A Fine Farang Feast: Thanksgiving in Thailand

Despite the Thai garlic, the shoelace-sized Chinese green beans, wearing flip-flops at the dinner table, and, you know, being in Bangkok, it was rather American Thanksgiving.

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published November 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

BANGKOK — We are farang. Foreigners. The Thai word actually refers to the French who were the first foreigners to come to Thailand and the word has been co-opted to mean all Westerners.

We live in the farang section of Bangkok. There are Pizza Huts, KFCs (all with a lifesize plastic statue of the Colonel out front), and McDonald’s (lifesize Ronalds). The nearest grocery store to us caters to farang, with items you can’t find in Thai groceries, like bar-b-que potato chips, bagels and cream cheese, natural peanut butter and frozen vegetables. It even sells a cookbook titled, “How To Cook Farang Food!”

And this week it had a display for Thanksgiving with an odd mix of foods they assume American farang eat on this culinary holiday of ours, including French onion dip, Tabasco sauce and tahini. Kate got stuffing. Good thing it’s stove-top because Thai kitchens don’t have ovens. Also, you can EAT farangs in Thailand. The word also means a local fruit.

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So Kate and I made a fine vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with highlights that included Kate’s savory “First Thanksgiving Pumpkin Soup” she made from scratch (read: no cans, no recipe) and the creamy, yummy, somebody-stop-me-from-me-from-eating-too-much mashed potatoes (recipe from Mommason Rope).

While cooking we listened to a good selection of American music including Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie (via Billy Bragg) and Aaron Copeland with that Shaker song (“It’s a gift to be simple. It’s a gift to be free…”) that Kate sang to her Thai teacher the other day as the only Thanksgiving song she knew (forgetting Adam Sandler’s T-day song with such clever and hilarious lines as “Turkey for me and turkey for you. I like to eat turkey from a big brown shoe.”). Save the wee Thai garlic, the shoelace-sized Chinese green beans, wearing flip-flops at the dinner table, and, you know, being in Bangkok, it was rather American.

Before eating we made a secular list of things we’re thankful for: each other, family, friends, good health and being here (with a special toast to my boss Christopher for obvious reasons). After dinner we watched the movie “Office Space” on my brother Matthew’s recommendation. Hey, Matt, we thought it was funny.

Alright, lacking structure, here are some random sights and sounds around the city as of late:

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Kate and I were taking an evening stroll though Lumpini Park (the Central Park or Golden Gate Park of Bangkok) when, at 6 pm on the nose, a whistle blew and everyone froze. We froze too. Looking around, everyone in the park was on pause. Joggers, walkers, the rows of people doing public synchronized old-school calisthenics — all still. And then we heard music, the Thai national anthem, playing somewhere off in the distance. It was short, just long enough for us to recognize what was happening and note that there was no hand-on-heart or bowed heads, just stillness. Another whistle blow and everyone snapped back into action.

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Saw my first elephants out of a zoo. Had to stand aside on the sidewalk in the financial district (think Wall Street or lower Kearny St.) as a baby elephant passed. His trainer wanted to sell me some stalks of something to feed it. I passed on buying it dinner but gave it a nice rub on the back as we passed. Poor thing. There should be a law. Then a huge elephant passed on the other side, in the street. It had a basket you could ride in and on the back of the basket was a CD being used as a reflector for traffic.

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In a walk around our ‘hood I stumbled upon the American embassy which is near our apartment. Out front, in the evening, two Thais were meditating for peace — a Buddhist response to a very un-compassionate American “war on terrorism.”

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There’s a huge market on the outskirts of town called Chatuchak. It’s football field-sized and packed to the spare inch with wares of all types. From ugly colored glass menagerie animals to illegal reptiles (sign on terrarium: “No picture!”) to pastel-shaded flamingo-print night shirts and full roasted pigs. One whole section was devoted to cock fighting roosters being sized up and men betting on dueling beta fish. But the weirdest thing I saw was a little polished-wood gay bar in the middle of all the madness. Kate and I munched on sweet sesame seed-studded peanuts and drank blue margaritas while George Michael played loudly above.

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People have been asking me about Thai television. I watch a little BBC and there’s a great station that plays Indian music all day, but, like American television, it’s mostly junk, only some of it is in a foreign language. Here is list of shows from the Thai television station XZYTE: Life Camera Action II, Don’t Try This At Home III, Totally Out Of Control, Extreme Cuisine II, Over The Edge, Challengers Of Fire, and … Show Me The Funny. And that’s all in one evening.

And finally, the Thai version of Happy Birthday. It is sung in English and the words are nearly the same but they have managed to turn it into a pop song. You’re gonna have to wait and hear us sing it. (We got to perform a duet the other night at a dinner party when, to our delight, someone had a birthday. No one thought it was as funny as we did. We kept singing after the candles were blown out).

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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