07 December, 2019
Moving from one place to another is always an adventure. No amount of research can prepare you for the surprises you will find in the new place.
This is often the case with international students in the United States. Around major American holidays, international students often find themselves in uncharted waters, which they learn to navigate with time.
Come the fourth Thursday in November, many newly arrived students experience the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving for the first time.
"My first Thanksgiving was in Montana. My experience of it was fascinating," said Richmond Danso of Ghana.
"The whole process of preparing the food, the merry making around it, and everything was just fascinating," he said.
Danso is a doctoral candidate in political science at Howard University in Washington, DC.
Other international students look at Thanksgiving as a chance to rest up. Dan Shengquan of China, a master's degree candidate at New York University, told VOA his first memory of the holiday was having a few days off from school.
"It was like end of semester day off, having time to chill," said Dan Shengquan, who admitted knowing very few people on arriving at school. "But these days," he added, "I get a chance to visit my friends' family and join their family party."
Around Christmas, many international students do not have money to travel back to their home country, so they spend the holiday in the States. Those with extended family in the country go to stay with them for the celebrations.
"When it's Christmas, I go back to my family in New York," said Daniel Mensah of Ghana. Mensah is in his final year at The George Washington University in Washington. He is specializing in economics.
International students with no extended family in the States often celebrate Christmas with their American friends and their families. Lourds Fernando from Sri Lanka is a doctoral candidate in biology at Howard University. She told VOA she celebrates Christmas with her best friend whose family lives in Maryland.
"So I'll go there," she said. "Her family is there so I'll go for dinner or something."
Some international students who are Christian attend church services in the States. During the holiday season, they join with their church family in celebrating Christmas.
"Personally, I think it's more the family element. I have a church family here, so the excitement of spending Christmas: we go to church and we stay together," said Sally Amankwah of Ghana.
She is a masters' candidate in sociology at American University in Washington.
The act of giving gifts to adults at Christmas and even the holiday itself is foreign to some students.
Selina Anosike of Nigeria is a doctoral candidate in biology at Howard University. She been living in the United States for about two years.
Anosike says she was shocked when family members living in the States gave her gifts for Christmas.
"I remember my first Christmas here, I really did not know anything about the gift sharing. I just realized my uncle got me a gift, my aunt got me a gift, and my cousin got me a gift, but I did not get anyone a gift," she said.
"It was a new experience for me because back home, as kids, while you're still young, your parents will get you a new outfit, new shoes, new dresses for Christmas, up until high school. But by the time you get to college, no one cares anymore," she added.
A foreign observance
For some international students, Christmas is not a holiday they celebrate in their home country.
"We don't really do Christmas in China," said Bo Wang of China. He is a master's candidate in business analytics at American University.
Wuntha Kyaw-san of Myanmar is studying computer science at Howard University. He told VOA that the idea of celebrating Christmas is new to him.
"Since we don't actually celebrate Christmas back home, it's like a new experience, you know," he said.
During the three to four weeks break between school terms, some international students take time to explore the United States.
"Usually, I go to other places in the States, travelling with my friends," Wang said. "For this year, I plan to go to Denver to snowboard for my Christmas holiday."
Other students do a mix of things over winter break. They spend the holiday working, meeting up with friends and having fun.
"Now (as graduate student), it's always work because, you know, research is time consuming," Lourds Fernando said, "so I rarely take break, even though it's a break for the school."
I'm Dorothy Gundy.
And I'm Pete Musto.
Ibrahim Onafeko reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. What do college and university students do during school breaks in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
uncharted waters – expression new or unknown areas
navigate – v. to plan or direct the path of a ship, airplane or other form of transportation
fascinating – adj. interesting
doctoral – adj. related to completing a doctorate, the top award of a university or educational organization
uncle – n. the brother of one's father or mother or the husband of a sister of your mother or father
cousin – n. a person belonging to the same extended family
master's degree – n. a recognition given by universities or colleges for completing a high level study program
chill – v. to calm down
dress – n. a single piece of clothing that covers the body
consume – v. to use up