Far from their homelands, international students find creative ways to make the season bright
by Joan Brasher
photography by John Russell
The year is winding down, and the holidays are in full swing. For most of us, it is a time of family and feasting, shopping and gift-giving, conviviality and controlled chaos. From the first bite of Thanksgiving turkey until the new year is rung in, we look forward to gathering with loved ones, observing long-held traditions and indulging in our favorite holiday treats.
But for Vanderbilt’s international students – especially those from far-flung places such as India, Singapore and Cameroon – how to spend the winter break is a completely different proposition. Flying home likely isn’t an option. And even if it were, for many the season doesn’t hold the same importance as their own cultural or religious high holidays that take place other times of the year.
The International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office at Vanderbilt helps the nearly 1,200 students under its care to navigate this time of year. ISSS serves as a home base for foreign-born students, who turn to the staff for advice on everything from deadlines for travel visas to questions about American culture. November and December are months in which students may need extra guidance, according to Sherif Barsoum, director of ISSS.
“For so many international students, it’s very difficult to get back home –home is half a world away,” he said. “With their American friends all heading out for the holidays, when classes let out, it can get really boring and lonely around campus.”
Each month, the ISSS office organizes activities to help students experience American culture and customs. In December, the staff hosts holiday-themed events, such as a cookie decorating party or a gathering to make holiday cards for the patients at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
ISSS also organizes local excursions – this month they’ll see the holiday lights at the newly reopened Opryland Hotel, and hear the Nashville Symphony perform at Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Some students will celebrate with a Nashville family through the First Families program, which provides international students with a home-away-from-home throughout the year. But a good portion of Vanderbilt’s “stranded” will choose to spend their time off traveling to see other parts of the country.
“It’s cheaper to go to New York or Miami than to China for a few days, so many students head to larger cities where they can experience American culture but also seek out the food and customs of their homeland,” Barsoum said. “If they’re not going home with friends or roommates, we encourage them to take advantage of the affordable travel opportunities that are out there. There is more to explore than Nashville.”
A Cameroon Christmas
James Siakam came a long way to play forward for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team. And the four-day break the Commodores get for the winter holidays isn’t quite long enough to accommodate the 6,000-plus-mile journey to his homeland of Cameroon in Africa.
But the 6-foot-6 freshman won’t be alone for the holidays. He is celebrating with his brother, who lives two hours away in Kentucky.
“We are going to cook Cameroon-style,” he said with a smile.
Catholicism was brought to Cameroon by British missionaries, so even though there is no real winter there, Christmas is still felt. The rhythm of the holiday revolves around family gatherings, Midnight Mass and non-stop feasting. There are reunions and elaborately prepared meals served from morning to night.
“You see people you haven’t seen all year,” Siakam said. “For the young people, the clubs are open all weekend, so you stay out really late, go from club to club, and party.”
On Christmas Day, everybody cooks and goes visiting.
While the holidays in America bring to mind chilly temperatures and perhaps even snow, Cameroon in December is quite the opposite.
“Cameroon is not like here, where it’s cold so people stay in houses. It’s hot, so you don’t feel like staying at home,” he said.
Cameroon is divided into 10 provinces and its people are made up of around 300 tribes and subtribes. Each tribe has its own traditional cuisine. For instance, Siakam’s tribe, the Bamiléké tribe of the country’s West Region, is known for fufu, a dried corn mash, served with nkui, a viscous, sticky sauce. Ndole (pronounced “n-doley”), a stew made from vegetables and nuts, is the national dish of Cameroon and is often served for special occasions.
“The food you eat depends on your class,” he said. Upper classes eat more global fare, and lower classes eat more traditional, native foods. But no matter what you happen to be eating, family and friends are paramount and gatherings are happy feasts.
“We go from house to house visiting one another,” he said. “You can smell all the kitchens, walking in the streets.”
A D-I-Y Holiday
Shijia Sheng has been busy this month decorating her apartment for the American holidays. “It’s very do-it-yourself,” said the first-year graduate student who hopes one day to open a shop selling her handcrafted gifts. “I’m using twigs, shells and pine cones to make my ornaments. It’s a lot of fun.”
Sheng earned dual undergraduate degrees in English literature and international economics and trading at Shanghai International Studies University in the People’s Republic of China. Now she’s studying organizational leadership at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.
