Back when I lived at home, my family invited some international students to Thanksgiving dinner—two from Ethiopia, two from Brazil, and two from China. After enjoying the meal together, my dad asked if anyone wanted coffee.
“Yes, of course!” said one of the Brazilians. “Brazil is where coffee originated!”
I glanced at the Ethiopians with a smirk. They looked at each other and back at the Brazilian, shaking their heads.
“No,” said one of them, seriously. “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.”
Thus began a lively debate over dessert and said coffee, eventually won by the Ethiopians after many impassioned volleys back and forth, watched by the Chinese like spectators at a tennis match.
That year still ranks as one of my favorite Thanksgivings, and certainly one of the most memorable.
Who’s invited to your house for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas this year?
Thanksgiving through New Years Day is one of the loneliest seasons for international students. Most people go home to be with family for much of this time, leaving campuses feeling like ghost towns inhabited only by people whose loved ones are far, far away.
Consider inviting an international (or six, like we did back in 2009!) to join you for a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal!
It will be an fun experience for them and will also make the celebration even more memorable and meaningful for you! It also has the potential to start or deepen long term crosscultural friendships that will continue even after the holiday season wanes.
Tips to keep in mind:
1. When you’re inviting (as well as on the actual day), let internationals know what to expect.
Explain the flow of events so they can feel more at ease (we’ll talk and do the last minute preparations in the kitchen together, then we’ll serve ourselves informally and sit around the table and talk, then we’ll watch American football, then we’ll have coffee and dessert…).
2. Allow them to bring something.
Of course, they may do this even if you don’t ask, but specifically inviting them to bring a dish shows interest in their culture, allows them to contribute, and also provides something for them to eat just in case they’re not a fan of traditional Thanksgiving fare. (Note: I ate the best coconut rice I have ever had at a Thanksgiving meal. I promise this tip is for your benefit, too.)
3. Consider your audience, food-wise.
Turkey is fine for most people, but if you’re inviting vegetarians (as some Hindus are), lean hard into pasta or rice or legumes as an alternative. If you’re inviting followers of Islam, Judaism, or the Coptic Orthodox tradition, consider not serving pork, or if you do, at least providing an alternative meat. Here are more tips for cooking for internationals.
4. Set the (relaxed) tone.
It can be intimidating to come to a holiday meal where everyone else knows how things will go but you do not! Internationals can feel like they need to please the hosts by eating everything (even though things like stuffing and sweet potato casserole are VERY foreign to people from most cultures).
I suggest getting real from the beginning. Say: “I want you to feel comfortable. If you don’t want something or don’t like it, it will not offend me! Just eat what you like and enjoy!”
5. Ask about their favorite holidays back home.
Ask them how their family celebrates those holidays, what their favorite holiday foods are, etc. Focus your questions on them personally, rather than using them as an ambassador for their entire culture (i.e. “What’s your favorite holiday back home?” rather than “What are the major holidays of Burundi?”).
Imagine how you’d like people to ask you questions like that—for example, it would be hard to answer, “How do Americans celebrate 4th of July?” because there are so many variations within one culture, but it would be easy to answer, “What does your family do to celebrate 4th of July?”
6. Be free with your faith.
Internationals from most cultures (except other Western ones) tend to be very open about matters of faith. It will not be weird to them that you live as a Christian. Feel free to pray before your meal (no need to share the Romans Road within the pre-meal blessing specifically for their benefit, though), to share what you are thankful for, or to speak about God if this is what you normally do at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
7. Check in (don’t check off).
It can be easy to invite someone to one event and then forget to cultivate the friendship in the midst of the busy holiday season and New Year future planning.
Put a reminder in your calendar for the day after Thanksgiving and then a week after that, simply saying, “Follow up with ___.” Just a text with “Thank you so much for coming to celebrate with Thanksgiving with us!” or “How are you doing?” works.
Let them know through checking in that you haven’t checked them off a list of ministry tasks, but that you really want a friendship with them.
Want more encouragement and practical tips for welcomers? Pick up a copy of my book, Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus, and subscribe to this blog!