Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in Cambodia

Our first Thanksgiving in Cambodia has come and gone now. There were highs and lows, and I’ve learned a few things that will help make this Christmas and next Thanksgiving feel more like home. It’s all part of adjusting to life outside the United States …

In Egypt, I knew I was spoiled, but only now am I realizing just how greatly I was spoiled. With the commissary, there was no worry about whether familiar foods would be available. I picked up a frozen turkey, canned cranberry sauce, and all the ingredients I would need for my cornbread dressing, Mom’s sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, crescent rolls, and other sides and desserts. I spent many hours in the kitchen preparing most of the dishes from scratch, never even considering the use of a dressing mix or a gravy packet. Here, this year … well, it was different.

I’ve been exhausted lately, and a little emotional, and I’m pretty sure it has to do with the adjustment to all the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of a new country after experiencing such a tumultuous and stressful year that depleted my emotional reserves. The thought of preparing a huge Thanksgiving meal was overwhelming, even more overwhelming than the first year I hosted a Thanksgiving gathering, roasted my first turkey, or prepared most of the meal myself from scratch (the milestones from each of my three years in Egypt). The shopping alone was daunting, as I haven’t visited all the grocery stores yet and am not certain of what tends to be available and what isn’t. But this is the first Thanksgiving that Alexa has a decent chance of remembering (although I’m betting on next year being the one), and so when friends invited us to share Thanksgiving with them at their home, Jeff hesitated, and I went along with his preference to decline. (The first Jeff knows of my reluctance will be when he reads this blog, so don’t think badly of him!)

I’m not sure why I didn’t start planning for Thanksgiving earlier. I knew it was coming—I prepared for the annual Thanksgiving Day Christmas ornament competition with his mom and stepfather weeks ago. We had ordered a frozen turkey, a frozen pumpkin pie, and cool whip from the commissary in Bangkok, which was due to arrive early Thanksgiving week. But the rest of the dishes … I just didn’t think about them until Tuesday, when the commissary shipment arrived, minus the pumpkin pie (apparently they’d sold out). Maybe it was Jeff’s disappointment at the absence of the pie that made me get in gear and start planning, in hopes of finding a frozen pumpkin pie or at least the ingredients to make one from scratch. So I made my plans for a simplified Thanksgiving meal and wrote out my shopping list.

When I say “simplified Thanksgiving meal,” I really mean it. My plans were to have turkey, dressing, green beans, and some kind of bread for the main meal, and pumpkin pie for dessert. That’s it. With only two adult mouths and one toddler mouth to feed, I figured it would be plenty. The problem arose when I went to the supermarket on Wednesday evening.

As soon as I walked in the door, I saw a couple of ladies that I know from the embassy. I asked them about the two items at the top of my shopping list: dressing mix and pumpkin pie. They responded that dressing mix and frozen pumpkin pies absolutely are not available here. Dressing is made from scratch—which would have been fine, except that I didn’t recall the ingredients mine calls for, and I wasn’t sure if cornmeal was available anyway (it is), and the recipe makes enough to feed an army and is difficult to reduce enough to make sense for a gathering of three. So it became apparent pretty quickly that dressing was off the menu, and I had no idea what to have in its place. Moving on to the pumpkin pie, no problem, I had written down the ingredients to make one just in case. But then … one of the ladies said “Don’t use the pumpkin from the produce section, it’s weird and doesn’t taste good.” And the other followed up with “You can’t get canned here. I get mine and the stuffing mix in my consumables shipment from the States.” Thus began a conversation, the gist of which is that one grocery store that I’d never heard of had canned pumpkin at some point in the past and may or may not have it now but probably not because it is, after all, the day before American Thanksgiving. So pumpkin pie is off the menu … and my heart broke. I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, although I like it okay. But Jeff is. It’s the one dish he eagerly anticipates, and I wasn’t going to be able to provide it for him.

The rest of the shopping is a blur. I couldn’t get the two things I really needed for Thanksgiving, so I just picked up the other, more usual, items. And three boxes of cookies. And four beers. And a cake mix, and chocolate icing to accompany it. And the ingredients for “chocolate crack,” Jeff’s favorite sweet, except that there was no vanilla extract, so I’m not sure how that will turn out when I get around to making it. Anything that struck me as potential comfort food, I grabbed. My Thanksgiving meal was down to turkey, green beans, and whatever improvisation I could manage. I needed comfort food.

On Thursday morning, I put the turkey in the oven and left it for three hours, finally taking it out before the timer popped because it had been in 15 minutes longer than it was “supposed” to need. (It turned out great; the timer popped while it was resting, and the turkey was delicious and juicy.) While it cooked, I settled on mashed potatoes as my third dish, hoping against hope that the potatoes in my fridge were still good, were big enough, and that I had whatever else was required to make mashed potatoes from scratch (I’ve always used a mix). I was thrilled to discover that it required only potatoes, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. I set about peeling, quartering, and boiling the potatoes—I had just enough, after I cut out the brown spots. When they were done, I realized a glaring absence … my potato masher is in a box somewhere at sea. I mashed my potatoes with a spoon and a wire whisk—I think I need a new whisk, and the potatoes were extra chunky, but it worked. After the potatoes were done, Jeff carved the turkey while I popped the canned green beans in the microwave and whipped up the cake mix. Alexa woke from a nap just in time to devour way more than I thought her little tummy could hold (the way she’s been eating, she must be coming up on a growth spurt).

