The expat’s hunt for the holidays

By Michelle Borok

Right on schedule with the West, Mongolian retailers have started stocking their shelves with the winter holiday spirit. In the U.S. the holidays now begin in mid-November, when obsessive consumers start making plans for “Black Friday” spending while they grocery shop for Thanksgiving – all a precursor to the budget breaking, debt inducing Christmas spending finale.

American Thanksgiving, like most holidays in the U.S., has changed over the years. Originally an autumn celebration and thanks for the harvest, it has its roots in the religious traditions of early English settlers, more commonly referred to as “The Pilgrims”. In less culturally sensitive times, school children would dress up as either “Pilgrims” or “Indians” for Thanksgiving, and sit on opposite sides of a table to break bread (or graham crackers as a stand-in) together. The childhood story goes, that the Pilgrims came to settle on Native American land, but had a rough go of it. The Indians watched them struggle, and eventually intervened. With the help of the people whose lands would eventually be taken from them, the Pilgrims were able to develop sustainable agriculture and learn how to live off of what they had perceived as a hostile land. The Pilgrims prospered, more settlers from Europe came, and the indigenous populations were essentially wiped out and Thanksgiving became a quintessential American holiday. There’s more history to it than that, of course, and unique Thanksgiving holidays are celebrated in other countries.

American Thanksgiving traditions vary from family to family, but they generally involve a set menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, and pumpkin pie. There are variations on all of these dishes, but these are the basics. It’s become a fairly non-secular holiday, but it’s an end of the year reminder to take a minute to reflect on the notion of gratitude.

In Mongolia, a number of expats find themselves simply grateful to find the ingredients required for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. The hunt has been on for the last month. High on the priority list is finding a whole turkey in a country that only has a handful of domestic breeders in the provinces and a supply of imported frozen birds that only appear in markets en masse once a year.

Specialty import markets have been advertising turkeys ranging from 8,500 to 20,000 MNT a kilogram, zeroing in on the holiday sales opportunity. Clever retailers have also stocked up on pie making essentials and cranberry sauce. Some resourceful expats have turned to easier-to-find duck and goose for their poultry centerpieces. Restaurants popular with expats, and well-versed in the culinary classics of the holiday, are offering special menus for dining in or taking home. These places have done the heavy lifting and sourced all the necessary ingredients for an authentic feast. For those who want Thanksgiving, there’s no need to go without.

As rapidly as the Mongolian economy has adapted to the free market, thankfully it hasn’t adopted the full-blown insanity of American Black Friday. Black Friday takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was originally branded as a major holiday sales day to help retailers get their books “in the black” before the end of the year. The popularity of Black Friday sales has become a carnival of families camped out overnight in parking lots, storming store doors seconds after they open, trampling other shoppers and engaging in tug of war over the last remaining items on a store shelf. Despite the negative press every year – and stories of injury, insult and indignity – the tradition continues.

Despite the extended presence of the holidays in local stores and in television commercials, the madness of Black Friday hasn’t hit Mongolia. I, for one, appreciate the tidiness of rolling the Christmas and New Year’s holiday all into one, with a month and a half to recover before Tsagaan Sar. Still, the pressure is on for Mongolian consumers to spend. Christmas trees, decorations and all the trimmings are growing in popularity and selection. Businesses are pressured to throw lavish New Year’s parties for their employees, and employees feel the pressure to dress well for them. Gift giving lists and expectations have expanded for many families. The fundamental message behind the holidays have remained largely secular, as they were in Soviet times, but the overall directive is to spend.

In some circles in the U.S., the backlash to Black Friday has resulted in “Buy Nothing Day”, a day to take a stand against the excess and waste of Black Friday. It’s also a good way to avoid the madness of crowds scrambling for bargains the day after a giant meal, not to mention avoiding the temptation to overspend. It politicizes the holiday weekend to a degree, but for others it keeps the focus on family and being grateful for what one has, rather than focus on being hungry for what the marketplace insists one needs.

While Thanksgiving can be a challenge to come by when living far from home, there can be gratifying lessons to be learned from assembling a Thanksgiving dinner far from “home”. Holidays abroad give people the chance to establish new traditions and take nothing for granted – a suitable sentiment for Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday is also a particularly opportune time to join with other people to share the bounty of your table, and share what can be foraged in markets that are foreign. Perhaps expats, the furthest from home, have the most authentic Thanksgiving experiences of all.

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