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International students reflect on holiday traditions

December 12, 2018

Christmas may not be celebrated internationally, but from Pakistan to Japan, different cultures have many ways to enjoy the holiday season and the spirit of giving. For this edition of Student Voices, international students offered a peek into the holidays they celebrate back home.

Xiangyang Jin, Xi Zhou and Yanya Chen are international students from China. In China, less attention is paid to Christmas. “(The) Chinese New Year is the biggest festival in China,” said Chen.

For international students at UW-River Falls, the winter holidays have different meanings. (Graphic by Kacey Joslin)
For international students at UW-River Falls, the winter holidays have different meanings. (Graphic by Kacey Joslin)

Chinese New Year, though the date is different every year, takes place February 5th. On the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2019 will be the year of the pig. Those born in the year of the pig are considered to be trustworthy, generous and blessed with good fortune.

Christmas is not very important in China, though as Jin explained, “It’s getting more popular.”

The young population has adopted the holiday, typically celebrating with friends and food.“Some stores will have decorations like Christmas trees,” Zhou said.

Lights are typically hung during the New Year. Zhou, Chen and Jin will be traveling around the U.S. this Christmas with other Chinese international students.

Amrutha Gondhipalli is a first-year graduate student from Bangalore, India. After studying in India for four years, she will be receiving her Masters in business administration at UW-River Falls.

In India, although Christmas is typically only celebrated by practicing Christians, those with other beliefs join in the festivities. “The thing is, you guys have Christmas and Thanksgiving as two festivals; in India we have lots of festivals and Christmas is one,” Gondhipalli said. “Christmas is celebrated by only a few people, in Catholic states like Goa and Mumbai. People traditionally celebrate by fasting for 24 days from the 1st of December to 24th of December.”

At midnight, according to Gondhipalli, Christians go to mass and eat a traditional meal. “The whole month, we have lightings everywhere and stars and all the malls will be filled with Christmas lights and Christmas trees. That is how they show Jesus the love they have,” Gondhipalli explained.“On Christmas, I would go to my friend’s house to eat cake,” she admitted. “I have lots of Christian friends.”

Other holiday traditions vary greatly on location, religion and even their caste system. “There are Hindus, Muslims, Christians – there’s a lot of religions. The biggest festivals are Diwali, Holi and Id (Eid-ul-fitr),” she said.

However, none of these are actually celebrated during the American ‘holiday season.’ In October, they celebrateGanesh Chaturthi, eleven days of celebration in honor of Lord Ganesh, an elephant-headed god. Gondhipalli also celebrates two New Years, one in January and the Ugadi in April, also known as the Telugu New Year.All of these festivals are individually celebrated, but when asked her favorite festival, she stated, “There’s multiple, but I love the lighting, stars and Santa Claus everywhere and the horse [-drawn carriages], and giving gifts. It’s beautiful.”

Gondhipalli will becelebrating this Christmas with her host family.

Annum Zia is a biotechnology major who has spent her fall semester at UW- River Falls. Zia said Christmas doesn’t have much popularity where she is from, in Kalis, Pakistan.

Zia compared Ramadan and Eid to Christmas. Ramadan is the sacred month in Islamic culture, taking place during the summer. Eid is the festival that follows. During Ramadan, people strictly fast during the day for the whole month. After the month is over, there is a celebration of the fasting, where they celebrate Eid.

“We get together and cook meals. The elders will give money to the younger kids,” Zia said. The decorations for Eid vary from family to family. “It’s not a generic thing. My family likes to have a barbecue, so we will put up fairy lights around the yard,” Zia said.

Eid lasts three days, with the special dinner on the first night. People typically dress fancy for Eid.

Zia will return home during J-Term, and will spend Christmas in Pakistan. Zia will be preparing for exams upon her return. “On the 25th, I might be studying,” Zia said.

Hamsa Chandra is a student that received her undergraduate in,India. She will be graduating next year with a masters in Computer Science. Chandra is from Bangalore, India, but just because Hamsa Chandra and Amrutha Gondhipalli are from the same city doesn’t mean that they share the same traditions. “We don’t celebrate Christmas,” Chandra said of her community. “It’s a one day holiday. We get a day off and hang out at the malls where it’s decorated. Everybody goes and takes a picture near the (Christmas) tree.”

“It is now, after all the media and internet, the influence lead to us observing it. It’s not in every house but its in every mall and some big shops and the companies,” Chandra elaborated. “It’s really important to know each and every culture.”

Chandra does celebrate a few holidays similar to Christmas. Although the date changes every year according to the Hindu calendar, Diwali, the Festival of Lights, usually falls between October and November. “In every house you will have lamps and candles, every house will be colorful, full of lights, all bright. We do burn crackers at that time – like fireworks here,” Chandra said.

Chandra received her undergraduate in India and is currently getting her masters in Computer Science. She will be graduating next year. This year on Dec. 25 she will be home in India.

Ai Yoshizumi and Nanaka Yamashita are international students from Munakata and Kagoshima, Japan. Both have degrees in English. Yoshizumi is now working on a stage and screen arts major, while Yamashita is undecided, but leaning towards international studies.

Yoshizumi explained that almost all Japanese people participate in the celebration of Christmas, though they may not be Christian. “I’m Christian and my family is too. We go to church on Christmas every year,” said Yoshizumi.

Yoshizumi said her family will exchange gifts and have a dinner. Some years they decorate a Christmas tree. A typical Christmas meal in Japan includes a dish similar to a meatloaf or ‘hamburger steak.’

Yamashita is not Christian, and instead of celebrating the traditional way, “I ate KFC with my family on Christmas. It’s common in Japan,” said Yamashita.

This Christmas, Yoshizumi plans to attend church with a friend. As for Yamashita, she said, “I will party with my friends and eat something.” Both students will attend the university for the next three years.