International students: how are you celebrating Christmas?

International students: how are you celebrating Christmas?

If you’re an international student who can’t get home for the Christmas holiday, how are you planning on celebrating?

Driving Home for Christmas is the one song guaranteed to make me well up at Christmas. All those adverts of families coming together around the dinner table make me miss my family to the point of sappiness – and they only live two hours away on the train. So what’s it like to be an international student if you can’t get home for Christmas – celebrating in a foreign country away from your family?

“It’s hard,” says Kristina Janovcikova, a fourth-year journalism and French student at the University of Sheffield, whose family live in Slovakia. “I often find myself looking into people’s windows on my way home, envious that they get to watch TV with their families, all cosied up.”

Katie Kokkinou, welfare and international officer at University College London, says that Christmas can be difficult for many international students, as unis often freeze services over the break.

She says: “Usually everything is closed for a significant stretch of time, but many students are still here. Some students don’t want to go back and prefer to revise instead, while others simply cannot afford to, because flights during winter are so expensive. And others do part-time work.”

Getting home can be just too expensive when home is the other side of the world. Wissam Chauhan, a third-year networked systems engineering student at Glasgow Caledonian University, says: “I am originally from Pakistan but was raised in Saudi Arabia. It takes me a whole day of travelling to go to Saudi Arabia and I can’t afford to pay more than £1000 and just be there for 10 days.

“It’s hard being away from your family. I will miss them more in these holidays because my university will be closed and I will be at home most of the time. You get homesick.”

Instead of going home for Christmas, Chauhan will be using the break to revise and make the most of the cold weather “that I don’t get in my country”.

Many universities put on activities for students over the Christmas break, like Durham’s annual Christmas dinner in Durham castle and Kingston’s carol service and festive dinner. At the University of Hertfordshire, the dean of students’ team visit all students who stay in halls over the holidays to give out small presents. But lots of students make their own plans for the break.

If you can’t get to your own family this Christmas, joining another family for their celebrations could be a happy alternative. Karla Mormoreira, a final-year law student at Cardiff whose family lives in Canada, says: “I’m spending Christmas at a friend’s house. Her family invited me for Christmas there – it’ll be like having a surrogate family.”

Mormoreira had the choice between going home for Christmas, or joining her family on holiday in February.

She says: “I chose to join our family vacation in South America, where we’re originally from, rather than going home for Christmas. I felt I’d be having more of an experience going away.”

This will be Mormoreira’s first Christmas without any family members. “It is kind of lonely, but the fact that I’ve been invited to spend it with my housemate is really nice.”

But some students are choosing to forgo family festivities altogether. When Janovcikova realised she wouldn’t be able to get home to Slovakia for the holiday, she decided to do something completely different and volunteer at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day.

“I requested to work on Christmas Day because I thought it was a nice thing to do,” she says.

“Lots of the homeless people might not have a family to spend Christmas Day with so it can be lonely for them.”

Once she has finished at the homeless shelter, Janovcikova will be celebrating with some English friends who are staying in Sheffield because of work commitments. But the Christmas celebrations will be somewhat different to her traditional Christmas at home.

“In Slovakia we have a traditional Christmas meal consisting of fish, potato salad and sauerkraut soup. It’s also different because instead of opening presents in the morning we give out presents after dinner.”

Christmas in the UK brings new traditions to many students. Jose Hong, a second-year European social and political studies student at University College London, says: “I don’t actually feel like I’m missing that much. I’m excited to eat Christmas foods I haven’t eaten before, and take part in traditions that you simply can’t find in Singapore.”

Hong says it can be hard for some international students to be away from family at Christmas, but that he is choosing to be positive about the situation.

“If Christmas is all about spending time with family for you, then it’s natural that having a lonely Christmas will be hard. If, however, you take the opportunity to explore a totally different way of celebrating such a notable holiday, especially with the knowledge that you won’t have many chances to do so once you return to your home country, then it makes celebrating Christmas in a foreign country much easier – and much more exciting and enjoyable.”

For others, celebrating Christmas at all is unusual. Victoria Ngow, whose family live in Malaysia, says: “I personally don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Last year, instead of going home, Ngow spent the holiday with her friends. She says: “There were three of us, so we watched movies, painted our nails and ate cookies. On Boxing Day we fought the crowds and went shopping and then in the days that followed we did touristy things around London.

“I think we do miss our family and the traditions at home, but we’ve formed our little ‘family’ here whom we’ve grown comfortable with, and we spend the holidays together.”

But if you’re a new student who has struggled to settle in during your first term, then Christmas can be a difficult time of year. Khasan Abbas, who grew up in Abu Dhabi and now studies engineering in Cardiff, says that Christmas last year was “quite boring”.

He says: “As a first year I didn’t know many people around and spent much of the holidays just walking around Cardiff.”

This year Abbas is planning a more exciting holiday though, travelling between UK cities and possibly abroad.

Abbas suggests that international students try to go home in their first year to visit family: “I would strongly recommend international students in their first year to go home during the Christmas holidays so they do not get nostalgic. For most of us, it is the first time living away from home. This is the best time to visit because during the second term studies do get tougher, and there is not much time with all the deadlines and tests.

“But if you were to stay, I would suggest keeping yourself busy somehow such as going to see the Christmas markets, or travelling and socialising with friends to avoid feeling lonely.”

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