It’s 12 p.m. in Fairbanks, Alaska and 4 p.m. in New York. After a five-hour flight, everyone felt exhausted. It’s already pitch dark outside, and we were still finding our way to our Airbnb at the North Pole. The surroundings just looked more and more bleak. Sound pretty much vanished after we walked past the last gas station we could find. Right at the moment Google Maps announced that we arrived at our destination, I joked that our booked apartment might actually be a haunted house.
We were indeed isolated from the rest of the world.
It’s just us. Four people on a 38-acre ranch surrounded by white spruces and a frozen river. No one knew what to say for a while. We escaped from New York and wanted a break from it all. This quiet place in an unknown city challenged those of us who lived in cities for our entire lives.
The first thing on the agenda: Prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. This marked my second Thanksgiving in the U.S. I spent my last Thanksgiving dinner at my roommate’s parent’s house and felt so blessed that they invited me to spend time with them. They accepted me, the stranger at the table, great warmth after a short icebreaker. Celebrating Thanksgiving was a new thing for me in the first place. But when I sat down with my friend and her family and everyone began to share one thing they appreciated in the past months, I felt moved.
Staying at the North Pole gave us a clear view of the wonders of nature. However, we lost the convenience we took for granted when we lived in the city. We slept in the next morning after an exhausting trip and got ready to leave for groceries at noon. After a 30-minute drive, we spotted a supermarket and left the engine running, fearing that it would be hard to start after sitting in the cold.
I never worried about preparing a holiday dinner before moving to the States. For the Chinese New Year, my cousin and I help wash vegetables and serve meals. More often than not, young people like me typically get away with not preparing the actual meal and just eat up all the delicious homemade dishes.
So as I pushed the cart and wandering around in the supermarket, I had no idea what to do.
I pulled up cooking apps for inspirations. Then two boys in our squad smirked and said that they could easily nail down the appetizers and courses. My girlfriend and I felt shocked and defeated by our pathetic cooking skills.
On our way back to the apartment, the boys started telling stories about how they started cooking. To our amazement, the turning point of both stories occurred almost at the same time: when they chose to study overseas and go to high schools here in the states.
Studying abroad at the age of 15 or 16 meant that they spent most of their childhood in an unfamiliar environment. As one of a few Asian students in their high schools, they were pushed out of their comfort zones and picked up knowledge about a foreign culture almost from scratch. Helping with housework became part of their daily routines. Their cooking skills developed naturally.
“Leaving home at an early age makes me realize you can and should always count on yourself,” one of the boys said.
When we got back to our place and started preparing dinner, my fear and uncertainty about cooking a holiday dinner disappeared. Listening to my friends sharing their personal growth made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I found a safe space where my awkwardness and hesitation to a new environment felt understood.
While I first came to New York, everyone around me acted as they didn’t need a transition period and adjusted perfectly to their college lives. Peer pressure followed me everywhere I went. At dinner parties, I felt dumb for being such an ordinary person. Everyone else seemed to have a not-a-big-deal speech about an impressive internship experience.
Culture shock worsened my situation. Jumping into a conversation felt really intimidating especially when it came to topics like American politics, sports and even cartoons most American kids watched. I felt like I should stay quiet about what I didn’t know. And that happened a lot.
Around six, our Thanksgiving dinner was ready. The four of us sat down around the table and chatted a little bit about our hopes and dreams. “So, what’s one thing you are grateful for this year?” my girlfriend asked.
“I feel so grateful for us taking a break and staying together here at the North Pole,” I said. Before coming to the North Pole for this Thanksgiving trip, we busily attended to our own business and barely exposed our vulnerable inner world to others.
We admired our peers’ success and pushed ourselves to catch up with those shining resumes. We selectively ignored the fact that there was always a waiting period before reaching the stars and exhausted after a desperate chase.
That Thanksgiving dinner in Alaska made me thankful for my imperfections. In that peaceful place, we became closer to each other and laughed in the face of our weakness. We shared and accepted the imperfections that made us who we were. It’s never too late to become a better version of yourself. And a cooking lesson from your friends certainly helps.