Saturday, November 28, 2015

On "Being Thankful"

A hand turkey. Image source.

A strange thing happens whenever I teach about Thanksgiving in China.

I ask the students to discuss this question: "What are you thankful for?" After letting them talk among themselves (in English, this is in the context of an ESL class), I do a little bit of error correction. Because most of them didn't catch that being thankful for something has a different meaning than being thankful to someone.

"I am thankful for..." and then you list the good things in your life. Your job, family, home, etc. "I am thankful to..." means you want to say "thank you" to someone. Your parents, your friends, God, etc. (Somewhat confusingly, these can also go on the "thankful for" list.)

Anyway, in the end, the students come away with this message: the meaning of Thanksgiving Day is to go thank people for everything they've done for us. And indeed, this week on wechat (Chinese social media app) I saw a post in Chinese which said basically "Today is Thanksgiving in western countries. Thank you to our parents, for giving us life. Thank you to our teachers, for giving us knowledge. Thank you to our friends, for giving us friendship." and on and on and on, all the people we should thank. It was really beautiful and poetic, in my opinion.

The problem is, that's not the meaning of Thanksgiving at all. Or, at least, it's so completely different from the way I've always understood Thanksgiving.

I remember in school, we used to have to write an answer to the question "What are you thankful for?" (Sometimes this answer was in the form of a hand turkey, obviously.) And my family has a tradition where we go around the dinner table and each person says what they're thankful for. But you can't repeat what someone else said. (And then sometimes it became a game, and we just kept going and going and you're out if you can't think of anything when it's your turn. Until someone says "I'm thankful for quantum tunneling" and that prompts everyone else to quit the game because it's been completely overrun by nerdiness. Yeah that's how we roll.)

Yeah, we always talked about what we were thankful for. But did we ever think about the "thankful to" part? Did we ever think about who we were thanking?

Aha! Yes, we did! The correct answer is God.

Except, not really. The whole "it's about being thankful to God" thing is more about a culture war than about actually thanking someone. It's about Christians getting all upset about how Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday, and isn't it terrible how our culture has lost sight of that, and kids in public school are writing "I am thankful for" but the lesson never mentions the name of God and isn't that the most horrible thing, it robs Thanksgiving of all its meaning, etc etc etc.

Thanksgiving, as I learned it, was about me having a vague feeling of thankfulness. Vaguely in the general direction of God. It's about me being happy about the things in my life. It's about "being thankful." It's NOT about actually thanking anyone. Yeah, they say it's about thanking God, but does anyone actually talk about what that means? Do we believe these good things were given to us personally by God? Or just because God made a world full of good things and the potential for happiness? Did God cause those good things only in a general sense, or actually with you personally in mind? And what about the bad things in our lives, or in the world- did God cause those too?

No, the average Christian (in US evangelical culture, at least) doesn't think about those questions. "Thanking God" is just a vague label that gets applied to positive things in one's life. Does it actually mean anything?

So I'm always a little bit shocked when I teach Chinese students about Thanksgiving, and they decide they're going to actually go out and thank someone. But I never tell them "no that's not what Thanksgiving is about" because, geez, that SHOULD BE what Thanksgiving is about.

(And if you're wondering about whether I totally omit the part where "Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday" in my lessons: I tell them the story about the pilgrims, and how the pilgrims were Christians and they thanked God. I tell them that Thanksgiving is about being thankful, and so for people who are religious, they would thank God. But most Chinese people aren't that religious, so I don't present it like "this is the entire point of Thanksgiving and if you're not a Christian then this holiday has no meaning for you." That would be ridiculous. And mean. And also not an accurate representation of the place that Thanksgiving holds in American culture- which is what I'm supposed to be teaching.)

It just shows how selfish and individualistic American culture (or American Christian culture) is, that we've created a holiday all about thanks, and yet it never occurs to us to actually thank someone. It's all about you and thinking about your own life. It's about "being thankful"- just a warm feeling, but not related to relationships between people or anything like that.

My Chinese students got it right though. Go actually thank someone this Thanksgiving.

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