International students share their Thanksgiving experiences

International students share their Thanksgiving experiences

By Tylee Bush | 11/20/17 1:25am

GVL / Courtesy - Derick Chia Derick Chia and his family back in Cameroon, Africa, however he is looking forward to experiencing his very first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving in the U.S. is known for being a time dedicated to overindulging in hearty foods, then tackling family and strangers alike—whether in the end zones of flag football games or in the checkout lanes of shopping centers—all in the name of gratitude. For international students at Grand Valley State University, though, this holiday can be somewhat perplexing. 

For students coming from a culture where Thanksgiving is not celebrated, the thought of roasting a turkey, playing football in the backyard, then pulling an all-nighter shopping Black Friday deals might sound a bit crazy. One GVSU international student, Darryl Shongedza, came to the U.S. four years ago to pursue a degree in finance, and he recalls how bewildering the holiday was to him. 

Coming from Zimbabwe, Shongedza had never experienced a Thanksgiving until he was at GVSU. 

“I first heard of Thanksgiving in movies as a child growing up," he said. "I didn't really understand the concept until I experienced it here."

His original thoughts on Thanksgiving were conflicted. Shongedza said he comes from a highly family-oriented culture where spending time with your loved ones over a big meal is a weekly or biweekly affair. 

“It does not require a national holiday for extended families to hang out over good food and conversation," he said. "It is a norm for us.” He couldn’t understand why the U.S. needed a designated holiday for this to take place.

However, after experiencing three Thanksgiving holidays, Shongedza can say that his thoughts have changed.

“My perception of the holiday today is the direct opposite of my initial perception,” he said. 

His first Thanksgiving was spent at a classmate’s home. Despite not knowing anyone, he felt welcomed and enjoyed the gathering. 

“Now that I am part of the workforce, I understand how valuable and limited time is,” he said. “Thanksgiving is one day that you don't have to worry about a project for school or a report from your boss. It's a day to put all your stress aside and enjoy the company of loved ones, which you've most likely been deprived of.”

Shongedza has warmed up to the holiday, and he is looking forward to it this year. 

“I get it now,” Shongedza said. “Explaining it to someone from home, I would describe it as a day to help secure our humanity and escape the busy lifestyle of this nation. It is a necessity.”

While Shongedza is now seasoned in celebrating Thanksgiving, Derik Chia has only been in the U.S. for four months and is about to experience his very first. Chia came from a small town in Cameroon to complete graduate school at GVSU and earn his Master of Public Health. 

“I heard of Thanksgiving several years ago back in Cameroon,” Chia said. He knew people who had visited the U.S., so he had heard stories of plates full of turkey and families giving thanks, but he was still curious. “I thought it was interesting, so I looked up more about the holiday. I was curious to know who is giving thanks to whom and why.”

What he discovered astonished him. 

“I was amazed after reading the history of the holiday," Chia said. "At every point in life, we ought to be thankful to the almighty God for life, family, friends, love and all that we go through. I believe setting aside a day like this to be thankful for our blessings is a tremendous thing to do.”

Chia is looking forward to experiencing his first Thanksgiving here in the U.S. He plans to spend it with friends and partake in everything, from the food to the football to the crazy Black Friday shopping lines.

Shongedza’s and Chia’s experiences allow traditional students the chance to remember how unique the Thanksgiving tradition is. It can be viewed as a uniquely American holiday that offers the chance to be grateful for what one has in their life.

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