Thanksgiving, in many senses, is the quintessential American holiday. Families come together to eat, lounge around, laugh and most importantly, watch football. The Macy’s Day Parade and mental preparation for the chaos of Black Friday also define the day.
USC students readily welcome this relaxed Thanksgiving, especially since it serves as the only break during the fall semester. And with its arrival during the 13th week of school, many students are more than ready to leave campus and return home to their families to celebrate.
Yet for the university’s international students, the holiday takes on a different meaning. Of the 17,500 undergraduate students at USC, international students comprise 12.3 percent of the student body. They represent more than 115 different countries, and all of them bring different experiences. But despite the wide variety of these experiences, few bring the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving every fourth Thursday of November.
Chau Vu, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering, moved from south Vietnam to America when she was in ninth grade. Her first Thanksgiving was spent with an American classmate in Wisconsin.
“In Vietnam, we have days when extended family comes together to celebrate with us, but nothing like Thanksgiving,” Vu said. “What I got from my first Thanksgiving was that there was so much turkey and I got to eat so much food.”
Many international students cite the abundance of food as being a key element of how they celebrate the holiday. The additional days off from school are an additional reason why Thanksgiving holds importance to students who come from abroad.
Eduardo Dillon, a freshman majoring in industrial engineering, moved from Mexico to attend USC. Dillon, though aware of the holiday, was uncertain about the significance of it to Americans.
To some Americans, the holiday has indeed lost its significance — a day originally dedicated to gratitude. Thanksgiving was a historical holiday, but through the years, the day has become much more commercialized. Instead of focusing on spending time with family members, many Americans look forward to the holiday sales at major department stores and plan strategies for snagging deals on Black Friday. Some lasting traditions, such as eating turkey and dressing, however, remain remaining strong. With all of these changes, the significance of the day for international students becomes even more elusive.
Still, many students are eager to better understand the holiday while in college. Some go home with their college friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with their friends’ family, which affords them the opportunity of having a traditional Thanksgiving experience.
Flora Bolonyai, a sophomore majoring in economics and math, is a native of Hungary. Bolonyai moved to America a year and a half ago to attend college at USC. As a member of the women’s water polo team, she has had the opportunity to interact with her American teammates and their families’ holiday traditions.
“Last year, I went home with one of my teammates and I celebrated with her family,” Bolonyai said. “We had a traditional Thanksgiving meal and ate turkey and had pumpkin pie. Experiencing all of that for the first time was actually really fun.”
Though many Americans eat their way through the day with their family’s classic dishes and customs, many first-year international students are creating their own meaningful traditions. Some of their traditions might not resemble Charlie Brown’s iconic Thanksgiving, but many international students adjust their observance of Thanksgiving to the holidays of their native culture.
Anders Ho, a senior majoring in international relations global business, grew up in Hong Kong. While living there, he attended both a British-system school and an American-style school, where he was exposed to Thanksgiving.
“I mean obviously it’s more festive here than in Hong Kong, but I think it’s just about who I’m celebrating with,” Ho said. “When I celebrate it here with my cousins in America it’s more traditional and larger. In Hong Kong it’s fun times but more chill.”
Though international students are willing to celebrate the Thanksgiving season while matriculating through their college years, there is reason to believe this attitude might be temporary.
“I feel like that now that I know what it’s all about I’m celebrating it because I’m here,” Bolonyai said. “But if I’m with people from my country, like in the future when I’m not in the U.S., I won’t celebrate.”
Other international students who are newer to America believe that the traditions they are building now will continue after their time at USC. Xiaojie Wang, a freshman majoring in anthropology, moved from Shanghai to Los Angeles this summer to attend USC. He plans on observing Thanksgiving in the years to come.
“I want to learn about American culture and that’s one important part about it,” Wang said. “I will keep celebrating Thanksgiving because I study here, and I should live like people do here.”
Similarly, other students recognize the newfound significance the holiday can have in their lives.
“It makes you remember that this a country of freedom and people come here for a better life. The same reason why people came here in the 1700s is happening today,” Dillon said. “It’s a land of liberty and diversity and it’s still happening. Since it’s my first Thanksgiving here, it’s repeating what happened back then. I can see a connection.”
The meaning behind the Thanksgiving season, though sometimes lost on those looking into the American culture, resonates with students from all backgrounds. Regardless of how they celebrate, international students realize that quality time spent with loved ones and a break from the rigor of life lie at the heart of the holiday.
“It’s great that they give us a little break before finals,” Bolonyai said. “I think that family festivities and holidays are important. It’s good how the whole family gets together, and I like the idea.”