International Students Discuss Their Thanksgiving Experiences

If you’re from the U.S., feasts and family gatherings probably come to mind before media clips and TV shows when you think of Thanksgiving.

But for Hannah M. Woodcock ’11, a Cambridge-MIT Exchange student, and plenty of other international students at MIT, just the opposite is true.

Woodcock, for one, admits that all she knew about Thanksgiving before coming to the U.S. she had learned from Thanksgiving specials on the TV show “Friends.”

Tung Shen Chew ’11 from Malaysia knew from TV that the American holiday of Thanksgiving existed but, at the same time, he “didn’t care about it at all.”

While most domestic students returned home to their families over Thanksgiving, international students generally found the break too short to make a trek home worthwhile. Many, instead, crafted their own domestic trips, often in groups with other international students.

Thais M. Terceiro Jorge ’12 from Brazil went to New York with other international students from Cyprus, Colombia, and Venezuela during her freshman year Thanksgiving break. Even though she visited tourist locations, the weekend decidedly lacked a festive feel: “It was not Thanksgiving, it was just, ‘Oh, I have four days off. I’m going to travel somewhere.’”

This year, Terceiro Jorge attended a Thanksgiving meal hosted by her extended family in the U.S. Terceiro Jorge said she had expected her cousins to cook Brazilian food, but they surprised her by actually making turkey, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and other traditional Thanksgiving cuisine.

Woodcock also spent her Thanksgiving in New York, eating with an American friend’s family. She enjoyed the day. She said, “It was pretty much like Christmas dinner at home… It was exactly the same as my pre-Christmas family get-togethers.”

The Americans who attended Terceiro Jorge’s cousins’ gathering tried to enlighten Terceiro Jorge on some aspects of the holiday: “We started watching college football,” said Terceiro Jorge. “The Americans were explaining to me how it worked, since I had no respect for how it worked, and I just thought, ‘So brutal.’”

Being around family, even if not all her own, allowed Terceiro Jorge to understand more that Americans feel on the holiday. “I felt what it was like a little bit, being with your family on Thanksgiving, than just being with your friends. It’s different,” she said.

Other international students enjoyed their Thanksgiving meals at MIT. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Chew’s hall in East Campus constructed their annual turducken, meaning “we put different things in the huge turkey.” To him, Thanksgiving “gives you the opportunity to get really, really, really creative about the poultry.”

Despite the centrality of turkey to Thanksgiving, Chew said, “I don’t particularly appreciate the turkey. I appreciate all the other birds in there since they taste better.”

The No. 6 Club, which Terceiro Jorge is part of, is known for its large international membership, and it hosted a Thanksgiving meal for its nearly forty members the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. In another dorm, on Thanksgiving day, Jedrzej Kaniewski ’11, a Cambridge-MIT Exchange student and a resident of German House, ate with who he described as “all the miserable people that stayed over here on the weekend.”

He completed his Thanksgiving experience with Black Friday shopping or, more accurately, crowd-watching and was not disappointed: “It was just utterly ridiculous, the queue was just massively long … along the street. There was this massive queue of people, and other people with cameras videotaping the queue, and I was like, ‘Why?! Stop wasting your time!’” he said.

But, when finally inside the store, he was disappointed with the sales. “They had a couple of good things,” he said, “but the rest at normal prices. It seemed like, unless you were the first fifty people who got the good stuff, there’s just no point in waking up at 4 a.m. … It was just for the experience, it’s not really worth the money.”

Some international students said they saw some hypocrisy in swarming stores the morning after a day of giving thanks. “Here every time there’s a holiday there’s a huge sale … what I don’t like is that I feel like Thanksgiving has such a beautiful connotation, but I feel like sometimes here they make everything so commercial,” said Terceiro Jorge.

Terceiro Jorge continued, “I think most people look forward to Thanksgiving because of Black Friday to shop, not because they’re going to be with their families. I don’t really like this huge-sale-thing after Thanksgiving, I think it completely destroyed the meaning of the holiday … here they consume so much stuff.”

Chew said, “[Black Friday’s] another excuse for Americans to spend all their money before their next paycheck. As if people are actually saving money.”