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Celebrating Holidays as an International Student

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Photo collage of holiday images. Text: International student at UMass. Holidays during school years.
As an international student I see every holiday I celebrate in the U.S. as a different adventure. 
My first Thanksgiving was quite a journey. I had been waiting for this Thanksgiving for weeks, ever since I decided to visit a couple of my close friends from high school in New York City during Thanksgiving. First, It’s such a blessing to have a reunion in another country, talking about the freshly ended high school with people I knew for five years. Second, it’s New York City! After watching hundreds of movies that were set in New York City in my 18 years of existence, going there made me feel like I was about to make a movie for myself. When I told my friends about my plans for the trip, I realized that I dragged myself into a potential bankruptcy. Even if I could stay at my friend's, a trip to New York would still cost at least $1,800, and the only way I could make up the money was by having extra shifts in the Dining Common serving food or chopping vegetables -- so I did it. It was a busy time because midterms and term papers were happening before the break, and I spent more than 10 hours in the Dining Common each week finishing my work or covering shifts. By the time the Dining Common shut down for Thanksgiving break, I had already saved up a bunch of money. It was not enough for everything I planned in New York City, but it could at least support my bus tickets to the city plus a nice seat in a Broadway theater.
I booked the Peter Pan bus tickets on my phone app two weeks before my trip, and realized that I could have saved more money if I booked it earlier. At the beginning of the break, I was still at school with my college friend. Except for doing our homework, we went downtown to Cinemark to pass some time. I took video clips for my vlog every day to remember my first Thanksgiving, even if the day wasn’t so exciting. We went to Springfield one day during the break but forgot that day was a Sunday, and nothing opens except for CVS and Dunkin Donuts. It was not the best time to visit there, but still better than staying in my dorm room and watching a cheesy show.
By the time I hopped on the bus to New York under the violet dawn, it was one day before Thanksgiving. The bus trip took five hours, but it was overall a pleasent experience with wifi and adjustable seats, and it got better when I saw my friend waving at me outside the bus station. We dropped my bags at her place and went straight ahead to watch the Broadway musical. I still remember the proud feeling of being able to sing along with every song in the show, and clapping so hard at the end of the show that it made my palm numb. When we walked out of the theater, it was nighttime in New York City. The colorful billboards, the cozy scent from the street food, and the cheerful smiles on people’s faces made me want to melt with the winter snow. After months of being in Amherst, the atmosphere of New York city suddenly brought up memories of my city in China. I couldn’t help but compare the bustling market and flashing neon in both cities.
The next day we went to my friends’ relatives' apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was magical to feel so connected with a family I just met that day. They are a very kind and amiable senior Chinese couple whose children were working on the other side of the U.S. and not able to come back during the holiday. We had hot chocolate, premade turkeys, and lovely dessert together, listening to the couple talking about their olden days in China and their funny stories of their children. As we raised our glasses filled with apple cider, I felt at home. I could see myself chatting with my parents at dinner on Chinese New Year, and the cheerful smiles on my grandparents' faces when they saw me and my parents visit. All these small moments just became so precious as I was celebrating Thanksgiving with another Chinese family in Queens.
Compared to my first Thanksgiving day, my first Christmas was less impressive or memorable to mention. I booked a flight on Christmas morning, since it had the best price, so by the time I landed in Beijing and saw my dearest parents, it was already December 26. I could finally have my dad's specialty Chinese dishes, and we watched the old videos my parents recorded when I was a child. Christmas had passed by then, but it was still a big Christmas gathering time for me.
My second Thanksgiving celebration was a lot different from the previous one. I had been in a relationship for a while, and I spent the Thanksgiving break with my boyfriend and his family. Compared to visiting the family in Queens for Thanksgiving my first year, joining my boyfriend's family made me even more nostalgic for the familiar feeling of home. I loved helping everyone with with the decorations, and watching the dining room turn into an orange autumn-like place that was so lovely and cozy. There was a lot of food preparation needed for that day, so we kept ourselves busy cutting vegetables and making broth and dessert since morning.
My boyfriend’s family does foster care for children, and each Thanksgiving they will have some kids' new/birth families come over. My boyfriend told me that the largest number of Thanksgiving visitors they ever had was 18, and they had to take out their old wooden table extender to host everyone. We ended up celebrating Thanksgiving dinner with 10 people that day, including young parents with their two adopted girls that my boyfriend's family used to take care of before their adoption. The meal was unbelievably pleasant, and the extended dining table was covered with fresh and steaming dishes from everyone. The host family roasted the most delicious turkey I ever had, the guest family brought tasty exotic Indian food, and I did my best to cook some vegetarian Chinese food. I listened to the conversations about the two girls, about how they were in the foster family as infants, and why the new parents decided to adopt the girls and raise them as their own children. I looked at the girls and chatted with both of them. Talking to kids around 10 years old is not my specialty, but I was delighted by the girls’ sweetness and politeness during our short conversation. I felt so honored to join the family’s gathering, and give and receive so much love and blessing during this joyful holiday.
I stayed in the U.S. for Christmas in 2019, because I wanted to save the flight tickets for summer, to have more time with my family. So that year I visited my boyfriend's parents and helped them with chores and present wrapping. We told the kids to be nice so that Santa would bring gifts down the chimney on Christmas Eve, and we put all the presents under the Christmas tree after they went to bed. The next morning was full of kids' excitement. We were woken up by a 5-year-old’s scream at 6 in the morning, which was not a pleasant experience. But looking into his energetic brown eyes filled up with happiness melted away my sleepiness. The tradition is that we can only check out our gift when everyone is in the living room after breakfast, and being patient is always a challenge for the kids. Without a word, the sparkles in their eyes told me that they had already found presents under the tree, and they did not want to wait for an extra second to discover the surprises inside the colorful boxes. We had a peaceful time the rest of the day, sitting on the couch, drinking hot cocoa, and chatting with family and friends. We kept the Christmas tree and fairy lights up for a few extra days, and we went to our friends' “secret santa” gathering. The gathering was in New Hampshire, and everyone brought food to create a small buffet in the kitchen area. We played card games and exchanged gifts for the “secret Santa” activity. I was new to the "secret Santa” and was not involved in the gift-giving process, but listening to my friends’ hilarious wish lists and looking at their remarkable gifts became my best time with friends in the U.S.
As I was checking out the price for places in New York City for New Year’s Eve, I realized that I could not pay the unreasonably high room price. Instead, I decided to go night skiing at Wachusett and leave for New York the next day. I had only been skiing three times before. All of them happened before I was 15, and one of the times I was on a sleigh. Skiing was not as scary as I thought. I only remembered “pizza,” which describes the shape of the skis for stopping, and “french fries'' which describes the shape of the skis when skiing down. I felt lucky to stay alive after skiing down from a medium height mountain. We were in the lodge at midnight, and I felt like I was in the TV shows I watched, waiting for the new year in the crowd, counting down seconds from ten, and screaming “Happy New Year'' to everyone when the clock struck twelve.
Of course, the holidays in 2020 have been very different. I spent Thanksgiving with my boyfriend and his parents. There was a new pair of fostered twins in the house, and we helped his parents watch the babies while having our delicious dinner. Instead of having guests over, we did video chatting with them and sent our virtual wishes. A lot has changed since the quarantine, but one thing that did not change and will never change is the love we give and receive. This is my third year in this country, and I have new adventures every day. The holidays traditions and culture here are different from what I grew up with, but I am so thankful that I could learn more about the culture through the holidays with important people in my life.


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