Martha Wood knows what it’s like to be young and far from familiar ground. A military kid, she and her siblings spent part of their youth in post-World War II Japan. The early exposure to a culture vastly different from their native one influenced them deeply. “It was quite an education for all of us,” Wood said. “It gave me a different perspective on being an international.”
Since then, she’s made a habit of opening her home to people from around the world. Such was the case last Thursday, when she welcomed three strangers—UVA students Miao Lu and William Lai and one hungry reporter, all of us turkeyless on Turkey Day—to her Thanksgiving feast.
Lu, a 24-year-old statistics grad student from Hangzhou, China, and Lai, a 21-year-old undergrad from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—were among dozens of international students from UVA who signed up to spend the holiday at the homes of welcoming strangers in and around Charlottesville. The University’s Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the UVA’s International Studies Office, joins with area churches and the Overseas Student Mission, a Charlottesville-based religious outreach group, to match students with families in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. The International Center gets about 40 requests a year from overseas students who decide to stick around Charlottesville for Thanksgiving, representatives said, and helps organize transportation to 15 to 20 host family’s homes.
Lai said he didn’t know who he’d be matched with, and as it turned out, his fellow guest was a stranger, too, but that didn’t bother him. “I thought it would be nice,” he said. “The more random it is, the more exciting it is.”
Wood, retired nearly 20 years from teaching history and language arts at Walker Upper Elementary, has opened her door to two or three students for her annual feast for decades. She first got involved with UVA’s international program about 30 years ago through a local Baptist association, mentoring students—mostly from China, Korea, and Japan, but also from Europe and elsewhere—and inviting them over for dinners and longer stays over breaks. She sees it as a way to give back after a life of being made to feel welcome in faraway corners of the world. “I find everywhere I go, there’s always someone who’s willing to help,” she said.
It’s also a chance to offer visitors a look at life here from the inside. “We try to make sure that our international students get into real American homes, so they don’t all think that what they see on television is real,” said Wood. For her and the rest of the company—her sister, daughter, and a close friend—that means folding chairs pulled up to an extended table loaded with turkey, simlins, and green bean casserole. It also means appetizers of conversation, laughter, and shared stories.
Once they’d been introduced and offered up their gifts of local cider, a traditional pork dish, and Chinese good luck charms, Lu and Lai settled into a living room brimming with relics from another time and place (before they left Tokyo the first time, said Wood, “my mother thought to take everything we owned except for the clothes on our backs and trade it for Japanese antiques”). It was, for both of them, their first American Thanksgiving celebration.
Lai said last year—his first in the U.S.—he went to Washington, D.C. with friends for the holiday. “It wasn’t a really good idea,” he laughed. “Everything was closed. And it was cold.”
He opted for a warmer experience this year. He and Lu were both curious about the quintessential American feast, they said. Both of them grew up catching bits and pieces of U.S. holiday culture. “My friends in China always enjoyed Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day,” said Lu, “not the traditional Chinese festivals. They’re more Westernized, I guess.”
But their exposure didn’t go much beyond the late-November turkey dinner specials advertised by restaurants in their home cities. They’re more familiar with a newer addition to the roster of Thanksgiving weekend activities: shopping.
“I know about—what is it?—Black Friday,” said Lu, drawing loud laughs from his hosts.
That was all the cue Wood needed. “Dinner is served!” she crowed, making a move toward the kitchen and the spread that awaited, then turning to this reporter. “And we have an extra seat at the table for you,” she said.
Join the international community:
UVA’s Lorna Sundberg International Center offers events year-round that give students from around the world the chance to experience American culture and share their own traditions in return—from cooking demonstrations to lectures from visiting scholars. To find out what’s coming up, download the center’s latest newsletter, and sign up to get involved, visit www.virginia.edu/iso/ic.