Foreign students get taste of U.S. holiday Group appreciates feeling of family, amid yearnings for home

November 27, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Call her a traitor, a killjoy, a Thanksgiving Day scrooge.

Go ahead. Call her un-American. It won't change her mind.

Pumpkin pie, says Joanna Kraft, is simply "the worst thing invented."

Kraft, a Western Maryland College sophomore from Finland, is ++ one of hundreds of foreign students who spent yesterday trying to understand how football, turkey and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade have anything -- anything at all -- to do with this elusive tale of Pilgrims and Indians.

Gathered yesterday around Lloyd Helt's and Ruth Gray's dining room table in Westminster were Western Maryland College students from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.

"How'd you find all these hungry kids?" Helt and Gray were asked.

"They don't find us. We find them," said Ahsan Latif, a Western Maryland College senior who was lounging in the living room, scorning the traditional football game for MTV videos. "We moved to Westminster for college and just adopted them."

Late in the afternoon, as the family -- Gray, Helt and their daughter Martha, 15 -- sat down to eat with the five students, Gray asked for a volunteer to say the prayer.

"Come on," she said, "a nice little Muslim prayer never hurt anyone."

The students, who have whole-heartedly claimed the Westminster family for their own, sat around the table talking about tests, hot dates and wild parties. They teased each other like family.

"They literally just move in here over the holidays," Gray said, shooting a pointed and playful look at her guests. "They are out at all hours of the night, doing who knows what. Last night, they got in at 4 a.m. -- not that I was keeping track or anything."

The students laughed, kept drinking their wine and made plans to hit the clubs -- or Atlantic City -- later.

"They're crazy," Helt said, laughing.

Dinali Jayasinghe got serious after a while.

"It's times like this -- holidays when you see families getting together -- that we really start to miss our own families," said the senior from Sri Lanka. "I haven't been home for a year-and-a-half."

Latif chimed in.

"For me, it's been three," he said.

Jayasinghe remembered her first Thanksgiving with the family. She had especially been struck by family members' willingness to drive long distances to be together for the holiday.

"The unity, how you hold hands and say a prayer, that to me was more important than the food," she said.

Seeing extended families coming together makes Jayasinghe long for the New Year's celebrations in Sri Lanka on April 13 and 14, when families join for prayers and share rice cooked with milk. The milk, brought to a boil in homes all around the country at an hour determined by astrologers, is allowed to overflow the pot, symbolizing the hope of prosperity.

"I really miss those kind of celebrations of home that I've done all my life with family," Jayasinghe said.

Gray, who has mothered these young people like her own, brushed the nostalgic moment aside.

"Well, you've got a family here now, too," she said.

Hundreds of students are in the same situation as Jayasinghe.

Western Maryland has about 100 foreign students. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, about 250 foreign students are among its 8,000 undergraduates.

The extended Thanksgiving weekend has its benefits, foreign students say. Parking lots are less crowded, and lines are shorter at copying machines when the American students leave campus.

Foreign students on Baltimore-area campuses spend Thanksgiving in a variety of ways. Some accept dinner invitations from host families, faculty members or roommates. Some become tourists. Some stay on campus to work on term papers.

"They see this as a golden opportunity to be able to use all the facilities and not have to wait on line and work in a facility that is generally quieter," said Nicholas Arrindell, director of international student and scholar services at the Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. families who decide to be hosts for foreign guests for Thanksgiving may find their traditions changing with the visiting culture. Gray, who is host to many Indian students, often cooks with curry, a staple of Indian cooking.

Sushama Rajapaksa, a Western Maryland junior from Sri Lanka, has enjoyed an American Thanksgiving at a professor's home and a blended Thanksgiving at the home of Sri Lankan friends who immigrated to the United States and live in Gaithersburg. "We had turkey, but all the side dishes were hot, spicy Sri Lankan food," she said. "The music was Sri Lankan."

Still, Thanksgiving -- this holiday of lime gelatin with grapes and cream cheese topping and mincemeat pies -- will never truly be theirs, the students say. In four years at Western Maryland, Jayasinghe said, she has adapted to American holidays, but misses the festivals of her homeland.

"You try to make it yours," she said. "But you can't really come to it 100 percent because you haven't been living it since you were small."

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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