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Internationals Get a Warm Thanksgiving Welcome
Durham, N.C. - When it came to Thanksgiving, Tong Ren only knew what she had read in Chinese newspapers or seen on American TV. But all that was about to change when David Gorsuch, a senior information technology analyst with Duke Health, pulled up to her apartment on Thanksgiving Day.
"I knew there would be a meal and a turkey, but the rest was unknown," she said.
Ren, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, was taking part in the International House's "Holiday Hosts" program, which gives international students a chance to share Thanksgiving with a local Duke family.
This year 14 host families and 26 students participated in International House's Holiday Host program. Most are from China. Three came from Russia, and others were one from Thailand, Hong Kong, Chile, the United Kingdom, Canada, Korea, Japan and Argentina, said Alicia Wallace, program assistant at the International House.
Ren, a native of Dalian, China, said she signed up because she was curious about American culture. "Every culture has a special way to celebrate. I'd never been with an American family before. In my dorm I hang out with other Chinese students. I wanted to learn."
When she arrived at Gorsuch's home in Apex, Ren met his two children, his wife and his mother. And George, the family's big sheep dog,. "George weighs 110 pounds. We don't have pet dogs that big back home," Ren said.
After discussing the family's history and looking at photo albums, everyone sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and sweet potatoes proved to be Ren's favorites. She said she was also glad to get some tips on Western etiquette. "You can't put your knife in your mouth â I didn't know that," she said with a laugh.
The tradition is a learning experience for the host families as well. Russell Colver, a learning specialist and ADHD coach at the AcademicResourceCenter, has been welcoming international students into her home for the past 16 years.
"Both our daughters have spent time abroad and we've been made aware of how important it is to have a friendly face in a completely strange country," Colver said. "It gives us an opportunity to meet some very interesting students."
This year Colver and her family hosted Jia Guo, a native of Changsha, China, and a doctoral student in psychology. Over dinner they talked about their shared interest in swimming, and Colver previewed some of her family's Thanksgiving desserts.
"Jia was very interested in our family recipe for caramel-peach pie. Apparently there isn't a Chinese word or concept for caramel. Jia was very interested in how this pie was made and what on earth caramel was."
Guo said she also enjoyed meeting the pie's creator -- Colver's mother. "The recipes for the pies were passed down through generations â just like a traditional Chinese family," Guo said.
Both Guo and Ren left Thanksgiving with a revised picture of the American family. From what Guo had read in Chinese newspapers and seen on TV shows like Sex in the City and Friends, she thought the "traditional concept of the family had faded out."
Ren said she had similar expectations. "Before I came to the United States, I heard stories about divorce and how people remarry, and that many people don't even get married. These things aren't accepted in China â people should marry, have children and spend their whole life together. So what I knew from movies and stories about American families was that this wasn't common," she said.
"It was the first time I really saw it -- felt it [the family's role in American culture]. It was very different for me. American people take family very seriously."
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