As we sat around the wobbly little table in our kitchen (three people around an 8-person formal dining table just feels lonely), eating our sparse-by-our-standards “feast,” my emotions were conflicted. I missed my childhood home and the large, loud gathering and the 7-plus-dish meal (not counting the three or more desserts!) that I assume happened there yesterday. I felt inadequate because I hadn’t provided that for my husband or for my daughter. But, at the same time, I was and am incredibly thankful for my family, for the food that we eat, for the roof over our head, and for the opportunity to live this crazy nomadic life, even though we do sacrifice some of the wonderful things about life in America that we always took for granted before.

I realized—again!—that it all comes down to choice and compromise. We want this, so we can’t have that. We decide to go here, so we can’t be there. And I decided, again, and probably not for the last time, that I’m okay with the choices we’ve made. This Thanksgiving felt a little out of whack, a little lonely, a little overwhelming in its demands and a little underwhelming in its results. But when we were in Egypt, we didn’t have a Thanksgiving until we’d been there for over six months, made tons of friends, and gotten comfortable in our lives there. Here, it was just too soon, and I was unprepared. Christmas will be better—I’m starting on that menu tomorrow!—and next Thanksgiving will be even better. We’ll settle in, we’ll make more friends, and we’ll feel comfortable in our lives here.

And above all, I won’t stress so much about making it the traditional holiday that I neglect the reason behind the holiday, like I did with Thanksgiving this year. It shouldn’t have been about the meal. It should have been about being thankful. Christmas won’t be about the meal, or the presents, or the decorations that we may not even have yet if our stuff takes a while to clear customs once it finally arrives in-country. It will be about celebrating the birth of our Savior and the Love that sent Him to us. It will be about celebrating faith and love and life with my family.

And so my belated Thanksgiving “I am thankful for” statement is this: I am thankful for lessons learned (again and again, when necessary), for second chances to remember and focus on the important things, and for a God who is willing to teach me and remind me and show me over and over just how greatly He’s blessed me. Even when I feel exhausted, emotional, and overwhelmed.


  1. Hi Deborah, I am quite fond of the name since its my moms name! I too had similar issues with thanksgiving dinner this year in Phnom Penh. I was hoping to get an invite from a friend that I knew had an oven, but when that didnt pan out I scrambled to get some semblance of a meal together with some other friends. It ended up being a lovely gathering of american and international friends- but also a meatless thanksgiving since you cant get a turkey on short notice here. I am happy to share a wonderful stove top recipe for stuffing with you made from scratch, if you like, and pumpkin pie can be purchases from either Java Cafe on Sihanok blvd or Jars of Clay over by the Russian Market. I love learning about other people's expat experiences! Lauren

  2. Hi, Lauren, I'm glad you were able to have a good Thanksgiving, even if it was meatless! I would love to have your stovetop stuffing recipe--like I mentioned, I would need to be cooking for a pretty large gathering for my recipe to make sense. Here's to a wonderful Christmas for both of us!

  3. Hi Deborah,
    I stumbled onto your blog while searching out life in Maadi, Cairo. We will be moving there in a 18 months. It looks like your NOMAD life is moving the opposite direction of mine. Years ago I lived in Penang, Malaysia while attending bible school with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) then married and moved all over the US then in 2005 we live 3 1/2 years outside Tokyo, Japan which we loved. I also had the great oppty. to take two trips to Cambodia. Once through Phom Phen and twice to Siem Reap where I taught English via the YWAM base there. Cambodia is a hard post but the people will capture your heart. They are truly humble and lovely people filled with such a horrible past. May God bless you and your family as you live and work there. I would love to talk to you about Christian life in Cairo when you have the time, please email at

  4. Hi Deborah,

    I found your blog while searching online for info on natural and home births in Egypt and read your birth story blog. I at first thought your birthing experience took place in Cairo, and I was so excited to find someone who had managed to find a midwife and accomplish an all-natural birth in Cairo (doctors here are very keen on medical intervention).

    My husband and I live in Cairo (we're Americans). Realizing you had the same views for your birth experience as I have for mine (all natural, midwife, etc.), I was wondering if you have happened to find out anything on the matter here in Cairo. I haven't been able to find a midwife (though we're looking at flying one in), but have run into issues with the embassy not being willing to help us get a birth certificate and such should we do a home birth with a midwife. They just said, "tough luck" and now won't respond to my emails (it was evident I was communicating with an Egyptian and not an American). If you found out anything regarding how-to's in accomplishing your natural birthing views in Cairo, I would love any info/advice/direction you may have. My email is Thanks and many blessings to you! --Amber Berry


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