Cairo / Cultural Exchange / egypt / Food. / teaching

The Thanksgiving story I really want you to read.

If you only ever read one post on my blog, I want you to read this one. It’s only got 2 really crappy cellphone photos and a LOT of words, but I want you to read this one. So pull up a chair and grab the kleenex.

This is my 3rd Thanksgiving out of the country. The last time, in Paris, I dined on chocolate chip pancakes and then  I cooked a Thanksgiving meal for a whole bunch of Brits (still proud that I pulled that off at 22 years old) and we had a wonderful, cozy evening. To be completely honest I can’t remember what the heck I did for the semester I was in Peru, but it probably involved just going out to eat or hanging around my favorite restaurant where I often made myself at home.

About a month and a half ago I started stocking homemade pumpkin puree and mapping out which expat grocery stores carry celery and turkey, assuming I would invite some coworkers and friends to celebrate. A couple of weeks ago I realized that this was going to be rather time consuming and pricey, so I figured, Meh, I’ll just double down on the stuffing at Christmas.  About a week ago a coworker sent out a text inviting everyone to a potluck Thanksgiving at her place today, but by Tuesday I realized that I had no time to cook, and that they would be eating while I was still teaching classes in the evenings, so I returned to my previous Thanksgiving hiatus without much fuss or upset.

Today was rather stressful with some big deadlines and lesson planning. I went into work super duper early, and managed to crank out everything on time. As my to-do list slowly wound down, one of my coworkers–a big, jolly Sudanese man probably about 60 years old (or perhaps a bit less)–began to chat with me, and as he has done a few times before, offered me some food–today it was a fuul-on-pita-bread sandwich. (Think of fuul as hummus, but with fava beans. A simple but filling meal.)

In the rush of my day I hadn’t managed to have much of a lunch, so I found myself agreeing as my stomach roared with pleasure at the thought of food. My coworker came back with some warm sandwiches, which we divided and shared while laughing with our coworkers over superstitions held in different countries (remind me later to explain “djinn (genies) in the bathroom”). I looked around and had one of those lightbulb moments and realized that, while the food was quite simple, and the context completely different, there I was on the opposite side of the world from my country, sharing a communal meal and a laugh with wonderful people on Thanksgiving. A warm buzz crept through me…but hold onto your hats, kiddos, the feels don’t stop there. My coworker offered to go get more sandwiches and (of course) overruled my objections, and after we finished the second round, I thanked him for saving me once again from hunger.

“Of course!” he said. “Because you are far from home and your family, we’ll take care of you.”

In that moment I was grateful, and said so, and went on about my day with a smile.

Fuul sandwiches. Plain, but tasty. Whoever said good things had to be fancy, anyway?

Fuul sandwiches. Plain, but tasty. Whoever said good things had to be fancy, anyway?

In my first class, I decided to preach the gospel of America’s Turkey Day, so I made my poor students go through the embarrassing tradition of saying out loud something they are thankful for. The students had just finished writing and were about to share when suddenly the door opened, and one of their classmates walked in late–but I could immediately see why. His arm was in the biggest cast I’ve ever seen, and in a sling on top of that. He politely explained that he would no longer be in class, except to try and take the final exam, because of the problems from his arm, and then left. After he was gone, one of the other students explained that he had been beaten by some violent thugs in the street–other students in the class confirmed that it had happened to them before too, but not so badly.

This was something I’d heard of happening to refugees, but it’s quite alarming to see it happen to your own students.  Not two minutes after that student left, the door opened again, and another student entered late–but he came in like a whirlwind, explaining he was just there to ask for an excused absence, because he was taking his son to the hospital, and out he flew as quickly as he had entered.

After those two events, the class pretty much unanimously announced they were thankful for their loved ones and their health.

I decided to start my second class in the same way, only running up against the one barrier that they really didn’t know what Thanksgiving was. (This is my lowest-level class that I teach, mind you.) So I had to sort of start from scratch there, and then we reached the point where I wanted them to write what they were thankful for. To set them up for success, I decided to give my meal with my coworker as an example. I emphasized and stressed his kindness to make my point clear.

“He told me ‘because you are far from home and your family, we will take care of you,'” I told my students. “He took care of me…like a family…like…family…”

Oh my god.

Oh my god.


Guys, I didn’t, but basically did, start crying in the middle of my class. Can you say awkward? Because AWKWARD.

If you know me, you know I do not do emotional displays–I really loathe them, actually–especially with witnesses, so in a class of 15 I had a bit of a panic about what to do with everyone staring at me with such compassion on their faces while I spluttered and choked about being thankful for my coworker. I stepped out for a minute, leaving them to write, while I tried to figure out why I was suddenly hit so hard by that, and to shake it off and get back in teacher mode. When I entered again, my darling students tried to explain that they were really happy and appreciative that I was there, and they were sorry I was away from my family, and I tried to reassure them that I was ok.

“You know what else I’m thankful for? CHOCOLATE. Because any time I’m having a bad day, I can just go buy some chocolate, and everything seems better!” They all laughed at that, and with the mood lightened, we continued our lesson–almost everyone in that class was thankful for family and friends.

After the class, while some of my students clustered around in groups at the back, one of my more loquacious students stopped on her way out to tell me she hoped I didn’t cry or feel sad again, because “We are your family too.”

Uh, because THAT’S not going to make me bawl again or anything. I thanked her, hastily clearing my throat and swigging some water to avoid more of those “emotion” things, then watched the rest of the students file out as I packed up to go home. As I walked out of the building, I saw two of the students walking back towards me, one of them holding up a bag in an outstretched hand.

It was a bag full of chocolates.

The students who were clustered at the back of the room had been pooling their spare change to buy me chocolate to cheer me up and give me a special Thanksgiving treat.

I really hope my roommates don’t come home right now because I’m about to be a weepy mess again just writing this.  It’s hard to really make you, dear readers, understand how significant and important that bag of chocolate is.  My students come from quite a few countries and backgrounds. Some are fortunate enough to be living a normal-ish, successful life here–they are a serious minority.  Some are sleeping on friends’ couches and borrowing clothes.  Some have fled war or religious/ethnic persecution, others from lifetime military conscription (which is basically a death sentence).  Some have lost family and friends to violence. Others have seen those losses happen with their own eyes.  In Cairo they face constant prejudice, crime, and are often barred from access to education & jobs, and can never receive citizenship. And yet…

They thought my moment of emotion deserved their compassion.  I will never in my life receive another gift that is so truly the definition of ‘heartfelt.’

Never been so touched by sugar and plastic wrappers.

Never been so touched by sugar and plastic wrappers. PS, any brands you see that are American are actually pretty expensive for prices here.

I don’t want to end this post by saying what I am thankful for. It’s both too obvious and too long to list. But I do want everyone to take just one moment to remember that kindness and generosity can be found in every corner of this world–not just in the faces of those friends and family gathered at your dinner table today.  To be honest, now is a scary time to be human.  Every time I open my laptop, I see more and more signs pointing to a world gone mad.  But days like today remind me that all of us, everywhere, can still care for one another and prove that being human is still worth it.  Kindness and the common human experience know no borders, no religion, no ‘race’, no…anything.  If you’re sad or lonely…open up to the world.

We’ll take care of you.


4 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving story I really want you to read.

  1. Love you BPayne ❤ This warmed my heart. Have a happy Thanksgiving, and when you come back let's hang and bake and eat like kings 🙂

  2. Pingback: Shutupdate #2 | Becky Abroad

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