25 Kilo Turkeys and Cultural Humility

by Marilyn on November 24, 2014


We bought a turkey on Saturday – an almost 23 pounder, with no additives and gluten free (really — they had to tell us it was gluten free? Aren’t all turkeys gluten free?)  As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn. When we cross over that bridge it is important to have cultural humility. And cultural humility put into practice means a few things. 

It means being a student of the person, or the community — not an expert, sitting at the feet of those who can teach us.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

This year we will share turkey with people from across the globe, who are making the Boston area their home for a short time. And our turkey will taste the better for the joy of sharing it with friends from across oceans, languages, and cultures. And we will probably tell the story of the 25 kilo turkeys and Hosni’s patience.

How about you? Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Do you have stories that highlight the importance of cultural humility? Share your story in the comment section! 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/turkey-wild-turkey-49673/

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I laughed REALLY hard at this story, Marilyn! My husband even looked over and told me I sounded funny because I was laughing so hard. 110 pounds of turkey!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hugs to you this day Elizabeth. thinking of you this day.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Thanks so much Marilyn. Today turned out to be unexpectedly emotional for me.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Cross-cultural: There was the Christmas when, to distract my kids from Santa’s exit, my husband pointed out the goat skins drying on the fence outside from the butchering that morning. The kids thought Santa’s reindeer had been slaughtered and skinned and were, to say the least, distraught. Merry Christmas, oh wailing, traumatized 4-year olds.

    Glad you enjoyed ALL that turkey!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      “The kids thought Santa’s reindeer had been slaughtered and skinned.” LOL! So sad for those two kiddies, but so funny in retrospect.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Oohhhhhhhhh! Too funny! How did you dry the tears on that one? Please put this story in a book.

  • Hilarious! Thanks for sharing that thanksgiving gem. What a treasure.

    A kilo story comes to mind. It was sometime in the first 6 months of our time here in Bolivia. The Spanish “fun” had worn off and I was careening into my first “wall”. Shopping has never been something I enjoy, ever, still to this day. Come to think of it, shopping has provided me with a number of culture shock and reverse culture shock experiences. This one was one of the first. The cheese was only sold at the meat and dairy counter at the supermarket or by a vender in the open market. To purchase cheese required a human interaction and the inevitable usage of Spanish. I utilized my pointer finger to indicate which cheese I wanted, then came the question I was anticipating: how much. Which, incidentally is the Spanish word “cuanto”. I knew it was coming but then the sounds of the word “cuanto” got jumbled somewhere between my head and my tongue when I was trying to come up with the Spanish word for quarter to indicate I desired a quarter of a kilo. In the panicked state of confusion, what was supposed to come out as “cuarto” came out as “cuatro”. Blasted dyslexia! (I can joke because it’s one of those infamous hurdles I deal with daily). Instead of a quarter kilo (about a half a pound) they slammed a huge chunk of expensive cheese weighing four kilos (almost 9 pounds!) on the counter top. My limited language ability couldn’t calculate how to fix my error so I started to cry. Culture shock hits at the most unexpected times and stings just about as bad as a slap to the face, doesn’t it? I left the cheese and wheeled my squeaky cart to the nearest check out stand where I then grabbed my little gringa baby up and abandoned all the groceries I had gathered. No groceries for the family that day, sorry folks. Only later when I was working with my language helper were we able to untangle the tongue twister… and laugh together.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I can just see you walking out of there, Angie!! Hilarious! With cuarto being so close to cuatro as well as cuanto, I think that is a mixup just waiting to happen.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love your words on Culture shock – on how it hits at unexpected times and stings like a slap in the face — YES! And just when I think I’m the queen of quite a lot! thanks so much for sharing this story!! 9 lbs of cheese is the equivalent of 110 lbs of Turkey I think – Happy Thanksgiving lovely lady!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Just catching up on posts I never had a chance to read. LOVE this story. I’m 42 with seven kids an have never made a turkey … you’ve convinced me not to try. 🙂 So funny!

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