A certain group of people remained on campus after the Thanksgiving exodus: the University’s sizeable body of international students.

Illustration by Laura Garavoglia

When most students went back to their hometowns last week to indulge in food, beverages and the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, their foreign peers remained on the nearly abandoned campus over the holiday.

The University arranged a Thanksgiving lunch at the Hill Dining Center Thursday to cater to those who stayed in Ann Arbor. But for many of the almost 300 people who attended the meal, Thanksgiving was a peculiar event. While grasping that Thanksgiving is a major part of American culture, international students often don’t know or don’t understand the tradition’s back story of pilgrims and Native Americans.

Ujin Kim, a South Korean graduate student, wasn’t aware of the story of the pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, but knew that the holiday had significance.

“I really think Thanksgiving celebration is a major sort of an element of American culture,” Kim said.

Kim wasn’t all that impressed by the lunch, saying the food — which included traditional roast turkey — was only “slightly better” than usual. The dinner that some classmates invited him to last year was much better. Kim said it had been a “supposedly typical Thanksgiving party, dinner. Lots of food, some drinking, some game, playing cards. A lot of talking.”

A couple of tables down, University of Wisconsin freshman Hanning Bi was eating with LSA freshman Zhengyao Wang. Bi said she was in Ann Arbor to visit her friend over Thanksgiving. Bi and Wang were classmates back in their hometown of Suzhou, China.

Wang said he eats at the Hill Dining Center “almost every day” and that he found the food “a little bit better than usual.”

Neither Wang nor Bi seemed particularly troubled by the fact that their American classmates had abandoned campus.

“Thanksgiving is not part of our culture so we don’t think it really matters,” Bi said.

The planners behind the Thanksgiving lunch knew to balance the Thanksgiving fare with items to please diners who hadn’t grown up celebrating the holiday — along roast turkey and gravy sided the dining hall served food like waffles and spring rolls. Although the featured entrées had a more festive style than usual, an outside observer would probably have missed the fact that the lunch took place on one of America’s most important holidays.

LSA sophomore Suny Kim and Engineering sophomore Meejung Kim, both from Korea, said they knew what to expect of Thanksgiving this year.
Suny Kim had first encountered the tradition through her church.
“I’ve had church dinner, they served all the traditional Thanksgiving food there,” she said.

Meejung Kim said she did not really care about the tradition in it self.
“I just consider it a little break,” she said.

The deserted campus and downtown’s closed shops can be annoying for people who have no reason to care about Thanksgiving.

“Yeah, it is kind of boring, I guess,” Meejung said.

LSA junior Daniel Judianto, from Indonesia, met up with his friend and countrywoman Fransisca Heriyanto, a junior at Berkeley, to look up recipes for the evening’s dinner on the computers outside the dining area.

“We try to make our own traditional Thanksgiving,” Judianto said. “We try to have our own tradition.”

Judianto said he found Thanksgiving to be a time when “families get together and have a good meal and talk about what they did last year.” For him though, Thanksgiving means little more than a welcome break from classes.

“I like holidays and it’s good to have a good break somewhere in the middle, before the finals,” he said.

Although some of the people at the lunch actually at one point or another had been invited to American homes for the holiday, Thanksgiving still remains part of a different culture that the University’s international students embrace skeptically. Oddly enough, this all-American tradition has not spread around the world the same way Halloween and Valentine’s Day have. Perhaps it is the origin of Thanksgiving that has made it hard to embrace. Or maybe it is the fact that it is largely a holiday to spend with family, an impossibility for many foreign students.

Heriyanto seemed to capture the international students’ feelings toward Thanksgiving accurately before once again turning her attention to the computer and her evening plans.

“Yeah, I had Thanksgiving dinner once before,” she said. “It’s pretty nice. I don’t know.”

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