When You're In A Cross-Cultural Relationship, Thanksgiving Is All About Compromise
When I asked my British-American partner of three years to spend Thanksgiving with my fully Persian, several-years-off-the-boat extended family, I knew getting through the holiday unscathed would be no small feat. But that's what you do when you're in a cross-cultural relationship: You bring people together and learn to compromise. Still, I couldn't comprehend just how different our habitual Thanksgiving celebrations had been — his were all stuffing and gravy, whereas mine? Let's just say there was always a little more room for kebab.
"Thanksgiving is a time for families to come together who may have very different ways of interacting and expectations of one another," Iris Benrubi, M.A. marriage counsellor, psychotherapist, and relationship coach, tells me. "Different cultures have different ways and expectations around the holidays, but all are valid. One is not better than the other, only different."
My partner's father is British, and his mother is American. By the time we began dating during our senior of college, he had been living in the States full-time for over three years. During that period, he'd been partaking in Turkey Day with his mother's relatives in New Jersey, where he celebrated a quintessentially American Thanksgiving: a large, buffet-style meal around lunchtime where all the usual suspects were invited (sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, a pesky uncle or two), followed by hours of watching football. The dress-code was casual-casual, with stretchy waistband-pants strongly advised.
If my partner's Thanksgiving was what's considered traditional, then mine is completely contemporary.
My Iranian parents both immigrated to the United States for school, but stayed and started lives here in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My mother's family — my grandparents, aunts, cousins — all followed suit in the succeeding years, while my father's family mostly remained in Iran. I was raised within a tight-knit Persian community, where I learned valuable skills like speaking Farsi, Persian history and poetry, and carrying the weight of the diaspora around with me wherever I go. My Thanksgiving has always looked less like a Golden Retriever and more like a mutt. Sure, we have the basics, too: We eat turkey and gather with family. But we've also created our own rituals, which I realize are as foreign to American Thanksgiving as we are. But we celebrate them nonetheless because it makes us feel more connected to American culture.
Despite our cultural differences, my partner has always gotten along very well with my parents, so he agreed to be 2018's guest of honor. I tried to warn him beforehand that he might find our celebration somewhat odd, which Dr. Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California specializing in couples therapy, says is crucial. "Preparation is helpful," she says. "If you are bringing your partner home for Thanksgiving, help your partner anticipate what Thanksgiving is like with your family. What are the ways in which your family celebrate the holiday? Allow your partner to ask questions and to voice concerns."
Although my partner had celebrated Nowruz, the Persian new year, with my family, he had never joined us for a traditionally American holiday before — and he had questions. Will there be games?" he asked. "Will we watch football?" I patted him on the back, and he sighed. He already knew the answers.
The day of, my partner and I didn't dare arrive empty-handed: We had expertly crafted the mashed potatoes that morning, a recipe we had concocted together, seasoned with chives, prepared with garlic, and doused in truffle oil. I had advised my partner to dress a bit more formally, so he was in a button-down and dress pants. I had opted for a long, black dress. We rang the doorbell, and my mother answered. She was dressed in a long satin dress, bejeweled earrings, and a matching necklace, an ornate shawl, and similarly dyed heels on her feet. She was a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor.
"Salam! Happy Thanksgiving! Please come on in," she greeted us warmly, before leaning to kiss my partner on both cheeks. He looked up at me, confused, and I grinned. I told you, I whispered. We were in for a wild ride.
You see, Persians don't do "casual holidays." If we're celebrating anything, we're going all out, which, for my mother, usually means dimmed lighting, mood music, and dressing for a royal wedding. As we entered the apartment, we were greeted by the rest of my family, all clad in similar garb. My father rushed to the door, taking the mashed potatoes from my partner's hands.
"How kind," he said with a smile, before taking the pot and hiding it away in the kitchen with all the other reject food.
"Dinner is served!" My mother called out from behind him.
