Make Holidays in the U.S. a Learning Experience

Katelyn Ruiz

Back home in Canada, every relative within a three-hour drive would annually commute to my family's home for holiday dinners. Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas were two of our favorite excuses to overeat, share stories and be active together.

As an international student, I miss my folks, but being away from home over the holidays makes the distance between us seem much greater.

To combat this calendar-induced bout of seasonal homesickness, I committed to celebrating in my own way with whatever traditions I could sneak across the border.

First, I realized that I was not alone in feeling lonely. Many of my fellow international students, whom I came to know through classes or campus-sponsored activities, also missed their own holiday celebrations.

Second, I remembered that the point of having free days out of classes and away from deadlines is for students to rest and prepare themselves for the big push toward finals.

[Get help adjusting to life as an international student.]

Third, I researched the different ways people might observe and celebrate the upcoming holidays and finally, I recognized that for domestic students, meeting me is an international experience.

These ideas accumulated around the second weekend in October, where students at my university got a short fall break for Columbus Day. For me, that was Canadian Thanksgiving.

I phoned home, found out what was on the menu and who had RSVP'd, and then spent the rest of the weekend sulking because I wouldn't get to be there.

When I was an undergrad in Canada, I had many international friends who had traveled there to study. On my own turf, it was easier for me to adjust and accommodate their holiday homesickness. But now I see what they must have been going through, and I know that it is always easier to handle the holidays together.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving celebrations involved a potluck-style table filled with every ethnic food I could think of. In place of the traditional North American mashed potatoes, we had Ukrainian pierogies. Rather than sweet potatoes or baked yams, we ate Filipino pancit.

Instead of finishing with pumpkin pie, we started with an Australian recipe for pumpkin soup. Indian red lentil dhal with naan rounded out our entrees, while on the side we welcomed a spicy Ghanaian salsa-type relish made with peppers that had to be handled with gloves. For dessert, we made fairy toast: a British comfort food of buttered bread and candy sprinkles.

[Find out how to develop an active social life at a U.S. college.]

It was great to sample dishes from every corner of the world, but more than the eating, there was the laughter.

One of our multicultural guests started chewing her corn on the cob through the husk and was relieved to hear she didn't have to pretend to think it was tasty. Another tried mixing cranberry sauce with the Ghanaian peppers, but the flavors just didn't fit. The people, however, did.

We became our own little family for that meal. We didn't all celebrate Thanksgiving in the places where we were raised, but we all shared the common tradition of eating with those we cared for, of common meals and memories.

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The beauty of the international calendar here is that I get a second chance at doing dinner right. This year in the States, I can partake in the traditional Thanksgiving. I'll probably bring some cornbread to celebrate harvest, and talk about Martin Frobisher's third voyage through Canada's Northwest Passage when my friends from the U.S. bring up pilgrims and the Mayflower.

We'll all watch football with a lemon-shaped pigskin, and then maybe accommodate our Brazilian buddies by putting on another football game where the round ball is black and white.

Then we can light Chinese lanterns and float them over Lake Michigan, and maybe make some music with an Irish penny flute and Austrian violin.

Whatever we do to celebrate this November as the semester winds down, it will be as a community, because each holiday can be shared and enjoyed wherever you are and wherever you come from.

Katelyn Ruiz, from Canada, is pursuing an interdisciplinary master's degree in communication and English from Andrews University.