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Diary of a Distant Christmas

Thoughts from one week of holiday celebrations:

Wednesday, December 01
The most difficult part of my college experience is being an international student.

My friends are anxiously marking days off their calendars in joyful anticipation of celebrating the end of year with their families. Everywhere I turn, decorations have been hung up high in preparation for the festive season - like these ones, in Yale's Silliman Dining Hall.

Lately, even the smile of a stranger on the street just reminds me that I will be celebrating my first Christmas away from home.

Christmas decorations in Yale University
Christmas decorations in Yale University
I dread the approach of the 25th of December. From infancy, Christmas has always been the biggest annual event of my life.

Coming from Zimbabwe, where the majority of people are Christian, I have always known Christmas as a special day where you could enjoy yourself in all the ways imaginable, with the expectation that everyone around you is doing just the same. Quite often, parents would go way out of their way (and budget) to make this day special for their children.

[Read more about celebrating holidays far from home]

I am overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions as I thumb through my family album. I sigh with sadness at the fact that I will not be getting new clothes this Christmas. I will not be a part of hysterical giggling with cousins in the kitchen because firstly, there will be no cousins to catch up with and secondly, I do not have anyone to cook for. However, I cannot suppress a wry smile as I recall awkward encounters with relatives who last saw me when I was five and do not know me by name but expect me to know them all.

Thursday, December 02
Highlight of the day : Spent 45 minutes chatting to one of my suitemates.

Common goals – a good GPA, a balanced social life and a need to develop our interests, nurture our passions and discover our hidden talents kept us away from each other throughout the term. The end of exams provided us with time to catch up on the latest developments in our lives.

Just like me, she will be celebrating a major religious holiday away from home. She is Jewish, and with the Jewish Hanukkah holiday, she cannot help but think about home with growing nostalgia. For her, Hanukkah is more than just an eight day festival that commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, it is a time when her family gathers and they sing a special selection of Hanukkah songs, eat special Hanukkah food and spend time together.

This year, not only does Hanukkah occur during the school term but it falls on the week before Finals Week, the most important week of the term.

Of course, all Hanukkah-observing students will be gathering to celebrate Hanukkah, but they can never replace the intimacy and warmth that only a family can give. And as I converse with more people, I learn of Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday.

I may be away from home, but so is everyone. It is up to me whether I stay indoors and mope about how cold it is and how much warmer it is back home, or whether I go out and build my own snowman, start a snow fight or learn how to skate on ice.

Friday, December 03
Highlight of the day : Time spent with my other suitemate and a friend.

At Chinese Thanksgiving
At Chinese Thanksgiving
She is of Chinese descent and was is in her sister’s warm bed that I lay on Thanksgiving eve, grateful to the ancient Chinese mothers and chefs for thinking up sumptuous recipes like those that filled my belly.

We did not have turkey for Thanksgiving. Instead, we had chicken that had been castrated in its “juvenile years” so that it could look like turkey but taste way better. We also had eggrolls (which I wolfed down as enthusiastically as I had helped to make them), Fā, a Vietnamese noodle soup, as well as a wide array of many other types of Chinese food.

[Read more about how international students celebrate Thanksgiving]

So today, what was meant to be an social conversation turned into an informative discussion on Zimbabwe’s historical hyper-inflation. I still cannot get over my surprise at how fascinating people think Zimbabwe is. As the questions keep coming and I keep talking, I realize that no matter how many Nobel prizes my Economics professor will ever receive, he can never know how it feels like have lived in Zimbabwe in 2008 when the inflation was so high it was being measured in unpronounceable numbers (like quindecillion novembdecillion). And no matter how many PhDs my future anthropology professor might possess, he will never understand how it feels be a victim of South Africa’s xenophobia.

But I do. And this is the reason why many colleges “import” international students. International students add a different perspective to every conversation. Some international students choose to take refuge in ethnic houses, a framework where students of identical ethnicity can bond and keep together, sheltering themselves from making friendships with people of different nationalities and thus defeating the whole purpose of their admission in American colleges.

[Read more about how international students integrate (or not?) with American classmates]

Some of my schoolmates have starred in movies, others are great athletes who are eying Olympic medals. Some survived the Rwanda genocide and others are junior entrepreneurs who have large hedge funds and income brackets. Everyone, whether an international student or not, has something important to offer and that's what I appreciate the most about the diversity at my school.

But I know that amongst all of my schoolmates, I am one of the very few who can hand out a trillion dollars without expecting it back.

Forget how I felt on Wednesday, being an international student is the greatest part of being in college!