thoughts on an itinerant Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving from me, an immigrant.

Or am I an expat? There’s a huge difference in privilege and expectation between those two words. I wasn’t forced out of my home country by oppression or war or danger, thank goodness. But I am American, and I live in the Netherlands, and I plan to stay. I applied for dual citizenship when that became possible, and now I am “Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain,” a phrase I put at the beginning of my bio to indicate both my hireability throughout the EU and an aspect of my identity. So, I’m an immigrant: a permanent settler in a new country. The word “expat” often implies something temporary: a state of privileged displacement for a period of months or years, a chosen state of non-integration. Expats don’t learn the local language; expats only hang out with other expats. Some people start as expats but stay long-term, and some find the transition to a new place too difficult and leave despite earlier intentions. Artists are sometimes put idealistically in a different category—citizens of the world, drawing inspiration from everywhere, etc.—but whether we just study abroad (as I did in London from 2004-06) or permanently relocate (as I now have), we’re still immigrants, or expats. We still have to grapple with feelings of cultural displacement, loss, and loneliness, and never more so than around the holidays.

I try to stick up for immigrants. I haven’t experienced anything like the suffering many have, of course, but since I can speak from a place of privilege, I will always emphasize whenever given the chance that it is so hard to move to a country you didn’t grow up in—and that’s from someone who made the change by choice. Anyone who has ever moved abroad will tell you that no matter how great the new country is, no matter what benefits and joys are found there, changing countries also causes deep-seated feelings of loss. We’ve lost a shared cultural frame of reference with those around us; we’ve lost the comfort of other people automatically understanding our codes and body language and hints; we’ve lost our hard-won adult knowledge of how to get by from day to day; we face daily the challenges of learning a new set of systems, expectations, behaviors, social cues. Friendships made in a new place take on an outsized importance, because so little around us feels familiar. And even if we don’t stay long, we experience a different loss when we move back home: the loss of innocence about where we grew up, because we’ve been forced to reconsider our assumptions and see our culture as an outsider does. If you’re American and you’ve spent a few Thanksgivings abroad, you may solemnly vow that you’ll never take pumpkin pie for granted again, but you also may feel awkward whenever someone asks about the origin of the holiday, because it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that we’re celebrating a genocide; American history is defined by genocide; we eat and drink ourselves silly on the last Thursday in November to celebrate how European settlers deprived the only American non-immigrants of their lives, livelihood, land, and personhood, for centuries.

Nonetheless, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, and living abroad has only strengthened that feeling even while making me aware of the hypocrisy of our nostalgia for it. My first two Thanksgivings abroad were in 2004 and 2005 in London. I remember cooking both dinners in ill-equipped tiny dorm kitchens with Leat, Suzanne, and Tania, fellow Americans studying at Guildhall and living in the student halls. I remember introducing friends and flatmates from other places to the excesses and absurdly strong feelings associated with this meal. I remember, that first year, that after everything else was made, I tossed a bunch of leftover cut apples in a dish with some flour and oats and butter, stuck it in the oven, and forgot about it until two hours later, after dinner was long over. Remembering the apples suddenly through a contented fog of rich food, I jumped up from the table, thinking they would be beyond burned. But that makeshift apple crumble, the dessert to our dessert at Sundial Court in November 2004, was absolutely the most delicious thing we ate that night: by way of a long slow bake, but mostly because in the meantime we’d enjoyed the unwinding of this meal and all of its oranges and reds and greens, and the swapping of stories, and the learning of each other’s loves and traditions, and too much wine, and laughs over small cooking failures. That crumble tasted so good because over the course of the evening, the confusion and snatching away of identity we all felt, as newcomers to a massive and uncaring city like London, had begun to settle slowly into the warm, sweet crevices of good company, like the juices of apple and sugar slowly caramelizing down to a rich amber in the bottom of the white ceramic baking dish bought at a shabby junk market in Old Street.

I know a lot more about myself now, as a person and as an artist, than I did then. I can look back on all these celebrations abroad, every pang I ever felt at being away, and know that I would never trade it in for an unbroken string of holidays at home, not ever. If I moved back to the US now, I would feel equally strong pangs of missing people I love to distraction in so many other cities and countries. I wouldn’t be half the musician and performer and artist and person I am without all this soul-searching, all this wandering, all this exposure to the new. My heart no longer belongs to one place or set of traditions; it belongs instead to the diaspora of North Americans around the world and the people who love them, and to all the curious and good-humored friends in other countries who gamely agree to contribute a dish to this strange excessive meal they hardly understand, and to dinners I have shared in every kind of kitchen, and to all the ways we find of trying to make ourselves feel comfortable and safe and warm when the circumstances are stacked against us and we are terribly lonely.

Today, Thanksgiving 2019, a full fifteen years after my first Thanksgiving abroad, I am in London again. I’m preparing for a recital with dear friend Maggie Cole on Saturday, and this morning we rehearsed some glorious Gluck and Poulenc and Ravel before parting ways—she to teach, me to make a dessert for tonight’s little celebratory dinner. I planned to make an apple pie, but it turned into a free-form apple and pear galette. I’m now entirely used to adapting my formerly rigid approach to pie-making (seriously, y’all, my mom still makes the best apple pies in the world—fight me) to whatever materials, fruits, grains and butters are closest to hand. The galette looks pretty great, and I’m excited to eat it later with close friends.

But mostly I’m feeling exceptionally grateful to able to spend a holiday doing work that I love in a city that continues to inspire me although I no longer live here, complete with plenty of texting and social media and video calls (all technologies that were in their infancies in 2004) with dear people in a number of countries, and, of course, plenty of good eating and drinking, whether the food is traditional or not.

Happy Thanksgiving, whoever and wherever you are. Hug an immigrant today.