self. I was still setting aside my own values in order to maintain peace in the family.

The idea that we were supposed to go around the table and be thankful on a day centering the attempts to excise indigenous people – including through adoption – became more difficult for me each year. And for this day to be so centrally tied to my own birthday, or rather the date assigned to me because there is no way to verify my actual birth date, seemed like one more lie, on top of lie, on top of lie. Thanksgiving had become our family’s version of “gotcha day,” and I realized that in addition to staying quiet about problematic narratives about our first nations people, I’d been expressing thankfulness for problematic narratives about my adoption. Of course, it didn’t have to be either/or; we could have acknowledged that both gains and losses could occur as a result of adoption. But in my family, like the fake Thanksgiving story about the “first shared dinner” between Pilgrims and Indians, only one side of the story was allowed.

One of the other concerns I have about the holiday is that since 2004, it has also become National Family Health History Day. This initiative is sponsored by the Surgeon General’s office every year and the idea is that while everyone is sitting around the dinner table eating their turkey and mashed potatoes, that the family will talk about the health patterns that run in the family. Great idea – unless there are adoptees at that table, who have no access to our family health history.

This year, my kids are visiting us. My kids are adults and live in another state so we don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like – so we are taking advantage of the long weekend and flying them out to visit. I will cook a big turkey dinner on Saturday with Mr. Harlow’s Monkey’s brother and wife, and we will have all the traditional food I’ve grown to love. And we will talk about our family’s health – including the lack of health that I, and my kids, have. Our conversation will have to focus on what we can and must consider as people without full access to our genetic health history.

But today, we will be celebrating our Korean American family. I made kalbijim, a savory short rib and vegetable stew. We will sit around the table to make kimbap and homemade mandu – things I wish I could have done with my Korean family. And we will make pies. The holiday is, after all, supposed to be about celebrating the harvest and recognizing the hard work that results from the seeds we plant.

I am striving to pass on different traditions to my kids, ones that I hope they will pass on with their friends and families. This is what I am thankful for; this is what I planted and nurtured for many years and now have the benefit to reap: a family that celebrates multiple identities and values, a community of social justice-minded friends and colleagues, and the ability to make and enjoy life together. I miss my potluck gang in Minneapolis this time of year the most. We often celebrated “Cranksgiving” together. We were (and still are) a hodgepodge of folks who had formed into a family of another kind. Most of all, as I turn 50 this year, my 47th in the U.S., I’m thankful to have found my community and my voice and the opportunities to be part of a larger reframing of the adoptee narrative.