Author: Emma Lodes
International students bring diverse celebrations to campus
This year, 75 students at Occidental faced a unique dilemma when it came time to head home over Thanksgiving break — because their homes are halfway across the globe. Occidental’s international students come from 26 countries around the world, and each bring a different world of culture, religion, tradition and holidays to campus. From Diwali to Chinese New Year to Christmas, students celebrate a diverse array of holidays back home, some of which they continue to celebrate here, and some of which they choose not to celebrate without friends and family from their home countries.
Since Thanksgiving traditions are so deeply ingrained in American culture, it is easy to forget that no other countries in the world celebrate Thanksgiving, and that the holiday is an entirely new concept to the international student population at Occidental.
Although campus can seem deserted and empty when breaks come around, a handful of students from China made an effort to experience the quintessential Thanksgiving feast.
“The campus was very silent, and since we’re international students we have nowhere to go and no car,” Keith Chan (junior), an exchange student from Hong Kong, said. ”It’s really nice because it’s lonely to be on campus, but the professors proactively approached us.“
Chan and Daisy Zhang (first year), an international student from Beijing, both spent their Thanksgiving holidays with their philosophy professor Saul Traiger and his family.
“Not only did we have a chance to see a complete turkey for the first time and learn more about the academia of philosophy, we also got to know Professor Traiger on a more personal level, which was truly amazing,” Zhang said. “We met Dr. Traiger’s parents and listened to their stories of traveling to China before the year we were born, and their ten year experience of living in Japan.”
Everest Law (sophomore) is also an international student from Hong Kong. Law was lucky enough to have two very different Thanksgiving dinners. The first he spent with Mary Baker, a staff member in the business office at Occidental. The second he spent with Chinese-American family friends, immigrants from China who have been in the U.S. for about a decade. The result was a bi-cultural medley of traditions and foods, a unique Thanksgiving feast.
“Apart from the turkey, it wasn’t very much like Thanksgiving,” Law said. “I don’t think Americans eat pasta for Thanksgiving.”
Instead, the family served traditional Chinese cuisine.
“Believe it or not, salted pig ears, that you eat with cheese sauce,” Law said.
In Hong Kong and mainland China, there is no holiday equivalent to Thanksgiving. Every culture needs a big fall harvest festival though; theirs just happens to take place earlier in the year, on September 13th — the Mid-Autumn Festival.
“It is a very traditional Chinese festival where the moon is the fullest and brightest,” Chan said. “We get together with the family and eat moon cake. The moon has a symbolic meaning for this festival. Looking at the moon, you remember times that you spent with friends and family, and you know they’re looking at the same moon even though they’re halfway across the world. The moon also symbolizes unity and togetherness. It’s ironic that you’re thinking about unity when you’re in fact separate.”
In China and Hong Kong, Law thinks that the holiday most similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to be Chinese New Year, because of the emphasis on family.
“Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving because people travel across the country to join the family during the festival,” Law said.
Chan echoed Law’s sentiment about the importance of the tradition of spending Chinese New Year at home with loved ones.
“You literally have hundreds of thousands of migrant workers going back to their home province just to have a meal,” Chan said. ”We have traditional Chinese food and the ‘red packet.’ That’s where we put money in a packet and give it to children.”
Law adds that the action of giving the famous red envelope adds to the spirit of festivity.
“It’s a little rectangle paper packet that has a few dollars in it,” Law said. “It’s for good luck, and the fact that people are giving up money adds to the festival mood.”
Chan is not coming back to Occidental for Spring Semester, so he will be able to stay in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year. Zhang and Law will not be so lucky.
“Our winter break is scheduled so we leave right before Chinese New Year,” Law said. ”It’s a little frustrating but it’s something you get used to because you chose to study abroad, and there’s something you want to achieve for studying abroad, so there’s a price you have to pay.”
Since Chinese New Year relies so heavily on family being present, Zhang said she might not celebrate the holiday this year at all.
“I’m not sure if I’ll celebrate it because that festival is the only one where being with the family really matters,” Zhang said. “Without being with the family there is no Chinese New Year.”
Mimi Hitzemann, an international student from Germany, has adapted to American traditions smoothly. She has been spending Thanksgiving break with friends every year.
“I’ve been really lucky to have close friends that invite me over to spend time with their families.”
Hitzemann has lived away from her family since she was 15, so being apart from them for Thanksgiving was easier for her.
“I’m very close to my family and family is important but I’ve also lived away from my family for quite a while,” Hitzemann said. “So that aspect isn’t as important to me and getting to know my friends and spending time with them is cool for me too.”
In addition to the traditional German holidays she celebrates back home, her father’s side of the family is Muslim, so she usually celebrates Muslim holidays as well.
“Those holidays are as important as Christmas, but we don’t get time off from Oxy to celebrate those,” Hitzemann said.
Sara Abduljawad, a first-year international student from Saudi Arabia, also celebrates Muslim holidays back home. At Occidental, she was able to celebrate the holiday Eid with the Muslim Student Association. Eid is celebrated twice — once marking the end of Ramadan, and again marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. The second Eid falls on a date not far from Diwali, a Hindu holiday, so the South Asian Students Association at Occidental hosted a celebration of the two holidays at once with a festive night of Indian food, song and dance on Nov. 16.
Rounak Maiti, a first year international student from Bombay, India, celebrates Diwali back home. However, Maiti has quite a different viewpoint on celebrating his traditional holidays here in the U.S. — he has chosen not to celebrate them at all.
“I chose to adapt,” Maiti said. “It doesn’t make any sense to be more Indian here then I already am. Not that I’m rejecting it, but I don’t want to just hang around Indian people, I don’t want to visit my relatives or do any of the festivals, because I don’t see the point. It’s like an American going to India and celebrating Christmas.”
At home, Diwali is huge for Maiti’s family and friends.
“It’s an eight day festival where each day has its own significance, and each day you do a different ritual for the goddess Durga,” Maiti said. “You dress up and go to where her statue is erected, do a lot of ceremonies, eat a lot of food and drink a lot of alcohol. It’s fun for eight days but you can’t do it when there aren’t people around you doing it. It’s not something you would do alone.”
International students spent their Thanksgiving breaks in ways as varied and unique as their homelands. In an environment rife with festive family reunions, it only makes sense that international students missed family and friends, but they also bring a taste of their traditional family holidays to L.A. With an international and diverse student body, Occidental is able to get a taste of more than just good ol’ American turkey.
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