A new tradition: International students and Valley hosts come together for Thanksgiving

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mount Holyoke sophomore Jiayun Zhong stores Asian snacks that she buys online and cooks tang yuan (rice dumplings) in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • JiayunZhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, shows the shelves of Chinese snacks she keeps in her dorm room, including mooncakes recently sent from her mother. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jiayun Zhong, a Mount Holyoke student from China, makes tang yuan, traditional Chinese rice dumplings, in her dorm room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mai Ngo, a Smith student from Vietnam, with Elise Gibson and Scott Vickers.

  • Jan Morris, an administrative assistant at Smith College, uses a spreadsheet to organize information while connecting students on campus with faculty and staff as part of the Thanksgiving Match Program.

  • Shell Lin is shown with Thanksgiving products at Big Y in Northampton.

  • Thanksgiving dinner at Elise Gibson’s house.

For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Published: 11/17/2017 10:22:00 AM

As a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College who is originally from Beijing, China, I was fortunate enough to have spent my first Thanksgiving in a memorable way during my freshman year: enjoying a warm and cozy dinner with several other international students at the home of my music professor, Larry Schipull, here in the Pioneer Valley. On Thanksgiving Day in 2013, he greeted us at the front door in a red apron printed with the words “Wok Taste.” I gave him a gift of Chinese calligraphy that I had written a day before in my dorm room; it featured the character for longevity that expresses the wish for elders to be happy and sound. We had a huge feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie and talked with his other guests, including more music faculty members from the Five Colleges as well as Larry’s old music professor from Yale. Satiated from the meal, I returned to the campus hours later and survived the rest of the week with a bag of raisin bread that I got from Big Y and some snacks — it was hard to find food on campus during the week of Thanksgiving.

Since that first introduction to one of the most American of holidays, I have spent my Thanksgivings with friends in Boston and New York. This year, I plan to celebrate it with my boyfriend, Chad, who’s originally from Massachusetts, in our Belchertown apartment, making Chinese dumplings and cooking beef bourguignon. I’m not a huge fan of turkey because, for me, the meat is too bland and the gravy too greasy. Most Chinese students are not particularly attached to Thanksgiving — or turkey, for that matter. We’re far more homesick in February during Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year. Even living in college dorms here, many of us still practice the traditional customs of that holiday, such as decorating our doors with calligraphy couplets written on red rice paper and making dumplings with friends. Some of us even watch the annually televised Spring Festival gala on the state-run CCTV (via the internet) — I guess you could say it’s our version of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Although Thanksgiving is not the most significant holiday for me, looking back, I’m still grateful for Larry and his dinner, which gave me a sense of feeling at home on a day when my real home was nearly 7,000 miles away — between buses, flights and connections, it’s almost two full days of traveling. But for most international students staying on campus during Thanksgiving, the biggest problem is not being homesick so much as it is being hungry. College campuses during Thanksgiving are known to be food deserts. Although colleges try to offer students some dining options, these choices are limited. “Dining halls are not open. We have some organizations that organize Thanksgiving dinner on campus, and we can cook in the kitchens in some dorms,” said Mai Ngo, a 19-year-old Smith College sophomore from Vietnam. The nearest kitchen is a 10-minute walk away from her dorm, and she added, “This year we have to pay $40 to stay on campus during Thanksgiving.”

To save money and enjoy a proper American holiday meal, last year Mai signed up for Smith’s Thanksgiving Match Program, which links students with faculty or staff members who are willing to offer them a welcoming family dinner. “I’d heard of Thanksgiving mostly through pop culture, movies and stuff,” said Mai, who came to the U.S. for the first time in 2016, only three months before her first Thanksgiving. “I knew there should be a turkey, it should be nice and cozy, then there’s a family meeting together, giving gifts, being grateful for what they have… ” 

On Thanksgiving Day last year, Elise Gibson, editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, picked Mai up at her dorm. She brought Mai to her house in Williamsburg to spend the day with her and her boyfriend, Scott Vickers. Elise has two daughters, but “one daughter, a Smith student, was studying abroad, and the other daughter couldn’t make it home for Thanksgiving from Chicago, where she lives,” Elise explained. “That’s why we particularly wanted to open our home for the holiday.”

 “We had a nice Thanksgiving dinner together,” Mai recalled. During the meal, “We talked quite a bit about politics and the controversial topics of what’s going on in Vietnam and the U.S.,” she said. Elise and her boyfriend also introduced her to the signature dishes and history of Thanksgiving. “It was great just to be immersed in that culture, having that family be there for you and walk you through the whole process,” Mai said. For Mai, the most memorable part was not the meal itself, but what happened afterwards. “They asked me if I wanted to stay for a night, and I said yes,” Mai recalled. She slept in a room that belongs to one of Elise’s daughters and was offered her warm ski jacket. “I still have it. It kept me warm through that first-ever winter in New England,” Mai said. 

The next day, Elise took her to see a local craft market and then to shop at The Hilltown Christmas Place at Paul’s Sugar House in Williamsburg. “Elise saw that I was trying to hold myself back from buying things, so she got me a bottle of maple syrup,” Mai said. “I brought it home all the way from the U.S. to Vietnam, and then my mom got to try it. I made sure my mom knows where it came from and who got it for me.” Elise also got to know Mai’s mom, who works as an accountant in Vietnam. “We even spoke with her mom in Vietnam,” Elise said. “Or, I should say we listened to each other’s voices, as we had no common language.” After Thanksgiving, Mai kept in touch with Elise, and when she came back early to the U.S. this summer before starting her sophomore year at Smith, she stayed at Elise’s house again. 

