It’s Thanksgiving week here in Rebgong, and yet I’ve never felt farther from the holiday. Its foods, its familiar rituals, its spirit of giving thanks for mundane yet important matters – all of these are so distant from my current life as to seem alien, otherworldly. The climate seems to know that the holiday is approaching; there’s been snow on the mountains for weeks, and fragile, sparkling sheets of ice are encroaching upon the river’s gradually lessening flows. But the holiday is just as far away as ever.
My one concession to Thanksgiving so far was making a delicious pumpkin pie last week. After celebrating Halloween with our first-year students, I realized that the presence of pumpkins in Rebgong (even though the traditional canned pumpkin was unavailable) would facilitate the making of pies. And so I decided to indulge my wistfulness for that late-fall early-winter season in the Northeast States, where the browned leaves crackle under the thin layer of snow carpeting the ground, the skeletal remains of trees whisper in the wind, and the crispness of the air jolts you into an awareness higher than that you already know. The woods and fields are as in Robert Frost poetry, idealized and ideal, as you run through a landscape picked to the bone, simplified to abstraction, hushed, anticipating. And inside, the incomparable warmth of a fire complemented by fresh hot cider. While less colorful than the famed foliage of fall, early winter in the Northeast is no less exciting to the senses; Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia followed by Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame de Ronchamp; romantic opulence to modernistic sparseness.
Here in Rebgong, when I travel upvalley to the forest, I can capture some of the sensations and feelings of my native seasons. Trees seem to recapture something of the familiar, spatial memories which remain and pervade despite apple cider and pumpkin pie being replaced by yak butter tea and tsamba.
Its a strange thing about memory that a tiny item we sense – smell, taste, feel, touch or see – can trigger mental images so vivid and sensually complete that at times you lose yourself inside them. The sight of a pumpkin brings forth memories of time, place, people, smells, sights, and thoughts, long been resting dormant in the subconscious; a song or a smell does the same. With but a pinprick of stimulus, these associations and links all come rushing down from their attic hiding-places to push aside everything else and fill the void of our active imaginations. We are halted; other activity slows to a halt while we replay our former lives inside our heads, the sixteen-screen megaplex of self running at full bore, the audience made up of I, rows and rows of I filling the theaters and spilling out into the streets, an I who laughs at the funny moments and cries at the sad; cringes at awkardness and rages at anger and smiles at love and comfort and memories of early winter in the Northeast.
My students generally lack context for the bits of American culture (and of my personal heritage) that I occasionally feed them. On Halloween, numerous first year students cut off the top of their pumpkins only to stare amazedly at the vegetable’s inside, asking “teacher, where did you buy this thing?” Coming from a grassland diet of meat, yogurt and barley products, most had never seen a pumpkin outside of their TV frames. Similarly, many don’t completely understand the idea of Judaism; according to TV, Americans are generally white Christians or else unbelievers.
As we approach the holiday season and its accompanying overbearing commercial insanity, it’s strange to be so removed from any reference at all to familiar holidays. Unlike even Xining, Rebgong has no government-issued Santas taped to store windows. In this completely removed environment, I’m planning to teach the kids about Thanksgiving and Chanuka. Through it all, school goes on as normal; the massive Thanksgiving migration of America is only evident here in the movement of nomads and farmers into and out of town, and, possibly, the wandering of yaks along the snowcovered hillsides. No holiday is in evidence in the streets or on the calendar. But despite the lack of context, we will find ways here to celebrate and give thanks.
For after all, there is some leftover pumpkin pie