Because the trip home to Shanghai is so costly, she’s opting for a quintessential American holiday instead. So where is Sheng going? Disney World in Orlando, Fla., of course.
“I will have fun at Disney in Florida, and then fly to Miami to enjoy the sunshine and beach with friends,” she said. “I am excited because I will be celebrating my first Christmas with Mickey at the Disney resort.”
She’ll be back in Nashville for New Year’s in hopes of enjoying the activities downtown, including watching the guitar drop at midnight.
What a difference a year makes. Last year Sheng was working in an advertising agency in Shanghai assisting with photo shoots, scheduling and working with client contracts. Now she’s half a world away, immersed in her studies at Peabody and learning all she can about American culture.
When Chinese New Year rolls around in early February, Sheng will celebrate the Year of the Rabbit by decorating her apartment with her trademark DIY handiwork, including handmade rabbit lanterns.
“If I were going home, I would hang out with friends, enjoy the awesome Chinese food, and share the stories that have happened this year with friends and family. Since I’ll be here, I am planning to invite some friends and we’ll enjoy a big feast of homemade Chinese cuisine.”
In the meantime, she’ll enjoy the holidays “American-style.”
“It’s true what they say – ‘When you are in Rome, you do as the Romans’ – right?” Sheng said with a smile.
Travel and Tea
Senior Fares Alzahrani has become adept at making the best of things.
A native of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he can’t travel home often, so he stays in touch with family through email, Facebook and phone calls. He’s become acclimated to different foods, customs and social activities in America, and when his friends were excitedly making plans to see their families for the holidays, he knew it would be up to him to make the most of his time off.
“My American friends talk about these holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. They talk about eating turkey, but I haven’t actually experienced that,” he said. “I like to use the fall breaks to explore the states and visit friends. I have been to New York, Pennsylvania, Nevada, California, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and New Jersey.”
While Thanksgiving is not part of his cultural repertoire, another November holiday is. Alzahrani, who heads up Vanderbilt’s Muslim student group, commemorates Eid ul-Aldha, the festival of sacrifice – a time to ponder obedience to God and care for the needy.
“If I were at home, we would wake up early in the morning, do the Eid prayer, and then my dad would slaughter a sheep and my brothers and I would help him out,” he said. “Then, my brothers and I would distribute some of the meat to neighbors and friends. In the evening, my extended families all come together for a big feast.”
During winter break, Alzahrani will attend a friend’s wedding in Nashville and spend New Year’s in Orlando.
When he travels in the states, he is always on the lookout for Saudi food, such as kabsa, a dish of chicken or another meat stewed in garlic, tomatoes, clove and cardamom and served over long grain rice.
What Saudi custom does Alzahrani miss the most? The ceremonial serving of guests tea and Arabic coffee – elaborately poured in small handle-less cups – as a way of demonstrating hospitality.
“I absolutely miss this tradition. I love to go and visit with my friends who make this and serve it with dessert. Next semester I hope I will be able to make this type of coffee and tea for my guests.”
Jingle Far Away
Bak kwa, slices of honey-roasted pork, similar to jerky, happen to be one of Jeremy Chua’s favorite holiday treats. And by “holiday,” Chua, who is from Singapore, means Chinese New Year, which begins in February. Christmas, although growing in popularity in Singapore, is not a holiday that is integral to his cultural experience.
Chua, who speaks English, Mandarin, a few Chinese dialects and even some Latin, loves traveling and experiencing new cultures. He enjoyed a traditional American Thanksgiving feast this year with a friend in Ohio and plans to spend his December break with friends on a whirlwind backpacking trip across the Middle East.
Over 15 days they’ll visit Amman, Jordan; Damascus, Syria; go back to Amman, the ancient city of Petra and the beach town of Aqaba in Jordan; then Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel; with the last stop in Cairo, Egypt.
“There will be some stuffy bus rides in between backpacking, and we plan to spend two days at the Dead Sea at one of the best spas in the Middle East,” said Chua, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science.
Chinese New Year is the holiday when Chua will miss his family most. Come February he’ll anxiously watch the mail for a box from his mom containing favorite treats, such as bak kwa, olive vegetable (a dark green mush made of olives and mustard greens) and other goodies.
“My mom will give me a tracking number, and I’ll be checking it every day,” Chua said.
