Thanksgiving is the most quintessential of American holidays. With the arrival of winter, as the weather is buffeted by chill winds, people travel the length and breadth of the country to seek warmth in the affectionate ties of family.
As a first-generation transplant – I do not have that opportunity. My sisters and mother are 10,000 miles away in Bangladesh. The Thanksgiving spirit touches me differently, making me reflect on my emotional ties with a country rather than a family – this diverse, exciting, maddening, wondrous, frustrating nation that I have made my home.
This year, I had a symbolic Thanksgiving party – it was watching US President Barack Obama on television as he gave out the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. This medal is the highest civilian honour the US president can offer.
The recipients, indubitably distinguished, were diverse in terms of not only gender and ethnicity, but also in terms of the disciplines chosen for recognition.
Many honourees are familiar worldwide. Hollywood film stars Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro or Robert Redford need no introduction, nor do entertainers like Diana Ross or Bruce Springsteen. Bill and Melinda Gates are household names, as are basketball stars Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But it is fair to say that few Americans have heard of some distinguished scientist honourees who deserve to be better known.
As a young MIT scientist and working mom, Margaret H. Hamilton led the team that created the on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo command modules and lunar modules when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon. The mathematician and computer scientist contributed to concepts which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.
“She symbolises the generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space,” Obama said. “Her software architecture echoes in countless technologies today.”
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” was at the forefront of computers and programming development from the 1940s through the 1980s. Hopper's work helped make coding languages more practical and accessible, and she created the first compiler, which translates source code from one language into another. Hopper was honoured posthumously.
Honourees also included pioneering educators like Eduardo Padron who is president of Miami Dade College. “In the early 1960s, thousands of Cuban children fled to America, seeking an education they'd never get back home,” Obama said. “And one refugee was 15-year-old named Eduardo Padron, whose life changed when he enrolled at Miami Dade College …
As Miami Dade's president since 1995, Dr. Padron has built a 'dream factory' for one of our nation's most diverse student bodies -- 165,000 students in all.”
Activist Elaine Cobell, honoured posthumously, was a Blackfeet Tribal community leader and an advocate for Native American self-determination. She used her expertise in accounting to champion a lawsuit that resulted in a historic settlement, restoring tribal homelands to her beloved Blackfeet Nation and many other tribes.
As I watched on television, I marvelled at this brilliant, talented group of people.
This was my symbolic American family that I celebrated Thanksgiving with.
For all its policy failures, blunders and even reprehensible actions – I still cannot think about George W. Bush's Iraq war without getting outraged – this is where America's soft power lies. And it is formidable.
This is also Obama's America. My respect and fondness for Obama grew as I thought how this perceptive, sensitive, wise man had selected not only people of distinction, but also unsung women who deserve the limelight; he chose not only artists, but also activists; he chose an educator from a community college who has opened the middle-class dream for hundreds of thousands of underprivileged students rather than some president of an exclusive, fancy-pants university.
“It's useful when you think about this incredible collection of people to realise that this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth,” Obama said. “Not because of our differences, but because, in our difference, we find something common to share. And what a glorious thing that is. What a great gift that is to America.”
This ceremony was, in a way, Obama's swan song.
Obama, as is his wont, wore his position lightly. His speech praising the winners of the medal was full of human and humane anecdotes, and it was peppered by the trademark Obama wit.
“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way,” Obama said. “These are folks who have helped make me who I am and think about my presidency, and what also makes them special is, this is America.”
This is the America I will miss when Obama leaves the White House.
The writer is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States. He has been writing for US-based South Asian media for over 25 years.