Thanksgiving Pt. 1: Giving Thanks

23Nov06

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays made for expatriate bonding. It is the remaining relatively non-commercialized sentimental holidays in the US that brings together family and friends. As the speaker at the Cambridge Thanksgiving Lunch (more on that later) said, it’s a holiday about togetherness more than anything. Such a holiday takes on another layer of meaning in another country where it is not traditionally recognized.

I’ve had a good time explaning what Thanksgiving is to my international friends and tried to convince them that pumpkin pie is one of the great American (?) culinary developments. After spending several weeks bantering with my friends about the image of the shallow, ugly American and our highly commercial holidays (Easter is when the Cadbury bunny was born, right?), it was actually very special for me to share an American celebration that really is genuinely about community and loved ones.

As is tradition, I have compiled a short and certainly non-comprehensive list of ten things that I am especially thankful for today. Perhaps it might be worth comparing to a similar list I compiled last month.

  1. New friends from many places. I absolutely cannot stress how fortunate and lucky I feel for the amazing, fun, and occasionally geeky group of friends I’ve made here. There are wonderful people everywhere, but it’s a very new experience to be transplanted from everything one is used to and to make friends who are in the same proverbial boat. These are people whom I am constantly learning from… whether discussing the continuity of a transverse polarization vectors over the unit sphere, the Los Angeles Lakers chances this season, the European Champions League, or the proper way to cook a spud; I’ve found myself rethinking assumptions, challenging the way that I understand the world and my identity as an American, and having a laugh the whole time. I am first and foremost truly thankful for the people who, in only eight weeks, have already touched my life in a way that makes me excited to wake up every chilly morning to new adventures.
  2. Old friends from the new world. At the same time, I’ve also been able to reflect on old friends who are mostly, but not exclusively, in the states. I left Stanford in such a hurry that I never really thought much about my past four years there. There have certainly been some very special memories with special people. I’ve recently started writing ‘proper’ e-mails to some of my friends. That is, actual letters that start with something like “Dear…,” end with something like “Sincerely,” and in between is full of things called paragraphs which are made of complete sentences. This is something of a rarity in digital communications these days (perhaps with the exception of e-mails from students to professors at Cambridge). The letters I’ve gotten back have been a delight to read and really make me smile.
  3. Care packages and post cards. I have six postcards on my bulletin board: three from Stanford, one from Seattle, one from Santa Barbara, and one from Rome. These are among my dearest treasures as they were sent from friends who either now go to school/work at these places, or have recently travelled there. The images of these places continously give me perspective as I study in Cambridge’s “small town” atmosphere. They are visual reminders of friends around the world. (Though, admittedly, I’m still eager to receive a postcard from a few friends…) I also am very thankful for my mother’s care packages, which have included a mix of necessities and not-so-necessities. Among the notable items: textbooks, graham crackers (for introducing my friends to smores), an ice pack for my injured foot, and other items that are an extension of her motherly instinct. Thanks, Mom!
  4. Fresh air, green grass, twilight. I am still taken aback every morning at the beauty of the Cambridge landscape and smile inwardly every morning, no matter how groggy I am. I am also uplifted every time I step outside the math building, when I get a lungful of fresh, cold air. That may sound a little odd, but this is a sentiment that one really has to be an expatriate from Los Angeles to understand. As a former Marshall recently advised me, I am beginning to ‘appreciate the twilight’ … though I do carry a torch around to avoid puddles in the evenings.
  5. The Marshall Commission. This was the first thing I had to offer for ‘what I’m thankful for’ at dinner last night. I am thankful for the investment that the Marshall Commission has made in me and the citizens of the United Kingdom whose taxes help support my fellowship. I do stress the subtle point that the Marshall scholarship is not a ‘prize’ but an investment in UK-US relations in the various disciplines that the scholars have come to study.
  6. The ’04 and ’05 Cambridge Marshalls. So here’s a bit of a specific note of thanks to the Cambridge Marshalls of previous years who came to help my year in our first few days here. I remember frantically trying to disembark from the train from London with my full compliment of airplane luggage. I was scared that the tide of passengers boarding the train (which was soon departing for its next stop) would surely push us back and we’d get swept away into the British countryside. Our lifeline, however, were the older Marshalls who excitedly offered open hands and commands of “give me your bag!!” They then paired up with us and took us to our colleges and helped us move in. It was a gesture of welcome that made a big impression on me.
  7. Soft pillows and warm blankets. It’s started to get a little chilly here, and I am thankful for having a place to stay that is warm and comfortable. I am especially thankful for Daria and Mirna, the Burrell’s Field E-staircase bedders at Trinity who come to my room every morning to take out my trash, dust, vacuum, and change my sheets. I consider such things a great extravagance and feel very honored to be so pampered. I especially appreciate that they make the extra effort to place Scooter (my plush dog) comfortably onto a pillow when they change the duvet covers.
  8. Relative health. I’ve been recovering from a twisted foot that I suffered from an ill-advised game of basketball. Recently I’ve been able to start running again so have been excited about that. All things considered, I am very healthy… perhaps English food as contributed to this. (As I pointedly noted at a previous dinner, “That dessert must have been really healthy because I don’t think my blood insulin level has changed at all since before dinner.”)
  9. Relative peace. Reading the news every morning is a reminder that there are people my age (in fact, people I know) who are in Iraq with the military. Two years ago a friend from high school who was a medic died in Iraq, and I cannot imagine what life must be like there for the soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and the family of those who have died or been hurt in the conflict. Even as this and other terrible events around the world continue, I have been able to live a blessed life and pursue my studies in an esoteric field without having to worry about many of the basic needs that others worry about every day. I cannot begin to express my sense of fortune for this undeserved privilege and extend my sympathy who those who have not been as fortunate.
  10. The ivory tower. Though I haven’t really written about it, I’ve recently become very excited about my studies. I have started doing preliminary reading for an essay on the phenomenology of extra dimensions and will be giving a seminar talk next week on the properties of the graviton. I often grumble about Part III, but am extremely happy to be able to participate in the unique program before I begin my PhD.
  11. Bonus: As a frivolous bonus note of thanks, I would like to thank the anonymous neighbor who found my fork and left it in the kitchenette. I was distraught three weeks ago when I’d lost my fork since it belonged to a set of cutlery that had been with me since freshman year. I suspected that someone had accidentally taken it back to their room and forgotten about it, but later resigned myself to the sad thought that I had accidentally thrown it away. I tend to be very attached to things like this and thought that the other silverware (such as the dish and the spoon, who had chosen not to run away) would be saddened by the departure. Finding the fork today was an ideal capstone to my first Thanksgiving away from the US.