If he were going home for Chinese New Year, he’d be visiting relatives and enjoying the traditional reunion dinner. For young people, the holiday means gifts of money from relatives, a symbol of luck and prosperity for giver and receiver.
“I don’t enjoy the visits to relatives as much these days,” joked Chua, “because now they always ask ‘Why don’t you have a girlfriend? When are you getting married?’ The money part I like, the questioning part not as much,” he laughed.
Once he returns to Nashville for the spring term, Chua can start checking for that tracking number, hoping that the long-awaited package from Singapore will have smooth traveling as well.
Satabdi Basu, a third-year graduate student in computer science who hails from Calcutta in West Bengal, India, is Hindu. But that doesn’t stop her from enjoying the sights and sounds of Christmas.
“If I were going back home to India, Christmas and New Year would mean a lot of fun and enjoyment with family and friends,” she said. “There is no religious sentiment, so Christmas is just a time for exchanging gifts, dressing up and going out with people close to you.”
In December, the streets and shopping malls in Calcutta are adorned with holiday lights, bells and Christmas trees, and the larger churches set up elaborate nativity scenes for the public to enjoy.
“They have gorgeous decorations, and you need to be prepared to wait in queue for an hour to get in,” she said. “The whole city seems to be out on the streets during this time of year.”
Basu spent Thanksgiving with friends, and just prior to that celebrated the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, at Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue, Tenn., followed by a traditional Indian meal. For Christmas, Basu will stay with a Nashville family who are distant relatives of a friend.
“I’ll help decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve,” she said. “As I place my gift-wrapped presents under the tree, I cannot help admitting a childlike happiness. I eagerly look forward to searching for my presents under the tree and tearing them open. I am so glad I know this family; being with them gives me an absolute feeling of homecoming.”
For Basu, the last week of the year will be spent shopping and meeting up with friends, with whom she’ll probably go out for dinner in downtown Nashville to usher in the new year.
But the holiday break will not be all play and no work for Basu, who is conducting research on artificial intelligence in education.
“I have a lot of research work to take care of during the holidays. Still, I’ll make sure I spend quality time with friends. You can’t really shut yourself indoors at this time of the year.”
Kebabs for New Year's
Salih Yilmaz is from the small island country of Cyprus, where celebrating the new year is the main winter holiday.
A senior studying economics and mathematics, he is one of the few international students who has been fortunate enough to get home during winter break each year. Soon he’ll be heading home for more than a week with family.
“For New Year’s, you can stay in or go out to feast,” Yilmaz said. “But because you can still smoke indoors in Cyprus, and because a lot of people smoke there, indoor atmospheres can get pretty toxic. That’s why my mother started making us have the holiday at home.”
War in 1974 split Cyprus in two – its Turkish half in the North and its Greek half in the South. Yilmaz is from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and his home city is Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital, the last divided capital in Europe. After the gates separating the two sides were opened in 2003, Cypriots again began to move back and forth to
visit and shop.
The Turkish side of Cyprus doesn’t celebrate Christmas, which is observed on the island’s Southern, Greek half, but “since the gate opened, you can feel the other side, the lights and the Christmas culture,” Yilmaz said.
“New Year’s is celebrated in all of Cyprus, and it is like Thanksgiving here, with the emphasis on family and getting together,” he said.
Families gather to feast on Turkish cuisine, getting out the barbecue to make beef, chicken and lamb kebabs as well as dishes of seasoned rice and potatoes. Turkish Cypriots drink raki, similar to Greek ouzo, to celebrate. Some shoot off fireworks and attend concerts with friends.
Just like Americans, Cypriots can get carried away with their celebrations.
“I keep waiting for my mother to let me go out for New Year’s,” Yilmaz said. “But people are pretty reckless with their driving, and she worries – with good reason. She is very protective. … but maybe this year.”
Additional reporting by Laura Marjorie Miller and Donna B. Smith
Vanderbilt’s International Students and Scholars for 2010-11 (top 5 countries)
South Korea 91
Saudi Arabia 46
A total of 1,117 international students are enrolled at Vanderbilt this fall. Doctoral students make up the greatest portion, followed by graduate students, undergraduates and non-degree-seeking students.
Did you know?
According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators’ annual Economic Impact Report, international students in the United States contributed $18.78 billion to the U.S. economy during 2009-10. In Tennessee, international students contributed $141 million to the state’s economy last year.