Thanksgiving dinner, which we eat closer to 7:00 p.m., is always served right on schedule. My partner and I were starving, as we'd been saving room for the meal all day. As we took a seat at the table, my parents began to lay trays of food down in front of us. I watched as my partner studied each dish. Among the green beans and pecan pies, my Thanksgiving table features traditional Persian dishes like khoresht, a stew-like substance, and mast-khiar, a yogurt and cucumber concoction.
My partner rubbed his belly, and prepared to dig in, but I stopped him short of diving into the gravy. "We can't eat yet," I informed him. "First, we have to go around the table for Sepasgozarim."
Sepasgozarim, or Sepas for short, is a round-robin of blessings that is very crucial element of our Thanksgiving ceremony. It's similar to the American tradition of giving thanks, but involves giving a small speech and saying a prayer. The good news? The practice really can lead to some important revelations. The bad news? It can also take close to 45 minutes and is usually done entirely in Farsi.
I could hear my partner's stomach grumbling across the table throughout the entirety of the Sepas, but still, he respectfully participated in a round, giving thanks for his invitation. According to Erica James-Strayhorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, his involvement was key. "I would suggest each partner invests time in learning about the culture of their partner," she says.
When the last member of my family had finally had their turn (my grandma, and boy, was it a long one), he practically crowd-surfed across the table for a slice of turkey. But it was my aunt who beat him to it, wielding the carving knife like a sword and swiping his plate before he had the chance to say "please."
My aunt piled a heavy helping onto his plate.
"Would you like more?" she asked. He nodded his head. She shoveled a little more brown meat. "A little more?"
"No, thank you," he said.
"Please, I insist," she replied.
"No, really, I'm OK."
"Are you sure? Please, eat a bit more."
"OK, fine," My partner conceded defeat. "I guess I can fit a little more in my stomach."
My partner had failed the basic principles of taarof, a concept of civility that doesn't directly translate to English, but the crux of it is this: You must offer someone something three times, and they must decline all three times before you accept their "no" verbatim. On the receiving end, you must turn down said offer three times, before saying what you really mean. It's like a dance, or a game of chicken — the first person to blink has to endure the suffocating hospitality of the other. I had warned my partner to be on the lookout for taarof, but he must have forgotten.
Once there was food on everyone's plates, and the wine was flowing like Niagara, the scene settled, and everyone engaged in mild chit-chat. It was all very normal: We spoke of our jobs, what we were reading and watching on TV, and even turned to politics. Yes, even foreign families fall prey to political debate during the holiday season. But my partner readily engaged in it, barely blinking an eye when my mother stood up and screamed about the state of our country. I think even caught a twinkle of admiration.
After dinner, when all our plates were cleared and clean, my partner surprised the room by pulling out a deck of cards. "You all have been so gracious in hosting me here tonight," he said. "I've so much enjoyed learning all of your customs and rituals. But now, I'd like to teach you one of my family's Thanksgiving traditions." He cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
"It's a card game called *sshole."
My mother let out a gasp. My aunt giggled into her napkin. I squeezed my partner's hand, surprised but touched by his gesture.
I knew what my partner was doing: He was attempting to incorporate his childhood traditions into our Turkey Day. "It can be heartening to bring your old and cherished traditions into your current Thanksgiving ritual," Dr. Anna Hiatt Nicholaides, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist, tells Elite Daily. "Forming a mix of two different cultures and honoring both of your lineages. Such thoughtful amalgams of traditions can help bond you with your partner and invite friends and family into the new culture you have built with one another."
"I'll play," my grandmother chimed in. "I love cards. Can you teach me the rules?"
I watched incredulously as my partner taught my family the basic rules of the game, divided them into teams of five, and began to play. Through trial and tribulation, they figured out how to gain the upper hand, and how to lose with grace. I beamed, watching the people I love slap down cards and shake hands. That night, we had brought two separate cultures together, and instead of one overpowering the other or the two converging entirely, we had started something new — a synthesis of our own. And I couldn't be more thankful for that.
Erica James-Strayhorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist
Iris Benrubi M.A. marriage counsellor, psychotherapist, and relationship coach.
Dr. Anna Hiatt Nicholaides, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist
Dr. Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California specializing in couples therapy