The Thanksgiving Match Program that Mai participated in through Smith College was started in 2010 by Jan Morris, an administrative assistant in student affairs. When I visited Jan on Halloween, the 62-year-old Midwesterner (she is from a suburb of Chicago) was wearing a red-gingham shirt, a straw hat with a pink ribbon, and a pair of cowboy boots. Jan explained to me how the program first started: “My cousin has two adopted daughters from China. We always get together for Thanksgiving, and once she said, ‘Do you think there are any Smith students from China, maybe even from the same region or province that my daughter is from, who could join us for Thanksgiving?’ ” Jan recalled. As it happened, Jan herself first hosted a student from the same province as her cousin’s adopted daughters at her own home in Northfield.

Before the program, a former dean of international students at Smith used to take 30 to 50 international students for a Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant in downtown Northampton. But Jan envisioned something more: “an experiential, educational, cultural exchange for international students to experience American culture through a family-gathering event,” she explained, “and for the American families to meet and hear the views from students from another country.”

To ensure a good match of students and families, Jan creates two Google forms, one for staff, one for students, in which she asks questions regarding pets, food and dietary issues, the size of the planned gathering, and personal interests. “Another thing I ask the students is: ‘Do you feel comfortable talking about your country and politics or do you feel you’re the only one defending your country?’ ” Jan said. “I’d rather be sensitive about that. Some students would rather not get the third degree and try to answer for their country.” In the end, she creates student profiles featuring their pictures, names, class years, majors, and other identifying information to give to the hosts.

Over the past several years, the number of host families has grown from 10 to 20 (at the most recent tally). Likewise, more students are signing up: 29 last year, compared to eight in 2010. Many staff and faculty members choose to host international students again after their first trial. One such host is Dave Bishop, HVAC systems operator for facilities management, who has hosted students from China, South Africa and France.

When Dave began working at Smith in 2010, he saw the Match Program on the college’s website. “We have a large family anyways — what does it matter for us to have one more mouth to feed?” Dave recalled thinking, sitting in his office above the college’s chiller plants. Every Thanksgiving, Dave hosts around 40 family members and friends at his house in Southampton, a tradition passed on from his grandmother. Since 2010, he has invited two students every year to join the gathering in his garage that is painted and insulated for the dinner. “We do four turkeys, 15 pounds of mashed potatoes. My mother, who is French, does her own stuffing with ground pork in it. The students love it. Last year, we also did a deep-fried turkey,” Dave said, adding that he prepares take-out containers for students to bring some food back to their dorms. Because everybody pitches in during the preparation, “It’s not a lot of work. It’s really not,” Dave said. 

At first, he only hosted one student, but he sensed that she felt adrift in the large crowd. So the next year he invited two. After dinner, Dave often takes students for a walk by the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir in Southampton. “Two years ago, we had two students who were from South Africa. They had never seen snow. They had a snowball fight up in the reservoir,” Dave said and smiled. “We took pictures of them. We see it all the time, but they loved it.” 

Mount Holyoke College offers a similar program that connects students with local families, staff and faculty members for Thanksgiving dinner. In addition, the school gives first-year international students another option: an opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with an alumna from New York state or the New England area for two to four days. “It’s a way to get off campus, to meet an alum and to network a bit,” said Donna Van Handle, Mount Holyoke’s dean of international students, who’s been overseeing the program since 2004. Chinese students make up most of the applicants because “There are so many more Chinese students in every new class than there are other nationalities,” Donna explained, adding that there are also Vietnamese and Pakistani students. This year, 44 students in all have applied. 

Jiayun Zhong, a 20-year-old Mount Holyoke sophomore, participated in this program last year and spent her first Thanksgiving with an alumna in Boston. Her reason for going was simple: “I heard there’s no food on campus during Thanksgiving and supposed that the food at an alumna’s home would be tastier,” said Jiayun, who comes from Chengdu, China, a city that is known for its spicy food. Like many Chinese students who dislike American food in school dining halls, Jiayun stores Asian snacks that she buys online and cooks meals in her dorm room. Using a little rice cooker, she likes to make rice dumplings and lotus-root-starch soup. The food at the alumna’s home didn’t disappoint her. “The turkey and mashed potato tasted so good there,” she said.

For Hanye Chen, another Mount Holyoke sophomore, from Beijing, China, who spent her last Thanksgiving with an alumna in Hartford, Connecticut, the holiday reminded her of home. “It’s so busy and bustling, but it feels very festive too, almost like the Spring Festival in China,” she said. Like most of the students I spoke to, Hanye heard her hosts tell the story behind Thanksgiving, but she didn’t remember it afterward. “I just listened to it as a tale and didn’t really try to remember,” said the 19-year-old. “If we’re immersed in the culture, and we hear it again and again, then it will naturally stay in our memories.”

Jan Morris, the Smith staff member who started the Match Program, has her own way of sharing the story of Thanksgiving. Her program is “through an American holiday that has a painful history,” she said, “but it doesn’t have to remain that way. I think we can focus on the blessings that we have and be thankful for each other and for the food that we’re able to afford.” 

At Dave Bishop’s house, one student felt so at home that she fell asleep in his recliner by the fireplace — unwittingly taking part in what might just be the most ubiquitous Thanksgiving tradition of all. 

“That’s great,” Dave said, and laughed. “She was embarrassed, and I told her we wanted her to be comfortable in our house — go ahead and take a nap.”  



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