The first time Marcy Tolentino tried turkey, she wasn't sure what to make of it.
It was good, but kind of strange, she said — nothing like the food she grew up eating in the Philippines.
“Turkey isn't really part of staple food,” she said.
Tolentino, now an Oklahoma City resident, came to the United States from her native Philippines 35 years ago. Growing up there, she read about Thanksgiving in the American textbooks she used in school. She had no idea what it was, she said.
After she moved to the United States from the island of Luzon, Tolentino spent her first Thanksgiving in New Jersey, where her older sister lived. Although she wasn't familiar with the traditions of the holiday at the time, Tolentino said she didn't think twice about celebrating it with family and friends.
“When I came here, it was just natural for me to join them,” she said.
Today, Tolentino's family has adopted most of the typical American Thanksgiving traditions, but with a Filipino flair. Tolentino's husband was born in the United States but traces his heritage to the Philippines, and the couple's children were raised in the U.S., she said.
They generally serve turkey, ham and other traditional American foods, she said. But alongside those dishes, they may have Filipino fare such as noodles or lumpia, a type of filled pastry similar to spring rolls or egg rolls.
“We always add our Filipino touches,” she said.
That kind of adaptability is fairly common for Filipinos, she said. The country is a blend of eastern and western cultures. Although the country is located in Southeast Asia, centuries of Spanish rule left strong European influences. The country takes its name from King Phillip II of Spain.
In the late 19th century, the Philippines became an American colony after the Spanish-American War. Although the country gained its independence after World War II, English is widely spoken there, she said, and most Filipinos have been exposed to American culture.
That cultural blend means Filipinos generally don't have trouble integrating themselves into a new culture, she said.
“Filipinos are very adaptable,” she said.
Although the holiday itself may be unfamiliar, the ideas behind it are nothing foreign to most Filipinos, she said. The overwhelming majority of Filipinos are Catholic — another leftover of centuries of Spanish rule — and Tolentino said they understand the idea of giving thanks for blessings they've received.
That Spanish influence also left the country with a strong tradition of festivals, she said. Most towns around the country have a patron saint. When a saint's feast day arrives on the liturgical calendar, the towns associated with that saint throw a festival, she said. Although the reasons for the festival aren't the same, it's not all that different from American Thanksgiving, she said.
Although they don't identify with the holiday's colonial origins, Tolentino said Filipino-Americans understand the holiday's broader meaning.
“We are people of faith, and so we're always grateful for something,” she said. “We're grateful for being here.”