But the reflection of thanks during Thanksgiving isn’t meant only for gratitude and humility. It is also a call to action where one makes good on one’s fortunes. In this sense, Thanksgiving is a bit like New Year’s, only with resolutions that are less oriented towards weight-loss. (And really, the way Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, how could it have anything to do with weight-loss?) So, in correspondence with the ten items above, here are my pleges to live up to those things which I am thankful for:

  1. Spend more time with my friends and branch out to make new friends.
  2. Write to more old friends, perhaps even with a pen and paper.
  3. As above, send postcards/Christmas cards as a token to let people know I’m thinking of them. Keep perspective as an American in the UK.
  4. Make the most of the sun-lit hours. Run more and explore the city. Explore the rest of the UK. And, as a nod to one of my Irish friends, make a trip out to Galloway.
  5. In return for the investment that the Marshall Commission and the taxpayers of the UK have made in my education, all I can do is work to live up to that investment.  While I am here I hope to represent the US well, and in turn represent the UK when I return to the states. As a particle physicist the major experiments of my lifetime will be marked by an even greater degree of international cooperation. As someone who will have been partially trained in Europe and the US, perhaps I may be able to facilitate such cooperation during my career.
  6. I am eager, in turn, to welcome the ’07 Marshalls.
  7. I am doing my best to keep my room tidy.
  8. I will continue to train for the 2007 Belfast Marathon.
  9. This is a tricky one. In some sense breaking out of my North American shell and being privy to another country’s national opinion is a small, individual step in global understanding. But the fact that I can live in Trinity College at Cambridge and study theoretical physics while someone else my age may spend each day dealing with armed conflict, poor infrastructure, uncertainties in food and finance, or even simply the absence of such opportunities… even if they are of similar personality and have similar interests… that is something that I do not know how to properly address. Certainly I will do my best to make the most of these privileged opportunities in the light that others are not able to. But moreso, I am aware of the importance in science and education to make efforts to outreach to communities that have been underrepresented in academia.
  10. For the gift of two years of funded academic freedom in the UK I plege to whole heartedly make the most of the resources available to me here to develop myself into a physicist in a way that I may not have been able to had I begun a PhD program immediately after my undergraduate in the US.
  11. From now on my family of silverware is living in my room, not the kitchenette.



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