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For international students, Thanksgiving is a teachable moment

Scholars from abroad spend the holiday getting a taste of American tradition and hospitality. Some treat the turkey like a celebrity.

November 26, 2010|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times

It's a holiday that has something to do with turkey. That much they knew.

As the UCLA campus all but shut down, and classmates hoisted baskets of dirty laundry into their cars and motored off to see family and friends, a small group of international students remained behind to hold a Thanksgiving potluck and ponder the peculiar American holiday.

"I just know turkey," said Edward Chang, 23, a graduate student from China.

"Turkey and family," offered Laura Crothers, 28, another graduate student from Australia.

"We've all seen it in films — people coming together, traveling across the country," said Joachim Drachmann, 25, from Denmark.

Crothers interjected: "But I have no idea what the underlying meaning is."

Universities in Southern California have some of the largest communities of international students in the nation. UCLA and USC, among others, have tried to accommodate those students who remain far from their families on deserted campuses. Such was the case Wednesday evening during the UCLA potluck event.

The meal was treated as a learning opportunity — a chance for foreign students to learn about American culture. Vaidehi Joshi, 24, came to UCLA from India this fall. She said Thanksgiving for most international students was a brief welcome respite in the run-up to final exams. "It's just some break time, and a good shopping time when things are cheap," said Joshi, who is studying biomedical engineering.

Joshi said she went to Wednesday's potluck to meet students outside the clique of Indians she typically hangs around with. At the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars' dinner, students from at least five continents shared a meal. Their offerings of sushi, curry beans, even chicken wings were placed on the buffet table alongside roast turkey and creamy mashed potatoes.

"It's so cool here. I think [Thanksgiving] is the spirit of America," said Haiyan Lin, 21, a visiting student from China. "It reminded me of my family and friends in China. I can't get together with my family, but I can share a meal with new friends."

For more than 25 years, USC has organized a matchup program that places international students with local families to get a taste of the Thanksgiving experience.

Winnie Wear, a Hong Kong native, and her husband have invited USC students to their Altadena home for the last few years.

"The purpose is to provide a warm atmosphere for them to feel, in a way, a home away from home," she said. Wear remembers when she was a foreign student. She was "on the receiving end of people's generosity at the holidays," she said, and this was her chance to extend similar kindness.

Students usually arrive at the potluck curious about the holiday. One year, a student from Nigeria, who had never seen a turkey before, was transfixed. "The turkey was like a celebrity," Wear said, because he pulled out a camera and kept taking pictures of the bird.

Wear tries to explain the history of Thanksgiving to her guests. In the past, she's brought out sheet music so they can sing American folk songs. "On the whole, it's a time to…share with them things about this country, and get to know them," said Wear, who is getting her master's in marriage and family therapy at Cal State L.A.

Even before they get to the family gatherings, though, many of the USC students have gone through a crash course on all things Thanksgiving offered by the university's Office of International Services, according to Sarah Bang, an international student advisor.

She said they learn how Thanksgiving has evolved from the pilgrims sitting down with Native Americans at Plymouth, Mass., into a tradition-laden gathering of family and friends. Beyond the food, it's a day of parades, football — the American kind — and gearing up for the almost-maniacal deal hunting at stores early the next morning.

And there's likely to be lots of leftover turkey, which their hosts are probably going to wrap up and offer for them to take home. When offered such leftovers, students were told, be sure to accept graciously.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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