MODESTO -- Pilgrims gathered Thursday without the funny hats or big buckles to celebrate their first Thanksgiving together and share in the bounty of the season.
Two refugee families from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) who immigrated to the United States this year to escape religious persecution came together for a feast with friends.
On the table in their north Modesto apartment was a mix of flavors from their old country and their new country. Chayan noodles and roast turkey, moh kan dumplings and cinnamon rolls.
Myanmarian couples Gin and Niang Khual and Joseph and Esther Jusuan and their children welcomed U.S. families and friends they had met through their immigration process.
And while some of the dishes might have been different from that first feast almost 400 years ago, the spirit was very much the same.
"That first Thanksgiving the pilgrims came together, this is the same thing here," said Joseph, 32. "We come here to celebrate Thanksgiving and acknowledge God and our thankfulness to Jesus. We are thankful to the people who have come to join us and teach us to give thanks. We are thankful for being here."
The families fled Myanmar, a country that has been ruled by an oppressive military junta for the past 50 years. As members the Zomi and Chin ethnic minorities, they faced persecution in their home country. As Christians, they also could have been arrested and imprisoned for practicing their religion, Joseph said.
The Khual and Jusuan families, along with another family, came to Modesto earlier this year as refugees. They had spent a number of years in Malaysia before moving to the United States for asylum.
"Here, I feel very free and it is very open," Joseph said. "Before, I was living in an oppressed place with fear."
The families are connected to Jeff and Pam Scholl of Modesto, who began working with refugees from Myanmar last year.
The Scholls have introduced them to other U.S. families, who have helped them with their transition. Joseph found work in Oakdale a month ago riding a bus each day for 30 minutes, then his bike for 15 more minutes to get to his job. Gin is looking for work after recovering from a hernia.
The families celebrated a Thanksgiving-like holiday in Myanmar through their church. It was held the closest Sunday to the U.S. holiday. All the families would bring some of their harvest to share. But, the families said, celebrating the holiday in the country of its origin felt different.
And nothing was more different than the turkey. Pam gave all the families 16-pound Butterballs. Niang and Esther, who prepared the feast together, had never before seen or eaten a turkey. In fact, Esther's only knowledge of it came from a scene in a Mr. Bean comedy. In the scene in question, the eponymous hero gets his head stuck in the big bird.
"This morning, my husband opened the turkey and I thought, 'Oh no, Mr. Bean,' " she said. "I was afraid."
Rather than roasting the bird whole, they cut it into sections. They joked that they fried some like "Myanmar KFC" and the rest was baked in the oven. Also on the table were pork noodles and a spicy chick pea dish. Pecan pie and cinnamon rolls were provided by their U.S. guests.
Fellowship cherished most
The verdict on the turkey was mixed. Some liked it, comparing it to duck. Niang and others said "chicken is better."
But they all agreed that the fellowship of the day was the best thing on the menu. Before starting the buffet-style service, Gin, whose family held the meal in their apartment, led them all in prayer. They clasped hands and gave thanks.
"I am thankful we can meet each other here on this special day," Esther, 35, said afterward.
Pam, whose husband, Jeff, home-schools the family's children, said she has been struck by the Myanmarian families' generosity, and not just on a special day such as Thanksgiving.
"The wonderful thing is all the times they get together and gather, they share everything with everybody," she said. "Sometimes Americans will worry about having enough. They never worry. They share everything and it always helps out."
Joseph said he would like to return to his home country someday, but for now the family is happy with having settled in the United States. Both families' oldest children 14-year-olds David Jusuan and Daniel Khual play together on the Modesto Youth Soccer Association. Their team took second place in its division recently, and the trophy was pointed to with pride in the living room.
And today, the families will have to deal with another U.S. tradition: turkey leftovers. Niang, 38, made the Burmese dishes for the feast. She still has her whole 16-pound gobbler to cook. She slapped at the bird with a laugh.
"Tonight, come again," she said about noon Thursday, inviting guests back for another turkey dinner.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.