Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 22, 2021

American traditions in an Asian household

By JINA LIM | September 27, 2021

turkey-for-thanksgiving

HOWCHENG/CC BY 4.0

Lim looks back on her experiences with American holidays over the past eight years.

At my first Thanksgiving dinner, I didn’t have turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy or any type of pie. Instead, there was rice, kimchi, guk and various other Korean side dishes. In fact, at my first Thanksgiving dinner, I had no clue why I didn’t have school that week. I was just happy that I wouldn’t have to do more homework.

On my first Halloween, I just kind of sadly circled my apartment complex in a poor rendition of a bedsheet ghost. I didn’t even have a bag for candy — nor did I know that apartment residents don’t really expect kids to come around knocking for candy.

Of course, all this makes sense when you consider these were my family’s first Thanksgiving and first Halloween since our immigration to the United States, and we had exactly zero American friends. For us, it was an evening like any other.

And this half-hearted celebration of American holidays holds the same for all other “holidays” as well.

I’ve never watched the Super Bowl outside of halftime commercials. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten holiday ham, and frankly, I’ve spent the last eight years’ (which is how long I’ve lived in this country) worth of Fourth of July nights sleeping.

Sometimes, by missing the essence of the large American traditions — how big of a firework I set off, what types of candy I picked up, who I visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas, which team made it to what bracket in March Madness — I feel left out of conversation for the following days. I suppose this is what FOMO is — at least the immigrant version of it, anyway.

I can’t say I haven’t tried to fit in. For my next Halloween, I got my first visit to Spirit Halloween. And let me tell you, it was an experience. For my next Thanksgiving, I begged my mom to prepare the “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner — a table full of turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy and a pie to top it all off — all for our three-member family. Then for Christmas, I went to cut a live pine tree for the Christmas tree (something that would never happen in South Korea — they don’t really offer that service). 

Frankly, having experienced these American customs, I gotta say: It’s kind of underwhelming. 

Trick-or-treating is a little hard with limited English, and I didn’t end up eating most of my candy. I didn’t feel anything too special when eating a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner. Live pine trees do nothing but become a hassle when it’s time to discard them. And the fireworks during the Fourth of July only give my dog anxiety.

I’m now too old for trick-or-treating. We have a plastic tree from Costco now. My family still eats turkey at Thanksgiving, but honestly, that’s more because I really like roasted turkey and that’s the only time of the year my mom will let me get a whole one. And watching fireworks has always been pretty mediocre for me anyways.

But this isn’t to say I regret trying such things. It’s true I never got the often-lauded American holiday experience, but I did get some good memories out of it: the hours of struggle as my sister and I tried to cut down the pine tree, the research that went into my mom and I figuring out how to cook our first turkey and the whole family trying to create some quiet for my dog. 

As an immigrant, I’ve always felt a little bit excluded when it came to these holidays. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one, especially at Hopkins. But I think I’ve always needed someone to tell me that it’s perfectly fine to treat these days just like a normal day.

Sure, celebrate it if you want. Go overboard. Do some Secret Santa exchanges. Maybe you’ll make some new memories and make your own version of these holidays. But also, I just wanted to let people know that it’s perfectly fine to just treat it like any other day. Go to Brody, sleep in some more and maybe hop by the Rec Center. 

Jina Lim is a freshman from Portland, Ore. majoring in International Studies. 

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