Julia Hamilton

Translating Thanksgiving

Julia Hamilton
Translating Thanksgiving

I already find it amply confusing to grapple with all of Thanksgiving’s heavy heritage with my fellow Americans, so I wasn’t super jazzed to have to teach it to French 8 year olds in a language that isn’t theirs. To be honest, although I hope I did my best, I don’t think I did it well.

Thankfully, only three of my teachers asked Thanksgiving lessons of me, although all eleven would have likely said yes had I proposed the topic myself. The idea of condensing the holiday into a 30-45 minute collection of simple words, dates, and pictures while avoiding tokenizing the concerned parties held me back from waving that particular flag. It’s a real shame, though, because I adore Thanksgiving, and I usually celebrate it at least twice a year with friends, then family, when I dive into planning out a handful of key dishes if not an entire meal. In doing that, what I’m celebrating is food, mainly, and my loved ones, and vacation hours, but not that whole feast story that happened in 1621. I would have happily done my lessons strictly on the parts I like about the holiday, but, naturally, my teachers wanted to know where it came from. With them, I was reasonably successful in communicating some of the issues: that there was indeed a harvest festival with the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims in 1621, but that peace didn’t last long, and this sort of rosy picture really isn’t representative of the way we treated and continue to treat Native American populations today, and besides it wasn’t a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as such 200 years later, etc, etc, etc. These conversations happened in French, though, so in the end who knows what I was really communicating.

However, in the classrooms I try to stick to English alone, so any sort of nuance goes right out the window. It has to be black and white or else nobody understands, and the grayer it becomes, the more kids get frustrated, desks get kicked, braids get yanked. Plus, you know, I just feel a little weird talking about things like persecution and marginalization with children, even if they do understand English. Ultimately, my strategy was to communicate that there was a meal that happened in 1621 between ex-Europeans and Native Americans, then just focus on gratitude and family and turkey today. They were pretty jazzed about all the glossy pictures of Thanksgiving food I found online, especially pumpkin pie, which is apparently a wild flavor idea over here. Sweet potato casserole, too. Then we finished up with that hand-turkey thing that all American parents have had to magnetize to their fridges at least once a painful November.

Ultimately, though, I’m not really sure if that strategy was a good one. Since the kids don’t know what “meal” or “Native American”  or really any English words mean, the explanation of 1621 required pictures. Those that clicked for the kids were the super stylized ones with headdresses and war paint, to which they responded with, ah des Indiens! and even a few of those “Indian calls,” I guess, where you make a sound while bopping your hand on your lips. You know, the offensive one, although they don’t really know any better. Clearly I didn’t encourage this, and I repeated “Native American” every time they said Indien, but I’m honestly not sure how well the French language makes that distinction. Amérindien might be a thing, but I’ve never heard anyone use it. I also tried to counter those images with pictures of current Native American activists, plus a map of the sad smattering of reservations that exist today, but their glazed looks didn’t indicate much of any comprehension on that front. So then I’d just move on to pictures of the food, and we’d all have ourselves a good old time.

Now I’m wondering if I should have just broken into French instead of clinging tight to English, or if I should have figured out better pictures, or if I should have done some sort of worksheet situation, or if I should just shut up and stop thinking about it. Currently I’m leaning toward the latter, because it’s the easiest and I'm a coward, with the hope that maybe I at least didn’t make anything worse? Honestly, though, I probably just dug those Native American stereotypes right in their little French brains. Good job, Julia, way to live up to your whiteness.

On a totally unrelated bright side, I was able to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner the following Saturday, even though I subbed roast chicken for turkey and went out of my way to find fresh cranberries for too much money at a specialty imports store. From what I could tell, the three Americans present felt sufficiently at home and the three French people present felt sufficiently stuffed. At least even here in this foreign land I can still hide my regrets in gluttony, drown my regrets in gravy. Maybe I should have just taught that to the kids.

Thanks y'all,